The idea of making a show that links a painter to a city that shaped him is a good one. Think of Gentile Bellini and Venice, Toulouse-Lautrec and Paris, Whistler and London. A show about Max Beckmann in Berlin should be a smash. The Leipzig-born artist painted his country’s capital before, during and after her infamous Weimar years. In the process, he discovered that when Berlin was good, she was very, very naughty and when she was bad, it was time to emigrate.

As a young man, Beckmann loved her. Born in 1884, he moved to Berlin at the age of 20 after studying at the Grand Ducal Art School in Weimar. For an ambitious young artist, the only game in town was the Berlin Secession, a group led by figures such as Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth, who were rejecting academicism in favour of a more impressionistic style.

Impressionism had already been superseded in its French birthplace. Furthermore, the Germans struggled with the style’s libertarian essence. With its perfectly proportioned, half-naked young boys disporting themselves in gelid blue-grey surf, Liebermann’s “Bathing Youths” (1900) is a faintly creepy, near-classical celebration of the pubescent male body. Beckmann’s own version of a similar scene, “Young Men by the Sea” (1905), is more interesting. He uses quantities of cold greys, whites and arctic blue to suggest a frozen, maritime Arcadia where the young men, one with his head bowed under a despairing hand, are clearly about to engage not in sensual romps — as in Mediterranean versions of such scenes — but in guilt-ridden couplings.

From the start Beckmann had a gloomy bent. As a young painter, he scooped up ideas from Cézanne, Van Gogh and, most successfully, Edvard Munch. Hanging next to Munch’s 1896 lithography “Death in the Sickroom”, Beckmann’s “Small Death Scene” (1906) shows a family in mourning for a death that has just taken place. Using his favoured format of a compressed perpendicular space, Beckmann borrows the insubstantiality of Munch’s figures to give his own a vapid bonelessness. His colours feel like a window on to hell, with muddy-browns and greeny-blacks made even spookier by the snow-bright mound of bedsheets and cinder-red walls.

Beckmann could have been a master colourist. One of the jewels of this exhibition is a simple 1909 still life “From the Studio on the Snow”. Here, Beckmann leavens white with teal-green, grey and ice-blue highlights to bind together basin, cloths and chair huddled under a snow-smothered window into a cold, bewitching symphony.

As Europe ground unconsciously towards war, its artists were also taking sides. Expressionism, its acid-bright distortions discovering a bleak intensity in the everyday, best captured the zeitgeist, but Beckmann rejected it as too decorative. Instead, he favoured the historic and monumental. On show here, his “Flood” (1908) depicts naked men and women in attitudes of despair on a waterlogged riverbank. But the feathery impressionistic strokes, designed to capture fleeting French sunlight, are out of place in such nightmares of the mind.

Between 1906 and 1914, Beckmann worked on a series of street scenes. A quasi-metaphysical atmosphere prevails in “Der Kaiserdamm” (1911) as Beckmann widens the boulevard in the foreground before narrowing it towards a vanishing point of indigo hills on the horizon.

“Beckmann is difficult to imagine without Berlin,” writes Hans Kaiser in the catalogue to the artist’s first solo exhibition, at Paul Cassirer’s gallery in 1913. “Berlin, that means battle, tragedy, bare life, will, energy, brutality, power and spirit.”

But the painter who really captures this avant-garde energy is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. His “Nollendorfplatz” (1912) uses lemon and lime, offset by blues and greys, to distil the busy street junction down to an encounter between one central building, its walls bulging surreally into the crossroads, and two buses nose-to-nose on the other side. The result is a fizzy convulsion of metropolitan drama that suggests a city on the edge of a perilous yet thrilling new identity.

For Beckmann, the trauma of war and his work as a medical orderly led to a nervous breakdown; he resettled in Frankfurt although he continued to travel to Berlin. Two sequences of lithographs, “Hell” (1918-19) and “Trip to Berlin” (1922), show an artist who has changed utterly. Gone are his smudged contours and elaborate strokes. In their place are jagged puzzles of men and women — in coffee-houses, strip clubs and, in the image that also inspired his seminal oil painting “Die Nacht” (1918), an anonymous carnival of sadism — who appear both suffocated by proximity and yet oblivious to each other’s presence.

Beckmann’s postwar style ostensibly chimed with the latest wave of Expressionism known as Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. But the dark mischief of that movement, which used caricature to document Weimar’s misdeeds, had little to do with the thunder-black impulse that animated Beckmann’s new work. The graphic shamelessness of “Die Nacht” — unfortunately not included in this show — reinvents the stiff, tortured bodies of Germany’s Gothic past with a modern idiom of misery that borrows much from Picasso’s early Cubism.

Here, the most haunting testament to his catastrophic mindset is “Women’s Bath” (1919). Beckmann piles his stumpy, corpse-grey swimmers into an inhospitable, orange-lit sauna. This graceless coven are the daughters not of the innocent French sea-nymphs of Renoir and Cézanne but of Picasso’s Demoiselles, an implacable froideur stamped into their DNA.

Clearly, Beckmann’s dark side fed off Weimar Berlin’s decadent undercurrents. Yet he spent most of the next decade in Frankfurt and Paris, returning to Berlin in 1933, after Hitler was appointed chancellor. By then he had been dismissed from his teaching post at Frankfurt’s Städelschule. Soon, the room devoted to his work in Berlin’s Nationalgalerie was dismantled. He had become a “degenerate” artist.

Beckmann responded by hiding his messages of doom in metaphysical wrappings. The washed-out tones and skewed, uncanny perspective of an empty park — “View from Rupenhorn on the Havel” (1936) — hints at the deathly isolation enveloping a once vibrant culture. Painted in 1935, “The Organ Grinder” centres on a pyramid of static, disconnected figures, their theatrical costumes giving them the air of a commedia dell’arte troupe reimagined by Brecht: its miserable fervour hints at an artist revolted by this cruel new world.

At the end of the show, a series of self-portraits in radically different styles offer insights into this most protean of artists. Most revealing is “Self-portrait with a Champagne Glass” (1919). Beckmann has caught himself in close-up, with jaundiced brow and hungry eyes, a cynical, Neue Sachlichkeit predator. Beckmann died in 1950, in New York, having moved to the US in 1947 after spending the second world war in Amsterdam. This show never quite succeeds in tying him irrevocably to the city that was so often his home, yet it is a valuable snapshot of the German art scene at its most brilliant and ultimately embattled.

‘Max Beckmann and Berlin’, Berlinische Galerie, to February 15.

Slideshow photographs: Stadel Museum/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2015; Berlinische Galerie/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2015; Klassik Stiftung Weimar/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2015; Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2015; Kunstmuseum Mulheim an der Ruhr/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2015; Stiftung Moritzburg — Kunstmuseum/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2015

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