Mark Harden's Artchive Beckmann, Max
Oil on canvas
triptych, center panel 84 3/4 X 45 3/8"; side panels each 84 3/4 X 39 1/4"
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

© 1999 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild Kunst, Bonn

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Stephan Lackner writes:

" 'Departure, yes departure, from the illusions of life to the essential realities that lie hidden beyond.' Such was Beckmann's comment when his dealer, Curt Valentin, asked for an explanation of this triptych.

"Lilly von Schnitzler was one of Beckmann's early patrons. In a letter to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., on June 1, 1955, she recollected an explanation the painter had given her in February 1937 when the triptych was still standing in his Berlin studio:

'Life is what you see right and left. Life is torture, pain of every kind-physical and mental-men and women are subjected to it equally. On the right wing you can see yourself trying to find your way in the darkness, lighting the hall and staircase with a miserable lamp, dragging along tied to you, as a part of yourself, the corpse of your memories, of your wrongs and failures, the murder everyone commits at some time of his life-you can never free yourself of your past, you have to carry that corpse while Life plays the drum.

'And in the center?

'The King and Queen, Man and Woman, are taken to another shore by a boatsman whom they do not know, he wears a mask, it is the mysterious figure taking us to a mysterious land.... The King and Queen have freed themselves of the tortures of life-they have overcome them. The Queen carries the greatest treasure-Freedom-as her child in her lap. Freedom is the one thing that matters-it is the departure, the new start.'

"The pictorial vision of Departure must have existed in Beckmann's mind before any literary or ideological program; therefore, many of its enigmatic figures and their actions elude verbalization. The men and women populating this three-act drama are presented with almost frightening clarity; nothing is clouded, there is no lack of visual definition. A difficulty arises only if one tries to put the functions of the characters into words and sentences.

"It may be more congruent with Beckmann's intentions for the viewer to first feast his eyes on the beautiful still life of fruit in the left panel, and on the magnificent sweep of the azure ocean and sky in the center panel. Perhaps Beckmann wished his audience to be confused, for confusion is what is represented in the side panels_abased and abused humanity. We are meant to stare in horrified disbelief at the tortures and ugliness in the wings. And then, suddenly, we are drawn to the center, to the whole and holy beings who are being saved. This triptych thus combines utmost suffering and highest bliss.

"Several millennia seem to glide by, as we glance from the Assyrian supermen and the Grecian queen with her Phrygian cap, to the drummer in Renaissance costume, to the modern bellhop. Finally the future appears: in the center of the triptych, all the rays of hope and high expectation are focused on the golden-haired little boy.

"One leitmotiv that links the three panels is the fish. In Beckmann's private mythology the fish represents the transcendent life force; sometimes this life force has slippery phallic aspects, sometimes it symbolizes the elusive soul. The drama starts in the left wing: a gangster-like ruffian has caught two fish in his deathly black net; their heads and tails protrude. Has he captured the souls of the two fettered and tortured men being victimized among the heathen temple columns ? He swings the fish toward the center panel_are they to be rescued from the pain and confusion of our gruesome present?

"No literal story is being presented here, only half-hidden meanings of fleeting dreams. What about the blindfolded bellhop on the right? The uniformed hotel attendant is a favorite figure in Beckmann's iconography, and the painter did explain him once verbally: "Today fate makes its entry on stage in the shape of a liftboy." He, too, carries a fish, as if it were a message, and he hurries after the couple "wrapped up in each other," as if to tell them that their union will remain dead without the slithery, elusive life force. The saga of the fish does not end there: at the bottom of the center panel, a swarm of "small fry" is being released from a fishing net, but one enormous fish is carefully carried off in the barge. The hooded oarsman secures this prize catch with special care, as if to say: What matter if the unimportant multitude escape, as long as we have the kingly trophy?

"There is a wealth of other thought-provoking imagery. The corseted woman in the lower left panel stares into an empty crystal ball of illusion while leaving the huge, succulent, palpably "real" fruit at her side unnoticed. The man at the upper left forms an ironic contrast with the two fish in the net behind him; he is forced to stand in a barrel of water while they have been deprived of their life-giving element_a bitter joke worthy of a Bruegel.

"Viewers may interpret the various allusions according to their own experiences. What is important is the almost hallucinogenic artistry that welds confusion and clarity, hideousness and radiant beauty, into a unified whole."