TRIUMPH OVER THE WILL
MAX BECKMANN, DEPARTURE, 1932-33
(Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Dream-like and nightmarish, Max Beckmann’s triptych Departure is a complex Modernist concerto of horror and hope. Its music is as jarring as anything by Berg or Schoenberg, and like all the masterpieces of Modernism–from Picasso’s Cubist canvases to the novels of James Joyce–its innovative structure and original symbolic language present extreme challenges to interpretation. Because Departure was painted in Germany at the time of the Nazi takeover, and because Beckmann later fled to Amsterdam after his works were included in the Nazis’ infamous ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition, this triptych is often understood as the artist’s response to an era of blind conformity and sadistic violence. While on one level this political interpretation must be accurate, it fails to account for the surreal strangeness of the work. If Beckmann had wanted to make a statement about Nazism, he could have conceived images much more pointed and effective than a fairy tale king in a boat and a blindfolded bellhop holding a large fish. This is, after all, the same artist who in The Night (1918-19) gave us one of twentieth-century art’s most brutally direct images of torture. But in Departure Beckmann has (I can’t resist the expression) bigger fish to fry. The painting is not a political position paper; it is the expression of a worldview intended to be timeless and universal. In a letter to his dealer Beckmann spoke of the triptych in obscure, occult terms: "For me this painting is a kind of rosary, or a ring of colourless figures, who can glow when there is real contact and who tell me truths that I cannot express with words and did not know before. It can only speak to people who, consciously or not, have within them more or less the same metaphysical code."1 Like that other 1930's monument of Modernism, Finnegans Wake, Departure is an esoteric work, difficult for the uninitiated; it reveals its secrets only to those who can achieve "real contact" and see it glow with meaning.
This still leaves us with the problem of understanding the painting, of making that contact, of acquiring Beckmann’s "metaphysical code" (whatever that means). When I walk into the gallery where Departure hangs, my eyes are drawn immediately to the central panel. The lightest and brightest of the three, its overall design evokes an almost Matissean sense of calm. The beautiful blue of the foreground water, interrupted by the boat and people, continues above into the deep background, as clear and untroubled as the sky. The high horizon line, on which the king’s crown sits like a magical golden isle, is a sign of calm and equilibrium. This central panel is a place of peace–open, stable, unthreatening–a place of possibility. It is a world away from the side panels, where sadistic games are played out in cramped, enclosed theatres of cruelty. In the right panel we are literally in a theatre, watching a woman with a lamp walk across the stage while roped to the upside-down, half-naked corpse of a man who has been stabbed between the shoulder blades. The blindfolded bellhop follows close behind, and the trio is accompanied by a freaky, naked homunculus with a prominent penis. In the orchestra pit, a marching drummer beats the rhythm they all must follow. Across the triptych on the left panel, things are even worse. In a torture chamber decorated with columns that refer to traditional depictions of the Flagellation of Christ, a man tied to one of these columns has had both of his hands cut off. In the foreground a woman whose torn clothing suggests she has already been raped is bound and forced to kneel over a large crystal ball. The third victim of the curiously diminutive torturer (the head of his ax is bigger than his own head) stands with his back to us in a garbage can filled with water. Even the torturer, who should display all the freedom and cruelty of a god in this place, seems confined, dwarfed by his large victims and even by the still life of fruit beside him. My eyes stray back to the solace of the central panel, where I now focus on the strange helmeted man, whom I’ve decided to call ‘the knight,’ and the large fish in his hands. I also notice now, behind the woman, a third man almost completely hidden, only his cap and one eye visible. I step back to take in the entire triptych, glancing from panel to panel, figure to figure, trying to fit the pieces together, trying to see what it means.
One possible key to the symbolic code of Departure may lie in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. In the catalog of MOMA’s 2003 Beckmann retrospective, scholar Didier Ottinger tells us that the artist began reading Schopenhauer as a young man and that Beckmann’s "diary and correspondence testify to a real familiarity with the philosopher’s works."2 The core idea of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is stated in the title of his magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation. For Schopenhauer, the fundamental reality of the world and of all things, the thing-in-itself that we cannot perceive with our senses, is what he calls Will. This is a cruel, amoral, inhuman force that surges through and energizes the entire universe, causing creation and destruction, life and death, killing and reproduction. The best poetic evocation in English of Schopenhauerian Will is Dylan Thomas’s famous poem (written, coincidentally, about the same time that Beckmann was painting Departure):
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever...3
Since the force of Will is the ultimate reality, "the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole,"4 the world of material objects that appears to our senses is, according to Schopenhauer, a vast perceptual illusion. Everything we see and touch is a Representation created by Will; the world in which we live is a vast Matrix-like veil that conceals from human perception the terrible reality of this underlying force. Although Schopenhauer is commonly (and deservedly) seen as the great pessimist of modern philosophy, he does allow human beings a few paths of escape from the tyranny of Will. The contemplation of great beauty, whether in nature or in art, can lead to a lessening of the force upon individual human beings (this aesthetic loophole is probably the reason so many artists have been attracted to Schopenhauer’s thought). A more complete means of escape lies in the exceptional individual’s acknowledgment and denial of the power of Will, his renunciation of all sensual desire and adoption of a monkish asceticism. (Here is the link between Schopenhauer and Buddhism that interests many contemporary writers.) This denial of the Will, this turning away from the force that causes all human desires, leads ultimately to a denial of the will-to-live and the annihilation of the self–or as Buddhists call it, Nirvana.
The outer panels of Beckmann’s Departure can be understood as scenes from the triumph of Schopenhauerian Will. They portray a Will-world of cruelty, inhumanity and sexual sadism. The bellhop in his standardized uniform, marching blindfolded to the beat of the foreground drummer, is a lowly, comic opera version of all of society’s other men in uniform, from policemen to military officers, petty tyrants of conformity blinded by the specter of power. The woman with the lamp is a femme fatale, a black widow, her murdered male victim bound to her by the cords of sexual desire. The woman on the floor of the torture chamber is this murdered man’s counterpart, a female victim of male sexual sadism. The newspaper on which she kneels (part of the word "Zeitung" is visible–upside-down, of course–at right) and the large crystal ball into which she is forced to stare are equally symbols of illusion, representations that conceal–even in this place–the full horrors of Will.
To pass from either of these outer panels to the central one is to experience within this work that lessening of the force of Will that Schopenhauer found in the contemplation of beautiful things. Here the eye can pause and enjoy the pleasures of space and light. Here there is room to breathe. The king and his companions are departing from the world of Will, sailing away from unbounded cruelty and terror. While the people in the side panels are all imprisoned together, trapped in a dance of tormentor and tormented, the figures in the boat are more disengaged from one another, more complete as individuals–in a word, freer. The cords of desire that bind hands and bodies in the outer canvases are here transformed into ornamental jewelry: the king’s belt, the knight’s armbands, the woman’s bracelet and necklace. These people have slipped the bonds of Will, and we see the king in the process of relinquishing the objects of his desires: his left hand reaches behind him to release from his net a school of fish.
The fish is Max Beckmann’s signature symbol, appearing prominently in his paintings from 1921's The Dream through the works of his last years in America. Unlike the other objects in Beckmann’s symbolic repertoire–agave plant, candles, gramophone horn–the significance of which is never spelled out and almost certainly changes from painting to painting, there is a marked consistency in Beckmann’s use of the fish. In the late Fisherwomen (1948) we see his meaning most clearly. In an interior that may or may not be a brothel, three very scantily dressed women clutch to their bodies three stiff fish that resemble the outsized dildos of ancient Greek pornography. (The eighteenth-century ideologues of artistic classicism certainly didn’t have this sort of thing in mind!) The identification of fish with phallus is less obvious in Beckmann’s works of the 1930's, where the fish seems to symbolize a more generalized eroticism, a life force. In one corner of the great and bizarre painting Death (1938), a woman humps a giant fish to the accompaniment of an upside-down choir of angels in evening dress. In this composition centered around a corpse, the fish is life. Closer in time and subject matter to Departure, 1934's Journey on the Fish shows us a man and woman, each holding a mask representing the opposite gender, tied to two giant fish that fly through the air. Fish and people are descending sharply, frighteningly, toward a patch of black foreground that appears to be dry land. In the background a sailboat rests on the sea. The fish seem much more sinister in this painting, representatives of a potentially destructive erotic force very close to Schopenhauer’s Will.
In Departure this closeness becomes identity; the fish are symbols of Will. That’s why the king releases them and looks sharply away while doing so. There is no sentimentality, no wistfulness in this rejection of Will, this relinquishing of things he has acquired to satisfy his desires. The bellhop’s fish, as phallically stiff as those in Fisherwomen, signifies his subjection to Will in the form of sexual desire and thus links him with the very unhappy couple who share his stage. Because he carries the fish like a field marshal’s baton, it also plays a role in the parody of militarism implied by his uniform. Every symbol of worldly power is a symbol of Will. The fish that wriggles through a hole in the torturer’s ax places all the sadism of the torture chamber under the sign of Will. This is the force at its cruellest, the aspect that shows itself in warfare and psychosis, a mindless drive to rape, torture, mutilate and kill. The fish-ax is raised threateningly, but where it will fall remains ambiguous. Due to Beckmann’s Expressionistic distortion and flattening of space–an effect achieved by tilting the floor upward and making the background figures larger than those closer to us–we cannot tell if the ax is aimed at the man in the garbage can, at the man with no hands, or at that supremely incongruous platter of fruit.
And what the hell is this giant still life doing in the middle of a torture chamber, anyway? It appears before our eyes with all the clarity and unreality of something seen in a dream, and like a dream image, its incongruity may not startle us at first, so well does Beckmann integrate it into the composition. But the still life absolutely does not belong here. Art historian Peter Selz says, "Placed on a cart, [the still life] seems to be a prop, belonging either on a stage or in an artist’s studio."5 Like some demented waiter, Beckmann has rolled a fruit cart into a torture chamber. But this seemingly irrational, arbitrary image is in fact carefully calculated, as a consideration of the fruits’ symbolism will show. The first time I saw this painting I was struck by the resemblance between this still life–with its upright, phallic pear, scrotal apple and cluster of grapes like curly pubic hair–and the similarly sexualized cluster of fruits in the foreground of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. (Surely this can’t be a coincidence.) Like the fruit of the Demoiselles, Beckmann’s still life suggests an act of sexual violence. The torturer’s position and the splay-legged pose of the victim behind him imply that this handless man’s genitalia are about to be, or already have been, chopped off. The still life clearly represents these severed organs, a gruesome trophy of the triumph of Will. And the sexual symbolism doesn’t stop there. The shape of the pear stem rhymes with the tear at the back of the woman’s skirt and the pear itself symbolizes the penis that violated her. The apple stem cuts across its fruit in a way that suggests a vaginal opening, while the apple’s enclosed roundness seems more evocative of female sexuality than of the male sex organs. So we have a sexually complex still life with equally prominent male and female elements, and filling the space between them is a bunch of purple grapes. Looking at the grapes, we immediately notice that their color seems to have dyed the torturer’s shirt. A glance across the triptych shows us the same color on the bellhop’s uniform. The color purple is thus strongly associated with surrender to the amoral force of Will, and its presence in the still life symbolizes the role of Will–of desire, power, cruelty–in drawing men and women together and tearing them apart.
Since purple is symbolic of the surrender to Will in this painting, we should consider the way Beckmann orchestrates purples and dark blues across all three panels of his triptych. The color crosses the work in a zigzag pattern akin to that of the stairway in the background of the right panel. Beginning with the bellhop, the color falls down to the drummer’s pants, then turns and travels upward to the lighter tones of the king’s robe and the knight’s helmet. Crossing to the left panel, the color turns sharply downward and darkens, staining the planter behind the mutilated man, then moving on to the torturer’s shirt and the grapes. In an almost subliminal way, this movement of colors echoes the overall tilted composition of the triptych. The floors in both outer panels are tilted downward to the left, while the lines of the boat move noticeably upward from right to left. This gives the whole work a rolling, slightly seasick feel, as if we are also on the king’s boat, rocking to its rhythm. This tilting is especially evident at the gap between the center and right panels, where boat and stage floor descend toward each other and almost connect. Along with the king’s right hand gesture and the position of his head, both in some sense directed at the right panel, this points to a deeper unity between the three panels than was at first apparent. The bound and blindfolded people on the stage now seem almost able to step into the boat. There is an unsettling intimation that the central panel’s departure is not all that it seems.
If we look closely at the various hands portrayed in these three panels (Beckmann encourages us to do this by so prominently featuring a character whose hands have been chopped off), we will note that with only a few exceptions, all the characters either have their hands bound or are holding something. The hands are either constrained or grasping; either way, the people are victims of Will. Even in the boat the knight holds a large fish (to which we will return shortly), and the woman grasps her child who in turn reaches for his mother. The prominent exception to this rule is the king. Both of his hands are empty, signifying that he has moved beyond the desire to clutch and hold the things of this world. The minimal gesture by which he releases the fish is a movement of the fingers that leaves the palm of his hand free. With his other hand he makes a sign so subtle and complex that it is open to multiple interpretations. Peter Selz calls it "a magnificent gesture that rejects the despair of the side panels and at the same time points ahead to an unknown future."6 Derived from the traditional palm-outward sign of pacification (which appears in other works by Beckmann), the king’s gesture simultaneously calms, blesses and commands. The subtlety and understatement of both his gestures sets them apart from all the unsubtle things happening elsewhere in the work, and it also stands in sharp contrast to the gesture that was quickly becoming a symbol of Germany at the time Beckmann painted Departure: the straight-armed salute of Nazi loyalty. If there is a political message encoded in Beckmann’s work, it may lie here in the disparity between the artist’s image of calm, complex, intelligent leadership and the thuggish, hysterical displays of Hitler and his accomplices.
But even in the king’s boat all is not calmness and light; even here there are signs of Will. The dark blue cloak that still covers half the king’s body tells us that his denial of Will is far from complete. The mysterious helmeted knight is as large as the king, and in the composition he stands taller than his monarch. In contrast to the king’s spiky crown, the knight’s curved helmet is a functional thing, built for battle. The color of his cloak restates in a lighter key the blood of the mutilated man. And in his hands he holds a giant fish. Like the fruit in the left panel, this fish looks too large for its context, and the knight’s gesture is highly ambiguous. Is he about to toss the fish overboard or is he holding it before him like a giant erection? The fish’s angle and stiffness seem to favor the latter interpretation. Elsewhere in the boat, the woman’s phrygian cap, commonly understood as a symbol of freedom, also brings to mind the French Revolution and its associated terrors. Additionally, we might notice that the color of the central panel’s water is picked up by the water-filled garbage can in the torture chamber and that the top of the can tilts downward in a way that echoes the tilt of the boat. We are reminded of water’s frequent use as a torture tool and of the fact that while water is a symbol of life, it can also bring death. By including these various elements, I think Beckmann wants us to appreciate how easily the central panel might become either of the outer ones. With a beautiful woman positioned between two prominent men, a mysterious third man lurking in the background, a king with pacific tendencies and a brutal warrior sporting a fishy hard-on, things on this boat could take a very ugly turn. This place, too, could become a theatre of cruelty, and that possibility will always exist as long as there are human beings on the boat. Wherever there is life, there is Will.
The central panel must be understood as a vision of attempted escape. These five people are taking a chance at freedom, trying to create a calmer, more human world, one where Will is not eliminated (that would mean annihilation, the ultimate rejection of life) but controlled, brought under the sway of reason. Working in an age of Nazism and Stalinism (both weak and ignorant embraces of Will), Beckmann in the outer panels shows us the way the world is, and in the center panel, the way it could be–provided we are strong enough to hold the fascistic side of human nature in check. The king and his companions are making a departure, but their journey is a troubled, uncertain one. Their voyage may be impossible, but the attempt is all. The attempt is hope. With death all around them, they are betting on life.
1. Qtd. in Rainbird, ed., Max Beckmann, 108.
2. Ibid., 151.
3. Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 920.
4. Schopenhauer, World as Will, vol.1, 110.
5. Selz, Max Beckmann, 50.
6. Ibid., 52.