Sunday, April 18, 2010

Authority Over Demons

Click to enlarge

I don't know the title of this Beckmann painting, but it's apparent, to the one who gives a few more seconds' pure observation, that it is of Christ expelling the demons from the Magdalene.

Beckmann is not here describing or illustrating a Gospel scene though. He rejects sinuous, nimble lines and balanced spaces and shows his spite for the too deft, too intuitive hand, that so easily turns out an oh-so-carefully manicured beauty. He renders down and compresses; makes the picture plane one solid unit. You're on your own here; the artist is not going to help you.

He does you the service of not getting in the way, paradoxically by going at it from his own unique muscularity, going ahead as it were, like a dynamiter hewing out a path through stone, and letting you do the fine tuning.

Look how serene and immovable Christ is: he is the very cornerstone of the painting's composition. Look at the Magdalene, in the instant of her release: her hands in something like the Orans position, illuminated by Christ's light. And look at those demons! These are not flighty ghosts, but contorted, nasty, massive figures now revealed with the withdrawing of a thin partition.

"My heart beats more for a raw, average vulgar art, which doesn't live between sleepy fairy-tale moods and poetry but rather concedes a direct entrance to the fearful, commonplace, splendid and the average grotesque banality in life." --Max Beckmann

Image Source


Enbrethiliel said...


I confess that I don't know how to appreciate (what I'd describe as) in-your-face art, which is every bit as "raw" and "vulgar" as the kind Beckmann says he prefers.

If this had a basis in words, like the novels A Clockwork Orange and Trainspotting, I'd have a better handle on it; but I'm afraid a painting like this, without someone to explain it to me, would just make me turn away.

Just yesterday I was writing about the place of beauty in the creative arts, even as I acknowledged that some of my favourite books are deliberately ugly. I guess I'd rather have ugliness with character than a simpering prettiness with nothing behind it . . . but then I come face to face with a painting I'd probably not look twice at, which someone whose opinion I respect says deserves so much more consideration.

Paul Stilwell said...

Very interesting. It does seem that this - let's just call it "ugliness" for now for want of a better word - this ugliness does have better "access" in the art form of novels, like A Clockwork Orange and Trainspotting (books I have yet to read), while there is an immediacy in visual art; a communication that happens in an instant, which is something else altogether.

Beckmann was hard for me when I first came across him. He was indeed so stark, but as with Georges Rouault (whose work shares many similarities with Beckmann, though both are very different; I believe the two actually met in Paris) he simply grew on me.

For the most part, I hate in-your-face art. (And I hate Picasso; Beckmann also hated him.) I would try, *try*, to explain Beckmann as not being in-your-face, at least not in the manner that so many others seek to be, but the fact is, he *is* in-your-face, as you say. But the thing is, he earns it. It is an in-your-face that reminds me of one character in The Napolean of Notting Hill explaining what it was like getting bowled down by a mob: "When something happens, it happens first; and then you see it."

I think ultimately Beckmann was drawn by beauty and glory, but he wanted to make sure he did not disclude the "average banality", which he wanted to stare through until it ceased being banal.

And there is much to consider in Beckmann's work! He made lots; his work spans, generally, three stages - all of them with so much variety, and so many of his paintings have stunning beauty and heroic earnestness. Perceiving coherence and intelligibility in the world around him, Beckmann was the ultimate artist as searcher. The number of self-portraits he painted is second only to Rembrandt!

Enbrethiliel said...


You make it sound so beautiful. I wish I could go through a gallery of Beckmann's work with you to tell me all about them.

The "banality" in Beckmann is very different from the "ugliness" I can understand when I find it in literature. It has just occurred to me, moreover, that I wouldn't say either Anthony Burgess or Irvine Welsh are searchers. (Burgess was more of a determined struggler . . . and I don't know enough about Welsh to qualify my humble opinion that he doesn't really believe in anything.) What I see in the two books I've cited is an abstract--almost legalistic--sense of the rightness of something (or the wrongness of something else). They are arguing with their readers--and they tend to win every time!

Paul Stilwell said...

If both of us are in a city that happens to hold a Beckmann exhibit in one its galleries or museums, then it's a date!

Of course I would be babbling my head off with excitement the whole time, since my experience of his original work would be as fresh as yours. I understand his canvases are big - lifesize.

I remember you writing about Burgess struggling against, or trying his best to struggle against, his Catholicism; though from what I understand you are saying, both are struggling with a sense of rightness that is insufficient, not real enough. (The reader's complacency about virtue and goodness is challenged?) Or am I off the mark here?

"Struggle" and "Search" are so subtly different, aren't they?

Enbrethiliel said...


It's more as if Burgess and Welsh see a certain level of hypocrisy (or simply faulty reasoning) in society's views of good and evil, and find the most visceral way possible to point that out.

In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess completely disagrees with the idea that people can be "made" good through external methods, like art therapy. (LOL!)

In Trainspotting, Welsh explains that nobody is going to "choose life" when they see it as some mundane, bourgeois trap and drugs as their only escape. Yet his stance seems very different from Beckmann's, who would have embraced that "average banality" which Welsh's characters reject.