|Max Beckmann, The King, 1934-37, oil on canvas,53.25 x 39.25 in., St. Louis Art Museum|
Stephan Lackner writes:
"The crowned king sits in his palace, in Oriental splendor, proudly erect, surrounded by two women. The young, beautiful lady on the left seems utterly trustful and loving as she puts her right arm over his thigh and fondles his left arm. The older, dark woman whispers conspiratorial advice into his ear; her cowl gives her an air of intrigue and secrecy, and her left hand is pushed forward in a gesture of warning or rejection, apparently contradicting the naive, friendly creature on the other side of the monarch. The young blonde has his love, no doubt, but the older woman "has the king's ear." The king weighs the two influences silently. There is a strange, portentous atmosphere in the palace chamber. When will he arise and proclaim his decision?
"The king's features are akin to Beckmann's own, although no formal self-portrait may have been intended. The collar with its triangular flaps has the shape the artist usually assigned to clown and harlequin costumes, so we may suspect that the ominous scene is really just part of a play.
"Beckmann worked on The King for a long time. He must have considered it already finished in 1934, for he had it photographed in Berlin, three years before his emigration. He submitted it to the Carnegie International, where it was exhibited in the European section, in San Francisco, in 1934-35, and illustrated in the Carnegie catalogue. The painting did not win a prize. Disappointed, Beckmann changed the first version considerably and finally signed it in Amsterdam in 1937. This history of the painting is important because some commentators have seen allusions to the "despot" of the day and claim that this was the first painting that Beckmann created in exile. But the resemblance to Beckmann himself precludes any reference to the actual tyrant. No-this is the inner drama of a proud, powerful, benign individual.
"In the first version, the base of the column at the right edge of the painting resembled the bases of the columns of Persepolis. Beckmann at the time was immersed in studies of Tel Halaf, and Assyrian and Babylonian lore. This localization of the scene gave way, in the final version, to a more general, luxurious background. Also, the profile of the warning, plotting confidante is more expressive, and the texture of the final canvas is more varied and decisive. On the whole, we can thank the Carnegie judges of 1934 for awarding the prize to Karl Hofer and not to Beckmann. Their action caused Beckmann to dig even deeper into his subconscious, to explore his own myth."