Work in focus

Max Beckmann

Stilleben mit Paletten, 1944
Oil on canvas, 55.3 x 95.2 cm
Inv. no.: P85T


Max Beckmann painted Stilleben mit Paletten (Still life with Palettes) in 1944 while in exile in Amsterdam. The tangible objects of reality in his still life paintings are often freighted with profound significance. They transcend their straightforward appearance and refer to the great issues of life – to passion, Eros, happiness, fear and death, or, as in the case of this painting, to art itself, to the many ways in which it is materialized and viewed. Beckmann literally symbolizes painting (palettes), drawing (crayons), sculpture (head), literature (books) and music (score). The combination of bottle, flour, candle, chalk and score could also be interpreted as representing the five senses of taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing.

Against the backdrop of the intolerable, wartime living conditions in 1944, as noted with devastating precision in Beckmann’s diary, this painting seems to assemble everything that gave the artist – and not only him – meaning, a sense of orientation and something to cling to. Undeniable are the hopeful implications of the brightly burning candle, the blossoming flowers, the colourful crayons in the centre of the picture, but equally undeniable is the bleak demeanour of the black head. Interpreted in scholarly literature as a self-portrait, it would rather appear to be the likeness of a philosopher or a tragic figure, a representative of the intellectual world contemplating the existence of the artist in dire times. Burning candles and blossoming flowers are also memento mori, and the thumb holes in the four palettes lined up in the background resemble sockets in human skulls. At the same time, however, the palettes are like barriers to keep the grey-black world outside at bay, as if to protect the objects placed in front of them. They are unused, inducing thoughts about the pictures that will be produced in the future and the very future of painting itself.

Uwe Wieczorek, curator of the Hilti Art Foundation


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© Succession H. Matisse / 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich for the work from Henri Matisse
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© 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich for the work from Hans Arp, Keith Sonnier, Jean Tinguely and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

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