During the 1930s, in the Germany that was preparing to become the Great German Reich and conquer the world, it was not essential to be officially Jewish to be branded a degenerate artist and suffer abuse at the hands of institutions – and the state.

Max Beckmann was not Jewish, but in that atmosphere of anti-democratic, pre-genocidal collective delusion, he could be considered close enough. It would be naïve to think that fascism is a thing of the past. Comparable things are happening today, both there and here.

Modern art is by definition free, and if there is one thing neither the Nazi regime nor the Leninists and Stalinists could stand, it was creative freedom. Not even that of the excellent expressionist painter Emil Nolde, unforgivably anti-Semitic and one of their own, but whom Hitler also thought guilty of producing degenerate art. “Annihilate” was these people’s favourite verb, the opposite of creation. Of course, it is easier to wield destructive force than creative knowledge. Even the most mediocre can break things.

Max Beckmann (Leipzig, 1884-New York, 1950) was not annihilated by the Nazis, but did have to go into exile. He fled to Holland, but the Pan-German war machine reached him there too. He died in the U.S., far from home, and, in his last paintings, allegories of exile and the sense of strangeness after expulsion from the earthly paradise abound. In many of his works we find significant details alluding to this theme: a hotel called Eden, an absent garden whose name half-surfaces – or a parrot as a kind of displaced bird of paradise. This lost paradise was not a Utopia, but a certain desirable and possible harmony, one that was – and usually is – destroyed by imperialist urges.

Beckmann’s aesthetic was changed by the pre-war period and the Second World War, as it had been some years earlier by the First World War, during which he served as a volunteer medical orderly. Unlike Matisse, Beckmann did not become entirely engrossed by the ideal sensual harmonies that so appealed to him, but also attempted to address the sinister side of humanity (or inhumanity), which at that time was seizing control of history. In his paintings, the dark shadows of an age of aggression and misery blend with the essential darkness of the human condition. Sometimes it is difficult tell the historical from the existential, but either way, we can see in his paintings that between the reality we desire and the reality we experience there lies an abyss.

The darkness of the age infiltrated Beckmann’s subject matter and also his palette.

The exhibition Beckmann. Exile Figures – curated by Tomás Llorens for the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum and for CaixaForum Barcelona – is not a retrospective anthology. It is made up of five sections: A German Painter in a Bewildering Germany; Masks; Electric Babylon; The Long Goodbye, and, finally, The Sea. These are suggestive titles, but the one that best captures the spirit of the exhibition and the meaning of Beckmann’s work is the first and most general of them: Exile Figures. Bar a few self portraits and some landscapes, disordered and memorable, but absent from this selection, Beckmann’s best paintings are modern allegories whose references are at once historical and existential, evoking themes such as the expulsion from paradise, the strangeness of exile or the dream of beauty and of life, blighted by the disasters of history. That is to say, the history of warmongering greed and its defeat. The darkness of the age infiltrated Beckmann’s subject matter and also his palette.

In the group portrait, Paris Society (1931), the painter depicts a party at the   German embassy in Paris, and the atmosphere is neither festive nor glamorous but disturbing. The light is electric and the luxurious setting appears grimy. Material riches are coupled with gloomy stares, the divergent sightlines more reminiscent of a spat than a diplomatic meeting, some of the expressions irritable or even loutish. The expressionist line distorts features and blackness erupts across the subjects’ skin. One of them darkly recalls Hitler.

In The Mill (1947) the portent was fulfilled. The scene refers directly to the torture of men and women of the Dutch Resistance who opposed the Nazi invasion. It is at the same time a grim and more general reflection on the human condition, one that brings to mind both Goya of The Disasters of War and the existential thought and writing that emerged in the post-war period. I think there are some – later – book titles that Beckmann might have penned himself. For example, Cioran’s The Fall into Time, and Camus’s Exile and the Kingdom.

In Beckmann’s work we see harmony violated, beauty tarnished and identity lost, to be replaced by grimaces and masks. In his paintings, what is magical or even sacred in this world, or in the dream of this or some other world, coexists with disturbing portents and the rupture that follows the revelation of the sinister. In Falling Man (1950) the allegory is at once timeless and contemporary. Almost the entire – vertical – picture space is occupied by the figure of a man falling, almost naked. His fall is framed by two buildings in flames. Indifferent to the tragedy – like Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s ploughman in The Fall of Icarus – winged beings are just visible in the distance, floating or flying with their ships in a blue beyond, where water and sky merge. This is the central idea of Cioran’s essay cited above (The Fall into Time) and also the same scene that was to take place half a century later at New York’s Twin Towers, on 11 September 2001.

Transporting the Sphinxes (1945) marks the end of the war. Especially during his late period, Beckmann employed an allegorical style that was modern, but which also connected with the ancient world and its myths. In this respect, he clearly differentiated himself from the most important currents that were to define 20th century modernism. His art turned away from the more radical creative programmes of artists like Kandinsky, Arp, Klee, Miró or Duchamp, and from works in the new media (photography, cinema, comics). And it came to resemble the work of other, more personal, modern artists, with profound connections to the past, especially Marc Chagall, Georges Rouault and Giorgio de Chirico.

Later, the second half of the 20th century was to see the rise of abstraction, pop and conceptual art. But Beckman was a figurative, meta-realist artist; he expressed subjectivity through objectivity. “I hardly need to abstract things, for each object is unreal enough,” he wrote. And he defended contemplation, visual appearances: “I must look for wisdom with my eyes. I repeat, with my eyes, for nothing could be more ridiculous or trivial than a worldview painted cerebrally, without the terrible fury of the senses.” The year was 1938, and in those days, art discourse and the art market did not yet seem more important than the experience of art.

The exhibition Max Beckmann can be visited at CaixaForum Barcelona until May 26.