Many years ago, I think when I was in college, my mother took me to a big retrospective of artwork by Max Beckmann. Beckmann is a German painter who lived from 1884-1950. The show was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It included a lot of self-portraits that really showed his own evolution as an artist. I went home and started doing a bunch of self-portraits.
I really enjoy Beckmann’s artwork. It’s often dark and brooding, big and heroic too. There’s a story going on behind his tableaus… and the story is usually big, powerful, legendary, mythic. Also, on a more low-brow note, he uses a lot of black outlines… so do I… and so do comic books. Incredibly, he captures light and skin tone really well, and still includes sometimes bulky black outlines. Lastly, perhaps completely over-stretching this thin analogy, Beckmann’s most famous works are multi-panel triptychs.
So, over the years I’ve based a few of my pieces on Max Beckmann paintings. Though I think that pretty much all artwork is inspired by other work, this basing one’s work on another’s can be seen as lazy, or as honorable, or something between. In highbrow art, borrowing can be called an homage or a reference; in comic book art terminology this is called a swipe. Not all swipes are bad; many are great. I learn copying from masters. Alan Moore very much swipes stuff and reinvents it brilliantly in the process. But it’s, of course, generally dishonorable (sometimes illegal) to swipe without acknowledging the source.
Below is a great Beckmann triptych called Departure. This piece hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
In 2001 at Skylight Books, I had an art show called Urban Spaces. The pieces I included were all from my series of urban scene pieces, and a few of them were swipes.
Below left is a piece I did, called Departure, where I took the characters from the central panel of Beckmann’s triptych, and put them at a bus stop in Koreatown, the neighborhood where I live. On the right is Beckmann’s original – click image to make bigger – for my version click here, Beckmann’s here.
Clearly it’s the same array of figures, roughly the same color pallete. I taken Beckmann’s king and given him an L.A. Kings hockey team shirt. I don’t know for certain, but I think that this center panel of Beckmann’s Departure may depict a king and his royal family who are fleeing (departing) from a place where they had rank, power, authority, entitlement – and they will find themselves with much less power in new settings… which is sort of analogous to the situation that immigrants find themselves in in my neighborhood. All that is kind of what I like about placing swipes in the Koreatown – it sort of says that deep heroic stories play out in ordinary public places.
Here’s another swipe from Beckmann’s painting The Artists with Vegetables. My version is called Self Portrait riff on Max Beckmann. I did it in 2003, in India Ink and watercolor on paper about 6″x9″. Click below to make larger, or here for mine or here for Beckmann’s.
So… I was lazy here, and changed quite a bit less than on the Departure example above. Perhaps it mostly me wanting to copy Beckmann to try to learn some of what makes his paintings work.
According to the book Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler (another great LACMA art show I went to with mom) Beckmann has depicted his artistic contemporaries holding symbolic items – carrot, fish, and “indecipherable object.” Beckmann (lower right) holds a mirror in which his face is reflected as a clown.
So… I put myself in Beckmann’s chair, and, in the mirror, reflected myself as him – swiping his face from his awesome famous 1927 painting Self Portrait in Tuxedo.
In my other hand, I swapped out (what I think is) Beckman’s cigar, and put a quill pen: what I draw with. I put myself in a One Less Car t-shirt that I designed for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.
I kept the carrot, symbolic of gardening, which I do a fair amount of. I changed the other objects, inserting a letter and a green book. The letter represents the artwork that I do that I send through the mail, see some mail art examples here. The green book mostly refers to my sketchbooks (see slide shows here and here, and more sketches posted here.) The color green though, historically, symbolizes magic. I often depict green women in my artwork… sort of representing a magical other.
I also changed the lower left man’s clothing to make it less formal… not really representative of much, but I think once I was in a T-shirt, the folks around me could be dressed less formally.
Though I can kinda explain my art, I tend to just do the art by playing, improvising, not soooo deliberately. This Self Portrait riff on Max Beckmann piece, even though I’ve just spent half a blog entry explaining it really isn’t all that deep or deliberate either. It’s mostly me digging Beckmann and playing around in his style.
Those are my Beckmann swipes. See my latest art at my art blog Handmade Ransom Notes.