"This persistent harping on the 'I', this vision shuttered to all else in war but its colour, was, in fact, a despairing attempt to stay sane. Beckmann shut truth out so as to copy, to do his soldierly duty. Behind the brave brutality of the letters seethed fears of almost insane proportions. He who had always seen the world as 'chaos' and 'grief' (the mad and violent world he tried to control in paintings like The Destruction of Messina) and who relied on his art 'to order this chaos...to give it form', now found himself overwhelmed by formlessness and horror, helpless. It is very much to his credit that Beckmann tried to survive, even at the cost of his inner truth, and failed. After less than a year and a half, he had broken down in mind and body and was invalided out of service.
Beckmann was a man who took all things to heart. The war destroyed something in him, perhaps his innocence, and for several years we find him desperately seeking to find himself again. The self he had 'lost' was a false self or, at best, an unachieved self, the untried self that looks so serenely out at us in Florence. The next self-portrait, painted in 1915 while he battled to pull something together out of his personal failure, reveals the pitiful depth of his defeat. He is hospitalized still, and still wearing his uniform, in Self-Portait as a Medical Orderly, 1915. Years later, looking at this nasty little picture, he commented sadly on the dreariness of its colour, adding, 'I really slaved away at it'. One of his few confessions before collapse had been that he felt '[drawing] protects one against death and danger', and we feel that there is an apotropaic quality to this dismal work. Beckmann was saving himself as best he could, trying to find out who he was, almost if he was, and failing. The body hunches up inside the canvas, constricted and unsure of itself. The chest is too small, the face too large. We are racked by the intense questions in the eyes, hoping to find some confirmation that tranquillity is possible, if not at the precise moment. Light appears to divide the artist from himself; one side, the 'seeing' side, is painfully illuminated, while the other side, the 'painting' side, is in the shadow. He is caught between showing himself in profile and in three-quarter view, a visual contradiction that the cramped, discoloured painting hand cannot reconcile." --Sister Wendy Beckett, Max Beckmann and The Self