'When you see our mutual friends, give them all my kindest regards and tell them that we have not given up, that intellectual Germany will occupy its rightful place again among the people. We are at work.' (Max Beckmann, Letter to Stephan Lackner, April 26, 1939, cited in Max Beckmann, Exile in Amsterdam, exh. cat. Amsterdam, 2007, p. 45).
In May 1940, Nazi German forces invaded Max Beckmann's chosen country of exile, Holland. An exiled German citizen and a publicly declared 'entartet' (degenerate) artist, Beckmann was for the first months of the Nazi Occupation living in virtual seclusion and fear of venturing outside his small Amsterdam apartment at no. 85 Rokin. Fearing also that many of his papers might incriminate him with the new authorities, Beckmann had destroyed all his diaries prior to the German invasion. He now began a new diary, writing: 'I begin this new notebook in a condition of complete uncertainty about my own existence and the state of our planet. Wherever one looks: chaos and disorder.'
Much of this oppressive atmosphere of disruption and psychological uncertainty is conveyed in Der Zeichner im Spiegel (Manon), a highly evocative and swiftly-executed pen and ink self-portrait that Beckmann made at this time, which is closely related to the oil Stillben mit Toilettentisch (Göpel no. 561; on permanent loan to the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart). Looking at first glance like a still-life scene, this important work is an almost clandestine self-portrait that Beckmann made while living in self-imposed hiding in his Amsterdam flat. A convoluted interior densely packed with the furniture and clutter of day-to-day apartment life, it is a work that metaphorically reflects strongly on the sense of domestic confinement Beckmann felt. Complete with its partial view of the artist staring grimly and as if through a key-hole at himself in a mirror standing on the table before him it is also a work that exposes the artist's fragile sense of identity - a man obliged to hide amongst a façade of normality while sneaking a view of life, like a mouse peeking outwards from a hole in the skirting board.
Beckmann, nevertheless is still firmly committed to his art, this works announces. Next to his grim features, reflected in the key-hole shaped mirror that in fact bore this exact shape and belonged to his wife Quappi, the instruments of his art - a pen, eraser and bottle of ink - lie alongside his glasses. Also visible is perhaps what is the back of a canvas and also what appears to be a matchbox with the word 'Manon' upon it. All these elements combine to provide an image of the artist defiantly committed to rendering the world around him whatever circumstances he finds himself in.
'It was really no small effort to stand in front of the canvas and act as though everything was going fine', Vordemberge-Gildewart remembered of this period, (Vordemberge-Gildewart, Letter to Kate Steinitz, 7 July 1946, in Dietrich Helms, Vordemberge-Gildewart: The Complete Works, Munich, 1990, pp. 27-8). Like Picasso in Paris, who soon after the invasion of Holland was himself trapped by the Occupation, Beckmann's defiance took the form of maintaining his personal independence and creative freedom while physically confined. Picasso famously stated after the Liberation that 'I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings that I have done' (Picasso quoted in P. D. Whitney, 'Picasso is Safe,' in San Francisco Chronicle, 5 March 1944). In Beckmann's case the oppression, claustrophobia and isolation that the artist felt, trapped in a foreign land and threatened by his own countrymen, instilled his art with a granite stoicism that underpins his entire vision of the world during these troubled years.