Beckmann, Max - by Amy K. Hamlin
Figuring Redemption: Christianity and Modernity in Max Beckmann’s Resurrections
by Amy K. Hamlin
Recent histories of the German painter Max Beckmann (1884–1950) afford a tendentious and superficial reading that cannot sufficiently unfold the relationship between his idiosyncratic figurative forms and his early obsession with Christian subjects. By examining his fascination with Arthur Schopenhauer’s aesthetics and by placing his early religious paintings in the context of the art critical discourse of the time in which they were created, this essay aims to provide a historical understanding of the curious rapport between form and subject in Beckmann’s two Resurrection paintings, which are both owned by the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart.
Beckmann’s first Resurrection (1908-1909), completed in Berlin, is a neo-Baroque vision of salvation rendered on the vertical axis. It is a congested picture, whose impressive dimensions—nearly thirteen by eight feet—accommodate the earthbound group of figures clad in contemporary dress that appear rather out of place amidst and beneath the throng of fleshy naked bodies. Seven years later, Beckmann began his second Resurrection (1916-18) in his new home in Frankfurt. At eleven by sixteen feet, this Resurrection is larger than the first and rendered instead on the horizontal axis to accommodate a more macabre vision of salvation in which a blackened sun presides over a clutch of spectral figures that do not so much inhabit the denuded landscape as haunt it.
Beckmann was sympathetic to Schopenhauer’s central belief that the individual experiences the world through the many unfulfilled and futile expectations of the will that lead—inexorably—to a life of suffering. According to Schopenhauer, the monastic practice of self-denial known as asceticism offers permanent release from this painful cycle. For less pious folk, however, temporary release can be found in the aesthetic contemplation of the world as representation.
Beckmann’s first attempt at the Resurrection represents a milestone in his desire to visualize redemption by means of biblical subjects, not just in terms of scale but also pictorial ambition. In the Resurrection, he eschews specific references to Judgment Day in the absence of Christ as divine judge. To borrow Schopenhauer’s terms, Beckmann sought to depict the real meaning, or the Idea of redemption, apart from its conventional, nominal representation.
Beckmann was an artist, not an illustrator; form, not the subject matter, provided his content. Male and female figures of comparable size, age and physique are subordinated to an evenly applied chiaroscuro. They congeal and disperse in a flurry of agitated brushstrokes and luminous pigments in the upper reaches of the canvas. In much of the painting the viewer’s perception of pure form – as an aesthetic embodiment of the Idea – works to trump his/her cognitive apprehension of the subject matter. This was essential for Schopenhauer, who believed that the nominal subjects of history painting distracted from their real meaning that could only be comprehended through will-less perception, which is why the clothed contemporary figures in the bottom third of the composition are so distracting. Although these figures occupy the same pictorial space as the others, the specificity of their faces and their clothed bodies detracts from the anonymous forms of the naked bodies.
Beckmann embarked on his second Resurrection in 1916. At eleven by sixteen feet, it was the largest canvas he ever worked on. It was also the product of an artist changed by war. Compared to Beckmann’s first Resurrection, a lot has changed, most notably the orientation, but also the style. The high horizon line in this broad, but claustrophobic landscape subordinates the many naked and only partially realized figures that trouble the terrain.
Beckmann’s second Resurrection, even more than its predecessor and progeny, may be read as a deeply ambivalent painting, not because of its austere figurative style, but rather its putative subject. As a historical explanation, this claim elicits an alternative approach to the ideological understanding of modern figurative art in general and Beckmann’s Resurrections in particular. Ultimately, the unfinished Resurrection harbored for Beckmann the promise of creation amidst the profound suffering in the artist’s life and in the world at large. It claimed a place in his life that is echoed in a statement he made in his diary on May 2, 1941, shortly after completing his fourth triptych entitled Perseus. He wrote simply: “Creation is redemption.”
This is excerpted from “Figuring Redemption: Christianity and Modernity in Max Beckmann’s Resurrections” by Amy K. Hamlin from ReVisioing: Critical Methods of Seeing Christianity in the History of Art (2014 Cascade) edited by James Romaine and Linda Statford.
Amy K. Hamlin is Assistant Professor of Art History at St.CatherineUniversity, Minneapolis, MN, USA. She is currently preparing a book manuscript on Max Beckmann provisionally titled Max Beckmann: Allegory and Art History.
The works are:
Max Beckmann, Resurrection (Auferstehung), 1908-1909, oil on canvas, 155 x 98” (395 x 250cm), Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.
Max Beckmann, Resurrection (Auferstehung), 1916-1918 (unfinished), oil on canvas, 135 3/4 x 195 2/3” (345 x 197cm), Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.