(Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum/Artists Rights Society/VG Bild-Kunst)

Max Beckmann (b. 1884)

Self-Portrait in Tuxedo, 1927

On view at Busch-Reisinger Museum

Great Works, In Focus

Walking a tightrope

Max Beckmann’s greatest self-portrait was once reviled by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’

Max Beckmann’s “Self-Portrait in Tuxedo,” 1927. On view at the Harvard Art Museums. (Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum/Artists Rights Society/VG Bild-Kunst)

Many artists paint themselves in smocks, holding brushes and palettes, or standing before easels. At work, in other words. Max Beckmann (1884-1950) painted himself in a smoking jacket.

To me, he looks surpassingly cool.

But maybe you think he looks smug and supercilious? Maybe your gut is telling you that if you encountered someone dressed like this, looking at you in this way, you would feel harshly judged. You might resent him.

Beckmann was Germany’s most acclaimed modern artist. His demeanor here is undoubtedly foppish. Note the slight rightward push of his hips, which gives his hand something of a ledge to rest on, and the theatrical disposition of his hands, one of which holds, with studied nonchalance, a lit cigarette.

Beckmann was presenting himself here as a cosmopolitan artist who was self-made, serious, amused, impossible to surprise. One of many self-portraits he made, it is by far the greatest. Especially striking is the abruptness of the transitions between light and dark — something Beckmann may have associated with the style of Édouard Manet, the original incarnation of the urbane, broad-minded and debonair modern artist. The motto on Manet’s letterhead was “Tout arrive”: “Everything happens.”

And so it does.

Before Hitler came to power, Beckmann’s self-portrait had been hailed by critics. It was so highly regarded that it was given a room to itself in Berlin’s National Gallery. In 1937, the prestige it had so quickly accumulated was turned inside out.

That year, Beckmann’s self-portrait was displayed in the Nazis’ infamous “entartete Kunst,” or “Degenerate Art,” exhibition in Munich. More than 600 works that had been confiscated from public collections were jammed together, accompanied by spiteful slogans. They were hung mostly from cords, often at odd angles, sometimes touching the floor. Before it went on the road, the exhibition was seen by more than 2 million people. It was described in one respected newspaper, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, as “trainloads of dirt” emptied into the museum’s halls.

Hitler railed against modernist painting for many of the same reasons people today rail against art they don’t like. He loathed its distortions of the visible world. He saw it as lacking in skill and, at the same time, elitist, cosmopolitan and inaccessible — the product of an international cadre of what Hitler called “chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers.” He threw in other reasons, of course — above all, that modernist art was created and distributed by Jews, homosexuals and Bolsheviks — but it’s important to grasp that to him it was all one big reason.

As the Nazis confiscated thousands of “degenerate” works from German public collections (hundreds by Beckmann alone), a critic at the Boston Globe, A.I. Philpot, noted that “there are probably plenty of people — art lovers — in Boston, who will side with Hitler in this particular purge.” So it’s gratifying that “Self-Portrait in Tuxedo” now hangs at Harvard Art Museums, and it is one of the museum’s most popular works.

Beckmann, needless to say, did not share Hitler’s pinched, perverse and finally genocidal worldview. It’s false reassurance, but I like to think of his silent, imperturbable self-portrait facing off against an image of Hitler in his absurd little uniform spitting hysterically into the microphone.

All of this lurching history can make us overlook the fact that for Beckmann, life was magical, deep, wondrous, contradictory. He tried to paint the force and complexity of its contradictions. He once said that all of life came to him “in black and white like virtue and crime. . . . It is my fortune, or misfortune,” he added, “that I can see neither all in black nor all in white.”

Something about the abrupt but beautifully balanced transitions in this painting reminds me of the yin and yang symbol. Beckmann was more mystically inclined than people realize. He quoted Lao Tse on our “desire to achieve balance, and to keep it.”

“We are all tightrope walkers,” he said. He knew, I think, that to communicate anything — visually, verbally, musically — is to walk a tightrope. You can say what you like. But you can never control what people will hear. Or in this case, what they will see.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.