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Beckmann, Max - VM - Deborah Lewer

Max Beckmann: The Prodigal Son

The Lost Son

by Deborah Lewer

Max Beckmann painted this vivid work, Der verlorene Sohn (the lost, or ‘prodigal’ son), in exile in the US in 1949, the penultimate year of his life. It is a powerful image of a pivotal yet here still uncertain moment in the great parable, told by Jesus and recounted in Luke’s gospel (Luke 15:11-32). The story tells of two sons, the younger of whom demands and then squanders his premature inheritance. Having wasted the wealth his father allowed him to take in ‘dissolute living’, he finds himself abject, humiliated and alone. When he finally returns home, weary and humbled, he is met with the unexpected, undeserved, and unconditional love of the parent, rejoicing at the return of the lost son. By contrast, his elder brother wallows in bitter resentment.

We find the lost son at a table in an indeterminate interior. Generations of artists have depicted the prodigal as a young fool in the act of squandering the inheritance: carousing and indulging in excesses of all kinds in the colourful company of drinkers and prostitutes. At first glance, Beckmann’s painting seems to reprise this estblished tradition. The drinking vessels and the son’s exotic companions, particularly the partially naked women, suggest that the scene is set in a disreputable tavern or a brothel. Such images were long popular with patrons and collectors who could enjoy the scurrilous subject within the legitimating respectability of a biblical context. They were popular with artists too, who often identified with and represented themselves as the errant prodigal.

But look again at Beckmann’s painting. It’s different. He presents something more psychologically and theologically complex. This prodigal son, head in his hands, is in a state of exhaustion and despondency. The image is a resonant study of depletion and of isolation even in the company of others. The son’s bearing – ears covered, eyes downcast, hands no longer reaching for food, flesh or drink – suggests a desire to shut out the sensory pleasures of the world and to shut down the appetites that have driven him so far from home. He is surrounded by seductive bodies and the lure of a cheap embrace, but his mirthless companions seem affected by his malaise too. Comparing this work with others in the history of art, this prodigal’s despair is more like that often seen in representations of a later stage in the story: when the lost son is down in the dirt, abandoned and hungering with the pigs he’s reduced to tending, just before he ‘comes to himself.’ Beckmann’s work might therefore prompt us to question when this child of the father is most ‘lost’ and where is his greatest destitution.

The painting also invites us to consider the other table at which this tired figure will sit. At the story’s end, there will be a lavish feast, with true gifts, friends and family. The table will be laden with rich food – a fatted calf no less. There will be music and dancing. But one will resent and resist the feast. A figure we glimpse at the far right margin of the composition is a shadowy one, his features doubled by another profile. He is the one that bears Beckmann’s own features, not the prodigal. The figure can be read as a witnessing presence: a common device in Beckmann’s work is the placement of the artist/observer at the margin or at some other restricted space. But perhaps this figure could also be read as the joyless son who stayed home, sourly ruminating on his brother’s debauchery. After all, in the gospel narrative the lurid picture we have of prostitutes comes from the accusation – and the imagination – of the jealous brother.

The parable and the painting both contain the light of hope (like the hint of a new dawn we glimpse through the window here). They also pose questions that can be hard to face: of what we covet, of how we judge, and of where we can lose ourselves as we grasp for what we consider ‘rightfully’ ours.

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Max Beckmann: The Prodigal Sonoil on canvas, 1949, Sprengel Museum Hannover, Germany.

Max Beckmann (1884-1950) is arguably the most significant German painter of the 20th century. He sought refuge from fascism and war in Amsterdam before moving to the USA, where he spent the final years of his life living and working as a teacher of art in St. Louis and New York City, where this work was painted. Beckmann was baptised into the Lutheran church but did not adhere to any formal religious doctrine, instead exploring profound philosophical, theological and metaphysical questions throughout his life’s work. Many of his late works, like this one, have a retrospective quality, with the artist reflecting on the experiences of youth and of the traumatic experiences of war, loss and displacement. The weary melancholy of the man far from home is poignant in the work of an artist in exile, at the age of 65, just a year before his own death.

Deborah Lewer, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. She is a specialist in modern German art and in the relationship between art and theology.

ArtWay Visual Meditation June 20, 2021