Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Max Beckmann

The Night, 1918-19
Oil on canvas 133 x154cm

Centre Pompidou, Paris
3rd November 2002

I saw the Max Beckmann retrospective twice, in Paris and then again in London at Tate Modern. Interesting that they had different approaches to the exhibition and the contextual background for the paintings was much stronger in Paris. They included archive film footage from the front of World War I (Trouvay: A Gas Attack) and explained that Beckmann like other Neue Sachlichkeit artists, had enlisted believing that war could cleanse society.

The handout ascertained that Beckmann considered expressionism was aloof from the social reality of it’s time and that the New Objectivity was too close to journalism. Beckmann is consequently a bit of a ‘loner, drawing from history and from his intimate reveries a meaning that could illuminate human destiny’[1].

This work was painted after his rejection of military service and his first hand experience of the madness of war. I am not sure I find it melancholic, perhaps in the sense that as far as man’s inhumanity to man goes, nothing has changed.

The painting depicts a complex scene of torture in what looks like an attic room with a black night seen through the window. It is full of grisly detail; on the left, a man is hung by one of the torturers, and his arm twisted by another. A woman, perhaps the man's wife, is bound to a pillar. On the right, a young girl (daughter?) clings to another who is clutching her leg as she peers at her parents' suffering. There is another woman in the background, partially hidden by the main protagonists. There is a howling dog under the table. None of the gazes are directed at the viewer, the dog howls out of the left side of the canvas and is balanced by a torturer keeping watch out of the right side of the canvas. All the others are within the space. In the foreground is a gramophone, presumably to drown out the screams of the victims and two candles, one lit (perhaps in a glimmer of hope) the other snuffed out.

The grisly scene is matched by his composition and brushwork. All the figures and objects in the room have spiky black outlines and seem almost fractured to fit into the tight space. Strange things are happening spatially, the woman is in the foreground of the room, yet her wrists are tied to a stanchion at the back of the room. There are flashes of colour and these seem to be the only aspect that is in balance in the painting.

[1] Unattributed handout for the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou Brian Holmes credited as translator

©blackdog 2009


  1. Even to look at this cruel painting is painful- a look into a crommed-full room, a kind of torture chamber you cannot escape- you have described very exactly -en detail- this bloody scene without any moral standards and values, a scene probably reminding of the tortures during the Great War which the painter might have experienced himself or have heard of- or the sad situation after the war as such a lot of hurted and disabled persons (see Otto Dix) were seen on the streets and violent conflicts between different political groups broke out (killing dissenters, e.g. communists; on the other side: wild-crazy life-excesses like during carnival)- the red colour for example could hint to the bloody tortures (violation), to the communists who were persecuted, some joy of life...- it is a horrible, totally perverted world- for us, the viewers, also a hint to the following horrible times during the nazi-regime/WWII -a painting provoking and moving like "Guernica"! The term "melancholy" sounds therefore - in my ears- too harmless- light-hearted- anger, angst, desperation, deep sadness, powerlessness...- that are feelings which might be evoked by this very hard looking painting!Your analysis has emphazised that feeling and intention.

  2. The original of this painting can be seen in "Die Kunstsammlung Nordrhein- Westfalen Düsseldorf", and I read an interpretation considering this pic in a booklet I bought some years ago there - Interesting is the remark that Beckmann could be influenced by late medieval altars( such a lot of figures, cruel scenes of martyrs, crucifixion...) or the torture scenes of Alessandro Magnasco. The painting is not any description of the war, but it as created being under the ban of the horrors of the war.

  3. Interesting point about the influence of altar pieces. I wondered about the black outlines and stained glass windows. I don't know the work of Magnasso so will look him up. Must admit to struggling with writing this one. The painting was really powerful, but you are right that emotion goes way beyond melancholia.