Special Exhibition

Max Beckmann - Departure

Pinakothek der Moderne
11/25/22 — 3/12/23
Rooms 21-26

This large-scale monographic exhibition is initially dedicated to the theme of travel, which was of existential importance to Max Beckmann (1884–1950) in both a biographical and symbolic sense. His life was marked by tragic experiences of war and uprooting, transit and exile, but also by glamorous vacations, the urge for freedom and the longing to travel. Around 70 loans from important private and public Beckmann collections in Europe and the USA, such as the first triptych DEPARTURE from MoMA, show the enormous range of travel-oriented pictorial motifs and concepts and complement the largest European collection of Beckmann paintings from the Modern Art Collection. Through a donation from Max Beckmann's family estate to the Max Beckmann Archive of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen (Bavarian State Painting Collections) in 2015, numerous previously unknown materials and documents such as photo albums and films are presented for the first time, providing a new and up-to-date view of the artist.

Curated by Oliver Kase and Christiane Zeiller with Sarah Louisa Henn

Media partner: 
Süddeutsche Zeitung

Exhibition film

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Admission prices

Ticket special exhibition

Sunday 10 €


reduced 7 €

Ticket special exhibition and entire museum

Sunday 11 € | reduced 8 €


reduced 10 €

Ticket special exhibition

for owners of the 12- Euro / 5 Museum Day Ticket

Not available on Sundays


reduced 3 €

Accompanying programme

Readings and concerts will take place in the exhibition as part of an extensive programme of education and events. In cooperation with "Kino der Kunst", a programme cinema will be developed based on Beckmann's own visits to the cinema. Questions of migration and identity will form the thematic "Departure" for a cooperation with YouthNet, an intercultural youth network. Numerous experts from various fields will have their say in the exhibition app newly developed for the Pinakothek der Moderne.

The eight exhibition chapters | Exhibition texts

With his painting Departure, begun in 1932, Max Beckmann set out for new horizons. Adopting the traditionally religious format of the triptych, the artist turned to monumental figures rooted in mythological and Christian imagery. Spanning three canvases, the painting frames the central hopeful image of setting sail for freedom and the open seas with cramped scenes set in a dark world of terror and violence. The triptych was painted in Frankfurt and Berlin in 1932/33, a period that coincided with the Nazis’ rise to power and the start of Beckmann’s defamation as a “degenerate artist”. Ten years later, the work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Beckmann gave it the English title Departure. It established the German artist’s fame in America at a time when Beckmann himself was still stuck in exile in Amsterdam. It was not until 1947 that he was finally able to sail for the US, a departure he described as a once-in-a-lifetime event. For Beckmann, the idea of the ocean voyage remained closely linked to that of the journeys undertaken by the mythical heroes of antiquity, on which the artist drew to reflect his own experience of being uprooted and forced into exile.

Max Beckmann lived a life of “constant transit”. Always eager to move on but never quite arriving, his life was a blur of holiday destinations, changed addresses, places recalled in memory or seen for the first time, as he went from despairing about this world to fantasising about the one to come. Modernity gave rise to new transit locations, means of transport, passages, and portals that routinely whisk people from one place to another without allowing them to belong. In his art, Beckmann visualised such places of transit as train stations, ports, and hotels, and presented views from moving vehicles—automobiles, trains, and ships. His works display an ambivalence toward all this coming and going and the pace of metropolitan life, with a tone that oscillates between romanticism and alienation. In Beckmann’s hands, the theme of transport was itself a vehicle allowing the artist to turn a supposedly apolitical motif such as a landscape into a subtle reference to contemporary events and his own mental state. The Nazis’ cultural policy forced Quappi and Max Beckmann into exile; they initially expected Amsterdam to be a place of transit, a temporary solution that eventually ate up more than ten years of their lives, as emigration to the USA became impossible due to war. Trapped in Holland, Beckmann painted pictures of far-off places from memory and from postcards and photographs. His diaries, correspondence, application forms, and passport papers tell the tale of this life in hopeful transit, as well as the collective experience of loss, displacement, and dislocation.

The window was an important visual motif for Max Beckmann through four decades of work. Windows form a threshold between the interior and exterior world, the home and the unknown, between close, familiar surroundings, and far-off things, good or bad, desired or remembered. Like hardly any other modern artist, Beckmann made the window picture, with its numerous compositional and symbolic facets, a leitmotif of his art. Beckmann used the window as a device to show various outside views seen from within, but sometimes also showed the opposite: framed interiors observed from outside, through hotel or shop windows or portholes on ships.

However, the window picture really comes into its own when Beckmann uses it to trace his journeys, real or imaginary. The exhibition presents a series of city views, studied while looking out of apartments in Frankfurt, Paris, and Berlin—places he momentarily called home. Distinct from these are scenes through windows stemming from leisure trips, or views of resorts in Scheveningen, Naples, Nice, or Marseille seen from his hotel. Another group of experimental window pictures suggests a restless mobility by reproducing window scenes in moving vehicles—automobiles, trains, or ocean liners.

Max Beckmann always saw the sea as a place of longing, artistic inspiration, and repose, offering him the chance to reflect on time and space and presenting a gateway to possible undiscovered worlds. His affinity with the sea is evident in scores of ocean images, while his fascination with the secrets of its vastness is reflected in many books in his personal library about the ancient super-ocean, fossils, or the location of the legendary island of Atlantis.

For Beckmann, the sea was a place of restoration, antithesis to the big city. While the North Sea and the Baltic were recurring motifs in his early paintings, he later increasingly turned to the Mediterranean, which he experienced as a fashionable tourist and flaneur. During his years of exile in Amsterdam, when travel was denied him, the painter made numerous landscapes of the Côte d’Azur and Riviera from photographs and picture postcards. These images were the stuff of longing, windows of the mind recalling a sun-drenched Mediterranean world. But these years also saw Beckmann repeatedly give visual expression to the threatening aspect of the sea, its elemental power and risk to life.

Max Beckmann was an inveterate and passionate urbanite. He lived in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Paris, went into exile in Amsterdam, and finally moved to the US where he lived in St. Louis and New York. Meanwhile, holiday trips took him to cities such as Nice, Naples, and San Francisco. For the artist and flaneur Beckmann, the city was the set of the comédie humaine, the stage of the “theatre of the world”, and an inexhaustible source of inspiration. With their hotels, bars, restaurants, vaudevilles, and cinemas, cities were the perfect environment to provide the artist with night-time entertainment and distraction.

In the turmoil of world wars, exile, and migration that marked the first half of the 20th century, elegant hotels in glamorous resorts and metropolitan cities emerged as spaces that facilitated sophisticated social encounters and interaction. In the microcosm of the hotel, all manner of people—elegant, desperate, pleasure-seeking, or stranded—found a temporary home away from home. The ensuing social clashes and, even more so, the theatrical character of the hotel, with its stage set of mirrors, doors, stairways, and exits, inspired Beckmann’s drama The Hotel—one of three texts in which the painter tried his hand as a playwright. But it was in his paintings and works on paper that Beckmann endlessly shuffled and reshuffled this “great human orchestra”, juxtaposing and intertwining “sorrow and champagne”, as his art dealer Israel Ber Neumann put it.

Max Beckmann was an impassioned cinema-goer. Records show that he routinely went to the movies in Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris, in exile in Amsterdam, but also in St. Louis and New York. Watching moving pictures in the dark of the cinema at night was a way for the painter to take his mind off work after spending hours toiling on a canvas that left him physically and mentally drained. In effect he went from producing pictures in his studio to passively consuming productions of the motion-picture industry. Beckmann would watch almost any kind of movie, including romances, comedies with Hans Moser, slapsticks with Laurel and Hardy, serious dramas, period dramas, thrillers, and gangster movies. His painting Film Studio of 1933 combines film sets of a winter landscape with scenes from a shoot, and was made after visiting the UFA studios in Babelsberg upon invitation of German film star Heinrich George.

In the late 1920s the Beckmanns even started making home movies using a hand-held camera. The couple would then play their two minutes’ worth of recorded footage on the same projector now preserved at the Max Beckmann Archive. Their film material offers us an intimate glimpse of the travels and pastimes of Quappi and Max Beckmann.

The most far-flung and complex journeys that Max Beckmann ever went on were completed inside the four walls of his studio. With book in hand, he was an “armchair traveler”, forever reading his way through time and space, and consulting philosophical, theological, and scientific writings to explore the origins of the world, humanity, and distant civilizations. In the 1920s, Beckmann started presenting the artist’s studio as a mysterious place of secret creation and cast himself as an astronomer, magician, or alchemist, forging his own worlds in his laboratory. In addition to reading, Beckmann’s imaginary journeys were stimulated by artifacts from non-European cultures. He dotted them in no particular order around his apartments and studios, not as a connoisseur with a specialist bent, but as someone with a special attachment to them. There they assumed a function of their own: imbued with magical power, they could transport the painter to other times and places, as “stirrup-holders” for his artistic imagination to latch onto, taking him to worlds that sometimes defied the laws of evolution and geography.

On 26 December 1950, the day before his death, Max Beckmann completed his ninth triptych, which deals with the fundamental questions of artistic creation and the pursuit of knowledge.

A few days earlier, prompted by a dream, Beckmann had changed the title of the painting from The Artists to Argonauts. In renaming the work, he clearly referenced the Greek mythological heroes who set out aboard the Argo in search of the legendary Golden Fleece. Departure, quest, and the prospect of arrival form the narrative arc that spans not only this triptych but also Beckmann’s biography and his life’s work. His early breakout painting Young Men by the Sea of 1905 now enters into a dialogue with the two nude figures in the central panel of his final work. The triptych points the way to the ultimate goal of Beckmann’s artistic quest, the promise of reaching a higher level of consciousness that transcends mere earthly toil.

The exhibition is supported by

Herbert Schuchardt-Stiftung 
Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung 
PIN. Freunde der Pinakothek der Moderne e.V. 
Theo Wormland-Stiftung
Kulturstiftung der Länder
Vestner Aufzüge 
Rudolf August Oetker-Stiftung 
DJE Kapital AG 
Adelhaid Winterstein