Anti-Nazi painting expected to sell for £8m

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An anti-Nazi painting by a dissident German artist denounced by Hitler as a "degenerate" is expected to be sold for up to £8m at an auction on Thursday.

The masterpiece, entitled Matrose ("Sailor"), was completed by Max Beckmann in Amsterdam after he fled Berlin in 1937 within hours of a speech by Hitler criticising his "un-German" art. In a show of defiance, Beckmann finished the Expressionist portrait of a seaman by placing a copy of a radical anti-fascist journal, Het Volk, into the hands of the subject.

The work, which is being sold by a private American collector after 50 years out of public view, is expected to reach £6m to £8m at Christie's in London as part of a sale of German and Austrian art.

A spokeswoman for the auctioneer said: "It is a very political painting – it gives an idea of the outrage and anger that Beckmann felt at being driven out of his country by the Nazi regime.

"Previously, he was very apolitical in his art, so the Matrose was unprecedented. He had a desire for personal freedom and that was being terribly frustrated."

Beckmann, who was forced to resign from his teaching position at the Stadelschule art school in Frankfurt in 1936, moved to Berlin in the belief that he could join like minds in the Expressionist movement.

But in July 1937, Hitler opened an exhibition of state-approved art with a speech that threatened avant-garde artists with imprisonment and sterilisation.

Beckmann, seen by the Nazis as a leader of the art movement they loathed, had already had works confiscated and was banned from exhibitions. He left for the Netherlands the day after Hitler's speech and sent for several unfinished canvases he had left behind, including the Matrose, from relatives still in Germany. The completed work was sent to America before the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940.

It is only the second major painting by Beckmann, who emigrated to the US in 1947, to have been sold in recent years. A self-portrait sold for £15m in New York this spring.