“Letters to a Woman Painter” (1948) by Max Beckmann
The important thing is first of all to have a real love of the visible world that lies outside ourselves as well as to know the deep secret of what goes on within ourselves. For the visible world in combination with our inner selves provides the realm where we may seek infinitely for the individuality of our own souls. In the best art this search has always existed. It has been, strictly speaking, a search for something abstract. And today it remains urgently necessary to express even more strongly one’s own individuality. Every form of significant art from Bellini to Henri Rousseau has ultimately been abstract.
Remember that depth in space in a work of art (in sculpture too, although the sculptor must work in a different medium) is always decisive. The essential meaning of space or volume is identical with individuality, or that which mankind calls God. For, in the beginning there was space, that frightening and unthinkable invention of the force of the universe. Time is the invention of mankind; space or volume, the palace of the Gods.
But we must not digress into metaphysics or philosophy. Only do not forget that the appearance of things in space is a gift of God, and if this is disregarded in composing new forms, then there is the danger of your work being damned by weakness or foolishness, or at best it will result in mere ostentation or virtuosity. One must have the deepest respect for what the eye sees and for its representation on the area of the picture in height, width and depth. We must observe what may be called the law of the surface, and this law must never be broken by using the false technique of illusion. Perhaps then we can find ourselves, see ourselves in the work of art. Because ultimately, all seeking and aspiration ends in finding yourself, your real self of which your present self is only a weak reflection. There is no doubt that this is the ultimate, the most difficult exertion we poor men can perform. So, with all this work before you, your beauty, culture and your devotion to the external pleasures of life must suffer. But take consolation in this: you still have ample opportunity to experience agreeable and beautiful things, but these experiences will be more intense and alive if you yourself remain apart from the senseless tumult and bitter laughter of stereotyped mankind …
It is necessary for you, you who now draw near to the motley and tempting realm of art, it is very necessary that you also comprehend how close to danger you are. If you devote yourself to the ascetic life, if you renounce all worldly pleasures, all human things, you may, I suppose attain a certain concentration; but for the same reason you may also dry up. Now on the other hand if you plunge headlong into the arms of passion, you may just as easily burn yourself up! Art, love and passion are very closely related because everything revolves more or less around knowledge and the enjoyment of beauty in one form or another. And intoxication is beautiful, is it not, my friend? …
Nothing is further from my mind than to suggest to you that you thoughtlessly imitate nature. The impression nature makes upon you in its every form must always become an expression of your own joy and grief, and consequently in your formation of it, it must contain that transformation which only then makes art a real abstraction.
But don’t overstep the mark. Just as soon as you fail to be careful and get tired, and though you still want to create, you will slip off either into thoughtless imitation of nature, or into sterile abstractions which will hardly reach the level of decent decorative art.
Enough for today, my dear friend. I think much of your work, of from my heart I wish you the power and strength to find and follow a good way. It is very hard with its pitfalls left and right. I know that. We are all tightrope walkers. With them it is the same as with all artists, and so with all mankind. As the Chinese philosopher Laotse says, we have ‘the desire to achieve balance, and to keep it!’ (Max Beckmann, ‘Letters to a Woman Painter’, 1948, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, pp. 180-183)