Galleria Umberto, By Max Beckmann
"Modern artists generally avoid anecdotal subjects. Occurrences that happened only once are shunned as thematic material. History, once the lifeblood of academic art, is not as popular with twentieth-century painters.
"We know that Mussolini was killed on April 28, 1945, by Italian partisans, and subsequently hung by his feet in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. But do we wish such gruesome "great moments in history" to be immortalized? However, this scene was painted by Beckmann twenty years before Mussolini's death!
"Erhard Gopel, an art critic who often visited Beckmann in wartime Amsterdam, gives the following account: "When, in 1925, he promenaded through the Galleria Umberto in Naples, he saw the flood of fascism rising, he saw carabinieri saving drowning people and a body hung upside down by ropes. He saw this in broad daylight. When Mussolini's fall was reported, he fetched the painting from the closet and showed it in his studio. He considered it a vision even before he knew that he had also foreseen the manner of the dictator's end - hanging head down."
"Galleria Umberto contains many odd features, the strangest of which is the crystal ball hanging from the glass ceiling. Did Beckmann have clairvoyance in mind when he invented this translucent globe? Consciously, he probably wanted only to satirize the Italy of 1925. The fascists' murder of Matteotti was widely interpreted as a storm signal just then, and Beckmann feared that gay vacationland Italy' symbolized by the mandolin, the bather, and the tootling blonde, might be swamped by political repression. An Italian flag is drowning already in the foreground.
"Expressionist art offers several examples of this uncanny "second sight," the most literal being Ludwig Meidner's views of bombed and burning cities painted in 1913. Beckmann pictured the Frankfurt synagogue in 1919 with its walls slanting as if they might topple at any moment. But we need not really ascribe supernatural powers to artists. Fantasy, in itself already a miraculous faculty, suffices to explain many predictions, such as Tennyson's when he "Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,/Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales ;/ . . . and there rain'd a ghastly dew/From the nations' airy navies...." Tennyson, who died in 1892, did not see his prophecy come true. Beckmann did." --Stephen Lackner
Beckmann was in the U.S. for only three years before he died in 1950. He painted Falling Man when he moved to New York in 1949:
Note the burning building with billowing smoke.
Throughout his life, Beckmann kept an unfinished painting of his (which he never finished); an image of the resurrection of the dead:
Peter Selze writes of it:
"The sun is an extinguished black disc and there is little light to brighten the pallid gray of the scene. Elongated figures reminiscent of El Greco emerge from the bursting pavements. Some of them are actual portraits: we recognize the Beckmanns and the Battenbergs on the lower right. Higher up are ghostlike figures who are distorted in their foreshortening as seen from below. These specters in their war bandages and the winding sheets of the dead stalk across the ruins. As the eye follows the linear intertwine across the ever-shifting planes, we move from scene to scene and are again reminded of the frames in a film. But the montage Beckmann has prepared for us seems to look ahead to the total destruction of cities twenty-five years later.---
"Beckmann worked on this picture for three years, from 1916 until 1918, when he left it unfinished. He kept it standing upright in his studio in Frankfurt and facing outward, so that he and his visitors constantly saw it. It serves as a major source for the dramatis personae of his later works with their flying, foreshortened figures, stylized gestures, hooded garments. Ambitious in size as well as meaning, preoccupied with death and transfiguration, but enigmatic in iconography, it is the prototype of the triptychs [Beckmann's later triptych pieces]. When Beckmann had to leave his large studio in Frankfurt in 1933, he took it off its stretcher, rolled it up, and carried it to Berlin, Amsterdam, St. Louis, and New York; he would doubtless have liked to be commissioned to complete it."
In a letter in 1915, Beckmann wrote:
"Last night I had a wonderful apocalyptic dream again. Now probably just about my twentieth.
"The two of us [presumably him and his first wife] were on a wide road, something like a mountain pass, that seemed to run along an endless ridge. We were in hasty flight from something or other. In the infinite vault of the sky, strange raylike white clouds, unbelievably huge in size and dense, compressed in form, could be seen against a sky that glowed metallic white and was illuminated by some unknown light. These white clouds had strange, black cores that spun incredibly far away. From these, the rays emerged that illuminated weirdly, unspeakably remote spaces. These were then broken down more by deep shadows.
"Everything seemed as if it were dissolved in a sensation of "the new."
"My candle is flickering and reminds me to go to bed. The singers have become silent as well. The second day of Pentecost is at an end, and the Holy Spirit once again has been poured out over peaceable lands."