In 1937, Max Beckmann shipped the first of his monumental triptychs, Departure, to his New York dealer Curt Valentin. Valentin asked Beckmann to write an essay explaining the piece. Beckmann replied, "Remove this painting or return it to me, my dear Valentin. If people cannot understand it themselves with the help of their own inner world, it makes no sense to show the thing. . . . It can speak only to those who carry within them, consciously or unconsciously, a metaphysical code close to mine."
Would that subsequent observers had heeded Beckmann's invitation to understand. Instead, critics and curators alike have consistently insisted that Beckmann's work is dense, obscure and beyond interpretation.
Describing Beckmann's 1985 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Robert Hughes mystifies, thusly, "Even the most straightforward Beckmanns retain a certain inaccessibility at their core. . . . His more allegorical ones (especially the late triptychs) can be as inscrutable as Hieronymus Bosch. What is one to make of these clowns and fish and blind Oedipuses, caged women and mutilated statues, tarty cigarette girls and Greek headsmen?"
Or take Robert Storr, curator of the comprehensive Beckmann survey now at MoMA QNS: "The difficulties of interpretation posed by Departure are characteristic of the puzzling imagistic density of all Beckmann's work. . . . Many critics and scholars alike have struggled to pin down what Beckmann meant by particular, often recurring motifs. . . . Enthralled by the mystical doctrines of Theosophy, as well as by other esoteric traditions, to which diverse modernists such as Mondrian and Kandinsky were also drawn, Beckmann was well versed in the literature and principles of metamorphoses." At which point, Storr basically throws up his hands, contextualizing Beckmann in the horrors of World War I and the Nazi experience, but refusing to attempt a specific interpretation of Beckmann's triptychs.
Perhaps an examination of Theosophy, long discredited by art historians, not unjustifiably, as a muddled, sham cult (not unlike Matthew Barney in content!) can provide some clues to the meanings Beckmann clearly, as his own words attest, thought the viewer should see.
Founded by an obscure, chain-smoking, overweight "Russian noble woman," Madame H.P. Blavatsky, Theosophy incorporates every tradition of secret knowledge from the asp of Cleopatra to Zoroaster. Madame Blavatsky published its urtext, Isis Unveiled, in 1878. The book, which we slogged through for this essay, is a 1,000-page concordance of the aforementioned mystic traditions.
Subsequently, Blavatsky was discredited by the New York Evening Sun and a few London newspapers for a series of sances proved bogus in a scandal dubbed "The Mahatma Papers." Broken, she died soon afterwards.
Nevertheless, Theosophical societies in Paris, Brussels, Florence and Amsterdam, among others, flourished at the turn of the century, inspired by the texts of Theosophists such as Annie Besant and Rudolph Steiner, which are still read today.
What is Theosophy? Its beliefs include a female god, Isis, who antedates patriarchal civilization, and female adepts, such as Theoclea, priestess of Delphi, who dish out the secrets of redemption to initiates. D.H. Lawrence's novella The Man Who Died, in which Christ fakes his death and resurrection, only to join the cult of Isis, is the perfect primer, here.
The key to Theosophical being and transcendence is the triune. Every sentient being can be described as a triangle -- the two points at each end of its base are mutable: the body, subject to defilement and extinction, and the soul, eternally in transformation.
At the top of the triangle is the immutable spirit, which like a divine puppeteer supervises the interactions of body and soul. In Theosophical tradition, the triptych is the essential narrative of salvation and self-realization.
Theosophists also revere and allegorize color, whose meanings are derived from alchemy (of which Beckmann was a notable devotee). There are four Theosophical colors: blue, representing the highest spiritual aspirations; red, symbolizing greed, lust, avarice, jealousy; yellow, rationalism and the intellect; and green, the natural self. Different shades of the four basic hues enhance or degrade their associations -- for example, olive green may denote self-centeredness, and azure blue a special purity.
Armed with the Theosophical template can we now take a stab at interpreting Max Beckmann's work? First, let's remember a few salient facts about Max. The Modernist narrative (Matisse/Picasso, et al.) has obscured the fact that Beckmann was a monumentally successful painter during his lifetime. His work sold consistently at high prices; he was the centerpiece of Alfred Barr's 1932 New York survey of German art; Beckmann's Departure graced the new MoMA building on West 53rd Street and was a permanent talisman on view for the next seven decades; Beckmann's first show in London, after his exile to Amsterdam, was an international success.
It is thus important to acknowledge Beckmann's stature when divining the intent behind his self-portraits and the personal narrative, which comprises his triptychs. He knew his own worth.
Secondly, and this is a touchy area, in spite of the fact that 21 of Beckmann's pieces were included in Hitler's "Degenerate Art" show, his stature allowed him to live, first in Paris, and then in Amsterdam (much as Picasso lived in Paris), under Nazi occupation, without being exterminated.
Contributing to this partial inoculation was the basic fact that a lot of Theosophical theology dovetailed with Nazi mysticism. Many Theosophists, for example, believed that Richard Wagner was "the last of the initiates." Italian Futurism, grounded in Theosophy, was a precursor to Mussolini, and the return to nature and the reification of female fecundity characteristic of the Nazi vlk were also elements of Theosophy.
This uncomfortable affinity touches on Beckmann in one small, but significant, element of interpretation. While observers such as Storr, Robert Hughes, Michael Kimmelman and Richard Lacayo emphasize the effects of World War I, Nazi hegemony in Europe, and personal exile on Beckmann's work, they are not the "raison d'etre" per se -- these human depredations made perfect, eternal sense in Beckmann's Theosophical worldview -- indeed, they were the grounding of his own personal salvation, the uniform subject of his greatest work.
The study of Beckmann's triptychs begins with his self-portraits. Whether in a tuxedo or a sailor suit, Beckmann depicts himself with a forbidding authority. He is a confident adept, a bold initiate, whose skills on earth confirm his chosen spiritual status.
In the recent auction record-breaker, Self-Portrait with Horn, a severe Max, robed like a tiger, glares into the back end of a horn -- he is asking himself if this is, or even if there is, a horn of plenty, akin to an alchemist looking at base metal in search of the philosopher's stone, the ever-flowing stuff of eternal life.
Like portraits of Christ or Buddha, Beckmann's self-portraits introduce us to the central character of the triptychs, Max the Theosophical pilgrim and his passion, his progress to spiritual transfiguration.
Like Renaissance altars, Beckmann's triunes must be read as narratives, the right panel first, the left panel second, with the center panel as the final resolution.
In Beckmann's first triptych, Departure, for example, the goddess Isis, in the right panel, symbolized by her flowing hair, white robe, lamp and exposed breast, journeys to Earth (Depicted by Beckmann, typically, as a stage with stairs to heaven and back) strapped to the initiate Beckmann, disdainfully brushing by a blindfolded usher with a fish, symbolizing male, earthly lust.
For her pains, as the left panel shows us, Isis is bound and trussed. The bottom triunic elements of the pilgrim Beckmann are also savaged on Earth -- his hands, part of his mortal body, cut off, a horrific fate for an artist, his soul, bound and tossed into a garbage can.
Nevertheless, hope thrives as a dualism in the left panel of Departure. An exotic bird, always, however violently employed, a symbol of theosophical resurrection, lingers in the background.
The fruit of knowledge is ever present, and primitive wisdom, symbolized by a Moorish journeyman, wields his hobo's sack on a stick-like a weapon. This earthly sadism, the artist promises, will also pass.
Salvation emerges triumphantly in the resplendent blue seas and sky of the central panel, as the characters from the first two panels are transfigured. Isis, the eternal mother, stares confidently back at us. The blind usher becomes a steadfast tribune of sexual potency and piscine nourishment. The top of the Theosophical triune, the immovable spirit master, is depicted as a resplendent king in ultramarine.
And where is Beckmann?
He is the baby, of course, reborn in a heavenly Bethlehem, cuddled in the arms of primitive wisdom, formerly the hobo in the left panel.
That wasn't so difficult was it?
Let's pause for comment from Beckmann himself: "You should consider mortal danger as an agreeable titillation, and love as an especially valuable pastime. No more than that. Always keep your eyes fixed on the main thing; on the lodestar: freedom and justice are indeed ideas that merit a try at realization."
And this: "In spite of the general tragedy one has to rely on the infinite justice in all things."
Departure was the first of Beckmann's triptychs, The Argonauts the ninth, and last. In between, Beginnings, for example, depicts the artist's childhood and Actors the limits of wisdom and beauty in the context of Max's own mortality, both physical and creative.
Theosophists revered the myth of Jason, the Argonauts and the quest for the Golden Fleece. In both alchemy and Theosophy the Golden Fleece, an animal-based parchment like vellum, was believed to hold the instructions for turning base metals into gold, the philosopher's stone.
In the right panel of The Argonauts, we see the Delphic temple itself, full of nubile priestesses, creating the music, the core of wisdom. In the left panel, the artist's eternal soul paints under the wrath of Isis, ready to wield the sword of mortality. She is sitting on Beckmann's mortal head, which she presumably already decapitated.
The central panel completes the body-soul-spirit ascending triune. Beckmann's soul climbs the ladder to eternity. To the right a young, nude, virile Max Beckmann, with a full head of hair, converses with his spirit controller, placidly holding the bird of resurrection in his arm.
Beckmann the Argonaut has journeyed across the horizon, to become, forever, the young warrior, the adept, the initiate, in full flower.
We can only hope, for our own destinies, that he made it.
"Max Beckmann," June 26-Sept. 29, 2003, at MoMA QNS, 33rd Street at Queens Boulevard, Long Island City, Queens, N.Y.
CHARLE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).