Saturday, December 09, 2006


Max BECKMANN, La Nuit, planche 7 de la série Die Hölle (L'Enfer), 1919, 61,3 X 87,1

Max BECKMANN, La Nuit, 1919, 133 X 154, Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein

This is surely one of the most gruesome pictures ever painted. Other artists, usually motivated by the higher purposes of patriotism or pacifism, have shown the disasters of war, suppression, and martyrdom; torture and pain are often represented as the just deserts of sinners tumbling into hell, and the roasting and beheading of saints are depicted to serve the greater glory of God. But Beckmann sees no purpose in the suffering he shows; there is no glory for anybody, no compensation, no gloating over justice accomplished-only enseless pain, and cruelty for its own sake. Beckmann blames human nature as such, and there seems to be no physical escape from this overwhelming self-accusation. Victims and aggressors alike are cornered. There is no exit.

And yet, strangely, the composition is visually satisfying: it is jointed as by a master carpenter. That is the cruelest aspect of this work; it presents utter orderliness, as if to say: This is the way things are supposed to be, this is "regularity." Not only the design, with its parallels and complementary angles, demonstrates this perverted "law and order"; the colors, too, appear well spaced and thoughtfully distributed. The woman in the right foreground may be wearing a blue corset because the tongue of the strangled man in the upper left turned blue and the painter needed a color-equilibrium. The torturer's tie may be yellow in order to correspond to the yellow wax of the candles.

Beckmann has abandoned the Christian symbolism he used in previous works. There is no salvation in sight. One may consider the tiny window cross in the darkness outside as a symbol of hope, but otherwise the pressure in the tight little torture chamber is without relief.

This is one moment in one attic in Germany at the end of World War I. There is no past and no future. The phonograph blares in order to blot out the cries of anguish. Its tune emphasizes the newsreel actuality of this happening: this is the present, this is the world.

The complex psychological situations are boiled down to simple formulas. The young woman performing an involuntary split is menaced by the candle. The woman on the right, nonchalantly swept off her feet, will be unable to prevent the rape. The monkey-like sadist in the middle accomplishes his torture with scientific coolness, as if to test the degree of pain that a human being can stand. Only the dog on the left considers outside help as a possibility: he directs his howling away from the center, believing that there is somebody, something outside the confines of the frame. But he is not rational, of course!

The foreground shows, for the first time in Beckmann's oeuvre, the pair of candles which he later used again and again in still lifes and triptychs: one has fallen and given up its ghost; the other carries bravely on. It is as if the artist wanted to leave one glimmer of hope, one little flickering light to negate the whole of darkness.

Stephan LACKNER, Max Beckmann, New York, Abrams, 1991