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Art and Images in Psychiatry
September 2013

Departure: Max Beckmann

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(9):893-894. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.2005

Departure, yes departure, from the illusions of life toward the essential realities that lie beyond…. It is to be said that Departure bears no tendentious meaning—it could well be applied to all times.

Max Beckmann1(p53)

On July 19, 1937, the day after hearing Adolf Hitler’s radio broadcast announcing the opening of the House of German Art, renowned expressionist Max Beckmann (1884-1950) and his wife Quappi fled Berlin for the Netherlands. They were never to return to Germany. The House of German Art, the first building erected by the new regime, would show only the finest art, that approved by the Third Reich, and none by modern artists now deemed degenerate. Hitler raved against decadent modern artists like Beckmann in his radio address. He demeaned modern artists, claiming that they see “our people as decadent cretins” and distort the world by painting meadows blue, skies green, and clouds sulfur yellow. Hitler ordered the Minister of the Interior to “prevent at least the further hereditary propagation of these gruesome optical disturbances.”2(p26) Thus, modern artists, along with people with mental illnesses, were targeted for sterilization in the Nazi eugenics campaign.3

The Degenerate Art exhibition (Entartete Kunst) opened at the Institute of Archeology in Munich nearby the House of German Art the day the Beckmanns departed.4 It was a collection of more than 650 paintings, sculptures, prints, and books taken from 32 public museums from all over Germany and chosen from more than 16 000 works deemed to be degenerate. Because avant-garde art was equated by the National Socialists (ie, the Nazis) with art by insane persons, works of modern art were hung side by side in the exhibition with art by psychiatric patients for direct comparison.4 Entering the first room, museumgoers were greeted by Beckmann’s Decent From the Cross, described as sacrilegious, and his Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, described as undermining family values. Overall, 10 of Beckmann’s best known paintings and 11 of his lithographs and etchings were on display. With this public condemnation of his art, there was no possibility of Beckmann remaining in Germany.

Such treatment was unbearable for an artist of Beckmann’s stature. He expressed his interest in art as a child when he traded his tin soldiers for paints. His talent was clearly recognized by the age of 16. At the age of 22 in 1906, he won the coveted Villa Romana Prize for a 6-month residence in Florence, Italy.1 By 1913, he was giving solo exhibits and compared by critics to Rubens, Rembrandt, and Delacroix.

In 1915, Beckmann enlisted as a medical orderly during World War I. Traumatized by the carnage he witnessed, he had a “nervous breakdown” and was discharged. His traumatic experiences as a medic resulted in a lifelong hatred of militarism.2 Afterward, his entire outlook on life and art changed. Critics expressed renewed admiration for his new style of art.

In 1925, Beckmann was designated master teacher at the Frankfurt Museum of Applied Art. In 1932, a special room devoted to his work was opened at the National Gallery in Berlin. Then, in 1933, overnight, with Hitler’s rise to power, Beckmann lost everything. He was forced to resign his teaching position at the School for Applied Art in March 1933. Later that year, the Beckmann room in the Berlin Museum was closed, and his art exhibits in Germany were cancelled. More than 500 of his paintings were confiscated for being degenerate art.

Max Beckmann (1884-1950), German. Departure, 1932-1933. Oil on canvas, 3 panels: center panel 215.3 × 115.2 cm (843/4 × 453/8 in) and side panels 215.3 × 99.7 cm (843/4 × 391/4 in) each. The Museum of Modern Art New York, NY. © 2013 Artists Rights Society, New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany.

Departure is the first of 9 triptychs Beckmann completed during his lifetime.5,6 He started it in May 1932, before the Nazis came to power, and completed it in Berlin on December 31, 1933. The columns in the left side panel suggest a pagan temple where cruel and unreflective demonic forces are at work in human nature. Its scenes of anguish and torture bring to mind the actions of the Nazi political police. The central figure is an executioner wielding a weapon that, at first glance, is a bludgeon but, on closer inspection, is found to be a bundle of fish. He is wearing a striped polo shirt instead of a uniform. Kessler5 suggests that the man’s face, stocky body, short neck, and squarish head indicate that Beckmann is depicting himself. His apparent sacrificial victim is a bound woman who is kneeling over a glass globe. The painted still life of fruit resting on the adjacent studio cart is consistent with the executioner being an artist. The sacrificial female victim who is threatened may be an artist’s model, metaphorically illustrating the sacrifice of creative art in Germany. But the artist executioner refuses to be complicit in this sacrifice and proves this by wielding a bludgeon harmlessly made up of fish heads; his posture is for show. At the upper left, another bound person has been discarded and placed in a trash can. Adjacent to him sits a severely mutilated and gagged man tied to a column. His hands are cut off, and he holds up his bloody arm stumps. Do these helplessly immobilized, powerless victims represent other artists who passively complied and surrendered their freedom without resistance and now suffer the consequences?

The right side panel suggests a stage. The central figure is a somnolent woman holding a lamp. A man is turned upside down and is bound to her, encumbering her. To this bound couple’s left a distorted child is making a shameful gesture. A blindfolded usher stands by them holding out a thin green fish. Finally, an ermine-collared drummer marching in the foreground may represent the parades and fanfare associated with Hitler’s assent when the populace was called on to follow the drumbeat of the fürher. All here have lost their freedom.5

The center panel shows a boat, a vehicle to freedom. The central figures are the majestic king and a tall primal boatman wearing a gold armband and a horn-shaped red sash; his face is hidden. He is holding a large fish between his outstretched arms. A queen, resembling Quappi, is holding a child. She wears a Phrygian cap, which is symbolic of freedom. The king, wearing a 3-pointed crown, holds out his right hand in blessing. Next to the mother and child there is a large, partially hidden unidentifiable male figure. The king, whose net is full of fish, gazes across the sea. His raised gesture of blessing rejects the despair of the side panels and points ahead to an unknown future. Beckmann told friends that the queen carries the greatest treasure (ie, freedom, represented by the child in her lap). Freedom is what matters—it is the goal of the departure, the new start. The fish, so prominent in all 3 panels, is for Beckmann5 a primal symbol of the masculine creative force. Its meaning depends on context. In the side panels, it is associated with raw brutality, but in the center panel, it is associated with redemption.5,6

Beckmann remained in Amsterdam throughout the war years and secretly continued to paint. In 1947, the Beckmanns immigrated to the United States, where he was given a permanent appointment as professor of painting at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In New York on December 26, 1950, Beckmann finished his last triptych, The Argonauts.5 It brings the cycle begun with Departure to completion. It too is a departure but a planned, calm one. In The Argonauts, as proposed earlier for Departure, the left side panel represents an artist studio with an artist at his easel. His model sits on a large mask with Beckmann’s face on it. The right side panel shows a joyous performance of a woman’s chamber orchestra. The central figure in the center panel, no longer hidden as in Departure, is now revealed to be a wise old man, who, like Beckmann, having endured many trials, rises up from the sea to advise the next generation of travelers. The morning after completing The Argonauts, Beckmann died while on his morning walk near Central Park. His death by myocardial infarction came at the peak of his creative powers. Safe, secure, and free in America, his last 3 years of life were the happiest times of his life.

Section Editor: James C. Harris, MD
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Article Information

Corresponding Author: James C. Harris, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1800 Orleans St, Baltimore, MD 21287 (jharri10@jhmi.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

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