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Begin the Beguine

Max Beckmann

Artwork Details

Begin the Beguine
Max Beckmann
oil on canvas
5 ft. 9 9/16 in. x 3 ft. 11 1/2 in. (176.69 x 120.65 cm);6 ft. 3 3/4 in. x 4 ft. 5 3/4 in. x 4 in. (192.41 x 136.53 x 10.16 cm)
Museum Purchase


After being persecuted by the Nazis for his “degenerate” artistic innovations, Beckmann fled his native Germany for the Netherlands. This canvas was painted there just before the artist finally received the traveling papers necessary for emigration to the United States.
“Begin the Beguine” is the title of a Cole Porter song that had become a big band standard after being recorded by jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw in 1938. The quick, rhythmic disharmony of the song is echoed in Beckmann’s strong colors and composition. Characters typical of Beckmann’s pictorial repertoire are present: the blond cigarette girl, the shackled woman in a negligee, and staring birds. The figures appear to be attempting to dance but are unable. The scene conveys the artist’s attraction to music and cabaret society, but also hints at an ambivalence about American culture.

Subject Matter:

Begin the Beguine refers to a Cole Porter song (from the 1935 musical "Jubilee") that had become a popular big band standard in Artie Shaw's 1938 clarinet recording. The song's title can been seen at the lower left and the invocation of Cole Porter's sophistication stands in sharp contrast to the disturbing visual imagery within the composition. Distorted space, mutilated limbs, an acidic palette communicate Beckmann's ambivalence toward American culture as well as his attraction to cabaret.

Physical Description:

Interior composition with male and female dancers positioned at center with seated female at lower left, standing male on crutches at right and a group of birds in the leftmost background.

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