Thursday, January 12, 2012

Max Beckmann’s Wonderful World of Decadence

“Oh, my friends, that your self be in your deed as the mother is in her child—let that be your word concerning virtue.”
            -Thus Spake Zarathustra (pg. 209)

            Far be it from most Americans to admit that Hitler bestowed the U.S. with any lasting gifts at all. That’s understandable. Besides the ideological offspring of National Socialism they unwittingly revere hiding beneath several contemporary political cloaks, few Americans know that we have at least one reason to be thankful for the historical existence of the Third Reich.

In his purge of everything exceptional, of everything wonderful and strange and beautiful—like tobacco—Hitler terrified one of the most talented German artists of the time to scurry away from Europe altogether: Max Beckmann
As Der Furhrer declared a war on degenerate art, poor Max, one of the few artists in world history to make a living for himself while he was still alive, took a hint that the German feds were not impressed with his work after they confiscated 500 of his paintings. Luckily for us, they chose not to burn them. And Max traversed to live the next ten years of his life as an expatriate in Amsterdam. And in poverty.
He attempted several times to immigrate to the U.S., but our own government closed its doors of freedom and justice on him until the war was over. He lived his remaining three years in St. Louis, Missouri. Had it not been for Adolf’s jealous, spiteful scourge on modern artists, who were all greater human beings than him, Max probably would not have bothered leaving his successful career or homeland as a painter in Germany to eventually reside in St. Louis.
Thanks, Hitler.
"The Carnival"
And in light of how poor Max’s life and work was nearly destroyed by the Nazis, we can reflect on his art as a statement to the metaphysical terror of modernity. Indeed, what makes Max’s paintings so captivating are their metaphysical screams emitted straight from the dark depths of a human throat plagued by an unknown STD yet universally understood by every living human being born with a set of genitals and an affirming desire for life itself.
"Carnival Mask"
 Let us consider the lusty colors of The Carnival, the title itself a reference to our flesh and hesitant celebration of finitude, as each set of the three equally-portioned walls reveals a reality torn between the mythology of ancient barbarism—perhaps the fall of the civilized Western world, either the Roman Republic or 1930s Europe—and the contemporary quest for meaning. The fiery reds and orange hues of each floor bring us to a world beneath the surface of everyday affairs, a world in which the heat of pleasure and painful consequences of sex unite in an awkward necessity—notice the knives in each wall, surely a mark of rape if not the confirmation that the act of sex itself is anything but a peaceful deed of unity between human beings. Sex is violence. And sex is necessary for the survival of the human race. Thus… 
But does Beckmann despair? Does he renounce the horrors of human existence? On the contrary, he affirms them!  His degenerate paintings push us to ask, “Yes, this is what humanity has produced, and it’s ugly. But why can’t ugliness be as bright and as vibrant as beauty?” Notice the disproportionate shoulders, arms and torso next to the head of the girl in Carnival Mask. We do not care what thoughts may exist within this woman’s small head. We care far more for what lies between her open legs after the card game is finished. Yet, so does she, we can presume, despite the mask hiding her face. In Beckmann’s seedy world—our world—the uncanny world of our deepest, darkest secrets are embarrassing, yes, but they are also true, they are real, and human life would probably be far less colorful were they burned out of existence in one of Hitler’s funeral pyres dedicated to the death of human differences.
"The Skulls"
In Beckman’s Three Skulls we are reminded of a Dia De Los Meurtos scene, the skulls a stern reminder of what awaits every single one of us, the cards another hint of how futile life itself might be—don’t get mad, it’s just a game. These images paste themselves flat against a two-dimensional perspective—a protest of Van Gogh’s expressionism—the father of Max’s movement, the “New Sobriety” of a post-expressionistic art world, one which sees little difference between what we “really see” and what is “really real”. To deny the unnerving chance of this movement’s perspective—one among many—is to sip the highly intoxicating elixir that Hitler’s Third Reich spooned en mass to the entire world—the presumption of “knowing” what’s real and true for every single living human being on the face of the earth.
Courbet's "Origin of the World"
Beckmann was known for his multitudinous collection of self-portraits. In the one of which I am most fond he sucks hard on the last drag of a cigarette from his canoe-like, triangular fingers. His oriental eyes peer at what we can only assume to be a carnival of one form or another, a show, a concert or the spontaneous order which erupts when, we strange creatures of the night, gather not to assemble, but to dance.  He does not wear a mask. He is the watcher. He is the artist who paints his own masks in a world that refuses to acknowledge how many of them we wear everyday. And the beauty of Beckmann’s art—besides the obvious orange’s and lavender’s he brushes into his Joker-like suits—is a recognition of sublimity that cannot be found in our average day-to-day world, but in the one beneath it.  His beauty is the affirmation of our secrets and our passions, ugly as they may be. If they lack a virtuous or noble content, if they avoid an ideal or even realistic rendering of what we wish to see, at least his work says, well, fuck it. Let us eat, drink and be merry even if decadence itself is the only offered serving.
In other words, Beckmann takes the obsessive, clashing colors of Van Gough— one-ear Vincent’s declaration of beauty and joy and life despite its sorrow and anguish and death—only to apply such technique to the gruesome subjects of, say, Gustave Courbet. Whereas Courbet rendered a new realism—a realism of the ugly—with all the primal force depicted in The Origin of the World, to reveal our reality as one that is grotesque; Beckmann says, “Give me a grotesque world, and I will show one at once as dark as the earthy crevice from which we were born, and yet as bright as the sun-soaked skies to which our spirits ascend.” 
We breath the blue air of those same skies everyday. It is our world. Even if it is an underground world of decadence. A world Hitler despised. And what a wonderful world it is.    

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