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‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak

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Beckmann, Max - VM - Ida Slump

 

Max Beckmann: Resurrection (I) and Resurrection (II)

 
And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. Matthew 24:6
 
The Fate of Humankind
 
by Ida Slump-Schoonhoven
 
In 1908 young Max Beckmann (1884-1950) painted a large painting, 2,5 meters wide and 4 meters high. He calls it Resurrection (Auferstehung). In the lower half we see naked and half naked people who bend their heads in anguish or who, on the contrary, look up full of expectation to the upwards swirling bodies above them. At first sight this is a painting in the tradition of The Last Judgment. For centuries artists like Michelangelo and Rubens received commissions to paint this theme, but this did not happen anymore in the 20th century. Why then did Beckmann choose this subject?
 
His fascination with the work of his great predecessors undoubtedly played a role. He is visibly inspired by the powerful nudes of Michelangelo and the energy and light of Rubens. But upon further inspection he clearly deviates from the old masters. The most apparent difference is the absence of Christ as descending judge. Neither are there angels who lead the saved up to heaven or devils who drag the lost down to hell. There is no separation of people here; they all seem to dissolve into a bright light.
 
Even though Beckmann ties in with the tradition of biblical imagery, he does not believe in the resurrection as a historical event which delivers sinners from their earthly existence. He does believe, however, that humans can climb up out of their suffering by their own will and creative powers to a higher and lighter existence. This is not yet reality, but a number of the people in the lower half of the painting see this as if in a vision. The artist too, who has depicted himself as co-sufferer on the far left, witnesses it. It is this beckoning perspective that he wants to show with his work.
 
Beckmann is strongly influenced by Nietzsche and he has – like many theologians before World War I – optimistic expectations for humankind. But can his optimism persist?
 
Less than ten years later, from 1916-1918, he works on another large Resurrection, now 3,5 meters high and 5 meters wide. (The image here is of a smaller etching that he made later, on which the details – in mirror image – are better discernable.)
 
 
What a contrast with the first canvas: not a high and light space, but a desolate landscape with hardly any sky. To the left a woman who as if in the throes of death lifts her hands up to the heavens. At the upper right hand side there are four figures, one of whom is turning the wheel of fortune, a little above a mother with her dead child. In the middle at the bottom a beastlike shape is crawling out of the earth. Nobody is ascending here, away from this wretched condition. 
 
In the mean time Max Beckmann has familiarized himself with the battle fields and drawn many dead in the mortuary. In the text Rede des toten Christus vom Weltgebäude herab, daß kein Gott sei (1796) by Jean Paul he recognizes his own experience of boundless abandonment. He loses his expectation of a better future. Now other artists serve as examples: El Greco with his elongated figures, the drama of Matthias Grünewald. Also medieval sculpture is a source of inspiration. With expressionistic means he portrays the horrors of life and war: he deforms figures, employs intense gestures, distorts perspective.
 
The optimism of the artist has given way to a deep pessimism. But also here he is present among the suffering. From a hole in the earth – half hidden behind his wife – he watches and participates in the fate of humankind. He has to, as no one escapes the eternal cycle of the wheel of fortune. But this also affords him the opportunity to do what he sees as his new assignment: make people aware of their fate through his work. He wants to ‘build a tower, in which people can cry out with all their anger and doubt, their poor hope, joy and longing. A new church.’
 
Looking at art is not always a happy activity. Whoever looks at this work will be impressed by the disastrous things that can happen to us. But is the situation of humanity really this desperate?
 
In Matthew 24 Jesus predicts wars, famines and earthquakes and says: ‘Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.’ Beckmann is familiar with this image: above his tormented earth he paints the sun so black that it no longer gives any light. But Jesus promises what Beckmann does not dare to believe: that this will not be the end. For he will return to the earth on the clouds as the Son of Man and his angels will gather his children. He summons everyone to look out for this and to be ready to take part in the joy when the day comes.
 
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Ida Slump-Schoonhoven is an art historian and coordinator of ForumC-Kunst and the Rookmaakerkring.
 
 
ArtWay, Visual Meditation February 27, 2011