German painter and graphic artist.
Born in Leipzig, Beckmann studied at the Weimar Academy (1900–03) and then worked in Berlin. His early paintings were influenced by impressionism, and he also produced works with biblical and mythological themes, reflecting his admiration of medieval art. At the start of World War I (1914) he served as a medical orderly but was discharged following a nervous breakdown. These experiences of war profoundly influenced his later work. Settling in Frankfurt in 1915, he began to paint figurative compositions conveying a harsh vision of an evil and malicious contemporary world. Brutality and oppressive apathy permeate these pictures, as in The Night (1919), a scene of torture that, like many of his works, reflects a social reality of the time as well as being a powerfully symbolic composition. This combination of realism with allegorical and symbolic significance has been described as transcendental realism. Certain symbolic objects, such as candles and musical instruments, recur in his pictures. His characteristic style was one of simplified forms in a crowded almost two-dimensional space. He also painted a number of self-portraits.
Beckmann was dismissed from his teaching post in Frankfurt by the Nazis in 1933, the same year he painted Robbery of Europe and the triptych Departure. He went first to Berlin, then to Paris and Amsterdam, and finally (in 1947) to the USA, where he taught and produced work that was lighter and less harsh. In the last two years of his life Beckmann received academic honours and prizes in the USA and at the Venice Biennale.