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by Donald Kuspit
Chapter 4, Parts 2 & 3
Esthetics against Barbarism: The Fourth Decade


Guernica is perhaps the climactic work of avant-garde art made during the first half of the 20th century, but it is not the only one made that tries to use esthetics against barbarism. Perhaps more subtly, it is not the only work integrating the artist's inner drama with that of the violent, threatening outer world, as though to do so was to adapt to it and thus survive in it. Nor is it the only work that was monumental in scale, as though that would guarantee its universal import. Max Beckmann's grand Departure (1932-33), the first of nine triptychs that are the culmination of his life's work, is another major response to the Nazis.

Like Klee, Beckmann was directly threatened by them -- his art was also branded as degenerate and censored -- and he also left Germany. Departure hints at his decision to emigrate -- he didn't do so for another five years, when he moved to Amsterdam, where he managed to survive the war -- but, more broadly, it pictures terror and tragedy, like Guernica. It also fuses personal and social allegory, but Departure is more obviously about social cruelty -- the violence human beings do to each other, presumably in the name of ideology, as the torture chamber in the left panel indicates. There is another kind of torture chamber in the right panel, where an upside-down man, his hands tied behind his back, is tied to a woman, who nonetheless is able to walk. Holding a kerosene lamp like a latter-day Diogenes in search of a decent human being, she steps forward with a determined look on her face, as though that might clear the way, which is blocked in front by a drummer and threatened from behind by a bellhop with shaded eyes -- he is as blind as she is open-eyed -- holding a fish. She clearly gets nowhere. She remains trapped in a terrible marriage -- as her "union" with the upside-down man suggests -- and, more generally, in a threatening man's world. The fish is presumably the same one that appears in the basket that unexpectedly -- dare one say, miraculously? -- replaces the blade on the ax the brute in the left panel wields.

In the center panel, we see the Fisher King, a medieval symbol of Christ, the fisher of men. Presumably even the torturers in the left and right panels can be saved, as the fish associated with them suggest. The mythical Fisher King is in the boat with the departing couple -- the ugly, dark-haired, mischievous looking child behind the woman in the right panel has been transformed into the beautiful blonde child in the center panel, now held by his mother and pointing the way (and also seen from the back rather than front, suggesting the completeness of the transformation) -- as though promising salvation after the voyage across the sea, its placidity suggesting an easy passage. The couple and infant, who clearly symbolize Mary, the Christ Child and Joseph (traditionally hidden behind them, to emphasize his secondary role) --  Beckmann frequently uses religious symbolism to mythologize a contemporary situation, deepening and universalizing its meaning (he never abandoned the early interest in religious painting evidenced by the Descent from the Cross and Christ and the Adulteress (both 1917)) -- are accompanied not only by the Fisher King, but by another man, who is much more sinister and hostile, as the helmet hiding his eyes, the way the vizor hides the bellboy's eyes in the right panel, suggests. He is probably the oarsman -- he stands next to the oar -- but he is also a warrior.

Clearly he is at odds with the Fisher King, who gestures towards the peaceful world beyond the sea (although he points in a different direction than the child, thus suggesting uncertainty about which way to go). His robe is blue and he wears a yellow crown, while the warrior has a gray helmet and red robe. The warrior looks toward the Fisher King threateningly, while the Fisher King looks out to the open sea, unaware of the warrior's glance. The warrior wears two gold bands around his upper right arm, while the right hand of the Fisher King holds a net full of fish, still in the water, but presumably to be saved by being brought into the boat. I want to suggest that the boat is stranded on a dead sea, that there is no wind and current to carry the boat forward -- where are the sails? -- and that the entire triptych is about entrapment and being stranded in an impossible situation. The center panel is a more subtle kind of torture chamber than the two side panels: The warrior is about to lift his right hand -- rather grotesquely large -- to attack the Fisher King. The  warrior's hand is in the same position as the much smaller, more delicate hand of the mother, as though threatening her with violence. The warrior stands to the Fisher King the way Judas stands to Christ -- the warrior wears the 30 pieces of gold on his arm, as it were -- or the way the Anti-Christ, that is, the Devil, stands to Christ. Beckmann is depicting the battle between good and evil, and it looks like evil is winning, even though there are signs of good. The work is a medieval psychomachia adapted to a contemporary and personal situation and using a mix of modern styles -- flatness and distortion -- to underscore its dramatic point.

Beckmann has a vocabulary of images and symbols that are much more cosmopolitan than Picasso's provincial bullfight. Departure derives from classical mythology, North European carnival imagery and medieval martyrdom triptychs, including pictures that deal with Christ's suffering on the way to his crucifixion, all transformed to suit Beckmann's psychosocial purpose. Like all the triptychs, Departure is theatrical, indeed, a kind of Grand Guignol theater or Gothic horror tale. The odd couple in the right panel is clearly on a stage, and the whole unfolds like a miracle play (with an unhappy, or at least uncertain, ending). The main event is in the center, and the figures that appear in it, posed statically, as though fixed in a tableau, are the most important ones. As such, they are larger than those in the side panels, whose actions cause the central event, invariably a major turning point in medieval visual narrative. The center panel relates to the story of Perseus and the Argonauts, and the carnival figures threatening the unhappy couple -- he is in effect crucified upside down on the cross of marriage (making him a perverse Peter) -- could easily have come out of a painting by Bosch or Breugel, as could the executioner in the left panel, where the tied up woman in the foreground is a martyr awaiting execution. The gruesomeness -- and angularity -- of the scenes is medieval, but German society was already becoming gruesome, violent and edgy in the aftermath of the first world war, as Beckmann's The Night (1918-19) makes clear. (It was also a society in which experimental theater and Expressionistic film flourished.) This notorious work, full of menace and murder, has the same crowded format and claustrophobic space visible as the side panels of Departure.  There is also another young woman with her back towards us, also being sadistically tortured. The two candles, one lit, one knocked over and unlit, are rather dubious symbols of hope, just as the huge still-life of fruit in the left panel of Departure is a dubious symbol of life in a situation of almost certain death. The male figure in the process of being hung has the same body as Christ in the Descent from the Cross.

The Night is one of a series of apocalyptic pictures Beckmann painted in the '20s, and Departure continues and complicates the series on a grander scale. All of the triptychs are about remaining conscious in a dismal situation in which human beings are morbidly unconscious of themselves and their behavior. In Departure the two open-eyed women are symbols of consciousness, the figures with their eyes hidden represent the state of being unconscious, and the drummer and executioner go about their business unconsciously, indifferent to their own inhumanity and the humanity of their victims. "Open your eyes and you shall see" seems to be Beckmann's modern biblical message -- see, observe carefully and become fully conscious of the horrible world around oneself, witnessing it, which is the only salvation. Blind Man's Buff (1945), another triptych, makes the point clearly: Not only is the blindfolded man unaware of the situation, but so are the revelers around him. Again, women seem to be the only ones who are fully conscious of it, along with Beckmann himself. But where they symbolize hope, he is full of despair -- the despair the revelers try to escape by becoming beasts, as the animals pictured suggest. The carnival, in fact, tended to degenerate into a drunken bestial brawl, a predatory war of all against all. (The work is one of many in which Beckmann portrays himself, continuing a North European tradition of self-portraiture that dates back to Dürer and Rembrandt. Concern with the self -- beyond the social stereotype in which it is embedded -- is a staple of modern German art, as the portraits of Otto Dix indicate. Even the military types in George Grosz's Dadaistic, satiric drawing Fit for Active Service (1916-17) -- a brilliantly ironic Triumph of Death in the guise of anti-war propaganda -- have individual personalities.)

In Family Picture (1920), Beckmann alone represents consciousness, however wounded he is, and reduced to a helpless, inert child. The only man in a family of woman and children -- in effect the father crippled and castrated by war (as the twisted horn he holds suggests) -- he is conscious of the family's miserable situation, and thus in a sense transcends it, however hurt. The work includes an allegory of the stages of life, represented by the three women around the table -- one young and melancholy, one old and in complete despair, and the third reading the newspaper, indicating her interest in contemporary events, and thus her realism (in contrast to the two self-absorbed, indeed, self-pitying, unhappy women). Another sub-theme -- so many of them involve women, who are usually, like the woman in the central panel of Departure, narcissistically remote and self-sufficient -- is vanity, as the local Venus admiring herself in the mirror suggests. But her primping -- she adjusts her hair -- is futile, for no one else is likely to see her seductive beauty. The young men who might have appreciated it have died in the war, and her family is too indifferent to notice it. Her beauty is likely to be short-lived, as the dingy attic space suggests. She is another depressing part of the allegory of life. Note the light hanging from the ceiling in the center of the picture, like the light in Picasso's Guernica, but here more clearly to the emotional point. For Picasso it was an ironic touch of realism in an abstract fantasy -- very much like some of the realistic devices in his abstract Cubist paintings -- while for Beckmann it is part of the banal reality of life, which is a nightmare come true.

Beckmann's pictures are psychologically as well as socially realistic. Departure is full of ambivalence about marriage and women. The boat marriage of Mary and Joseph is as much of a joke as the marriage of the couple -- they indeed have tied the knot -- in the right panel. The Mary figure is implicitly dominant -- the still quiet center of the still quiet central scene (however seething the warrior may be) -- while the sturdy female figure in the right panel is explicitly dominant. Both can protect themselves, especially against men, for they are sacred, enlightened figures, really married to the truth. In the left panel, the fruits of life are grotesquely large -- like those in Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon -- as though nourished by the death that is clearly in the atmosphere. There is much despair, and a modicum of hope -- a bit of light in the emotional darkness -- suggesting Beckmann's uncertainty about the outcome of the voyage of life, and perhaps its ultimate meaninglessness.

In his last triptych, The Argonauts (1949-50), finished the day before he died, he returns to the theme of Departure, showing what has become of the world in the decades between them. It remains as contradictory and troubling as ever -- the half-naked woman in the left panel poses with a sword (Beckmann is busily painting her), the glamorous woman in the right panel plays a guitar, and in the central panel we see once again the ladder that appeared in the Descent from the Cross and The Dream (1921). Again there is a grouping of innocent and oppressive figures -- the naked David and Jonathan, implicitly lovers, and the depressed and bestial King Saul, without his crown and caged by the ladder, that is, trapped and crucified. (David's harp has fallen on the ground, and he wears two gold armbands, like the warrior in Departure, but now on his left forearm, and a huge falcon -- a phallic symbol, suggesting predatory dominance -- rests on Jonathan's left forearm.) Nothing really has changed: The carnival may have gotten merrier -- there is the soothing music of the flute and guitar, rather than the ominous beat of the drum -- and it may be possible to paint without worrying about the Nazis, and love may be possible, in whatever form, but violence is still in the air.  The voyagers have safely arrived in a new world -- Beckmann moved to the United States in 1947 (does Saul represent the Old World, the golden youths the New World?) -- but it is really the same old torture chamber in disguise, however much the torture now has more to do with the artist's inner life than with world-historical events.

There is an eschatological fatalism to Beckmann's triptychs. They are about suffering without transfiguration -- meaningless, living death. Perhaps another torture chamber is waiting beyond the horizon in Departure. The side panels suggest there is no escape from suffering. The Holy Family is trapped between them, and between the warrior and the Fisher King, uncertain who will be victor. They rest on the Flight to Egypt, as it were -- Beckmann's pictures are full of biblical and classical allusions -- pursued by enemies eager to betray or kill them. Persecuted by and temporarily trapped in the tyranny that was Nazi Germany -- like Klee's Child Consecrated to Suffering and Mask of Fear, Beckmann's Departure is about paranoia -- Beckmann became a profound observer of the human condition, indeed, one of the great humanist painters of the century. If genuine realism is grounded not simply in observation of reality but in the anxiety it arouses, leading to the angry attempt to master its ugliness and ironies, then Beckmann's realism is the most masterful and ironic of the century.

Beckmann is just one of many German artists who attempted to deal with the social reality of their unfortunate country, even if he is the most moving because he showed its disastrous effect on the individual. Germany had begun to unravel after the First World War, and it came together -- or rather was forced into totalitarian unity -- with the ascent of Hitler. Hannah Höch captures the spirit of its disintegration in her witty, aggressive Dadaist collage Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919-20) and John Heartfield illustrates its forced integration under fascist auspices in his ironic, mock poetic photomontage O Christmas Tree in German Soil, How Crooked Are Your Branches (1934). The threadbare tree, with its drooping, twisted branches -- hardly the sturdy German Tannenbaum of tradition -- is mounted on a swastika, and grotesquely bent into the shape of one at its top, giving the tree as a whole -- a symbol of Germany -- a demented look. Höch's work is wildly chaotic and absurd -- German reality is spinning out of control under the Weimar Republic, and full of contradictions, as the discrepancy in scale between the image-fragments suggests -- while Heartfield's work has the brevity of a visual epigram: A single central image tells the whole perverse/silly story of the new fascist Germany. Where Höch's work is a tower of verbal and visual Babel -- or is it a battlefield full of social shrapnel? -- Heartfield is deceptively simple and clear. Both works are satiric, but Höch's Germany is dynamic and lively -- unmanageable but free, and on the move -- while Heartfield's Germany is inert, deflated, banal: The Christmas star has become a swastika, boding ill for Germany. There is a sadness to Heartfield's ridicule, while Höch's has a certain angry vigor. Höch's dramatic work marks the beginning of the short, troubled but creative period that began after the First World War, and Heartfield's work marks its end, when fascism laid its deadening hand on Germany.

Both works have a journalistic look. Höch in fact assembles fragments of photographs and texts from newspapers and magazines -- mischievously adding the word "dada" as a kind of punctuation (suggesting how much Dadaism mirrored the chaos) -- and Heartfield's image looks like an anonymous commercial drawing.  Where Beckmann esthetically transformed and mythologized social appearances so that they became symbols of the human condition -- the uprooted artist, for example, becomes rootless modern man, and women suggest the need for kindness and mercy in a cruel, indifferent world -- Höch and Heartfield rely on mechanical reproduction, and remain impersonal reporters and debunkers to the bitter end.  While ostensibly indifferent to esthetics -- although their anti-estheticism quickly became a new avant-garde esthetics -- they defended against their bitterness with a kind of esthetic irony, but it was a futile visual gesture that did nothing to reverse or stop the tide of contemporary events. Their Dadaist irony was a kind of life raft in the flood of traumatic events, always about to be overwhelmed by them -- perhaps just the straw the drowning artist grasped in vain. 

Nonetheless, they meant their art to be a kind of public commentary -- indeed, an intervention in public life -- as its populist, activist character indicates. Heartfield in fact photographed his works for reproduction in the mass media, and from 1930 on they appeared in AIZ, a left-wing illustrated worker's magazine. They were in effect political cartoons -- impish, sniping attacks against fascism. Heartfield used Dadaist absurdity and rebellion to make a critical point: Dadaism led the rebellion against fascism by revealing its absurdity. Nonetheless, his images were never so absurd as to be unintelligible, never so ironical as to forget the seriousness of the issue they addressed. They may have been esthetically abrasive -- the usual nihilistic joke on art -- but they were also socially abrasive. They were instantly readable propaganda against fascism, meant for a receptive proletariat audience, and calling for a Communist revolution against fascism. They were meant to stir up the oppressed masses, rather than pacify them with humor, or, for that matter, entertain them.

But there is a deeper point to the Dadaistic realism of Höch and Heartfield: It suggests that the way to break the stalemate between abstraction and representation (more particularly, figuration) -- the esthetic impasse created by their reconciliation -- was a healthy nonconformist dose of outer-world influence, forcing a recalibration of their relationship in favor of representation, with abstraction going underground, as it were -- not denied but hidden. The result was a sense that there was something magical about reality, that is, inherently fantastic and strange. What has been called "magical realism," and I want to call "fantastic realism" -- realism that calls attention to the absurdity of even the most matter-of-fact reality, that is, the bizarreness of the banal -- became the major contribution of post-World War I German art to modern art. Weimar Germany was a bizarre world and Hitler was a bizarre character. The ideologues as well as the libertines of '20s Berlin lived a fantasy, with equally disastrous social results. 

Fantastic realism seems to first appear in the work of George Grosz, a contemporary of Höch and Heartfield who was also a Dadaist observer of German society. (He was in the United States when Hitler came to power in the '30s, and stayed there, losing his Dadaist spirit and style.) Grosz was also less concerned to make high art -- which Beckmann still believed in -- than to communicate social reality in the most efficient visual form possible, hopefully influencing the course of contemporary events. He also used mass media methods, and cloaked social criticism -- not to say cynicism -- in grim comedy, as the notorious caricatures in his book Ecce Homo indicate. He also turned to Communism, but he gave it up. For him Communism was as absurd, oppressive, stupid and futile as Fascism -- an astute perception. Like Bosch and Breugel before him, he was more interested in the general madness and folly of humanity, as he said, showing human beings as deranged, sex-crazed, violent creatures, at other times representing them as conformist robots. His people are unaware of their self-destructiveness, and of the fact that they are "disgusting," as the secretly moralistic Grosz thought. His pictures are satiric, but they are also morbid, fatalistic fantasies, as the dramatic presence of death in such different works as Dedication to Oskar Panizza (1917-18) -- a censored 19th-century writer and anarchist, with whom Grosz probably identified -- and Fit for Active Service (The Faith Healers) (1916-17) indicates. Grosz's images are as nightmarish as those of Alfred Kubin, although the nightmares they deal with are social rather than personal.

In fact, his pictures have a dream-like, hallucinatory quality -- social reality had become more surreal than any dream an individual could have. Society had become a barbaric dream no one can escape, certainly not by means of esthetics, which was hardly adequate to it. One of the reasons the German Dadaist realists turned to photography as a model, however much they departed from its apparently clinical realism, is that it alone seemed capable of representing what was too horrifically true to be imaginatively represented. Imagination would get in the way of a reality that had become unimaginable. Truth once again showed that it was stranger than fiction, and the clinical truthfulness of photography was the best way of conveying it. The avant-garde devices -- collage, Futurist dynamics, Dadaist incongruity -- they used seemed dishonest in comparison. They were a futile overlay on the stark truth, imaginatively enlivening it without necessarily penetrating it. Nonetheless, for Grosz, clear-eyed social observation -- implicitly photographic, however unphotographic in style -- fed into a traditional apocalyptic vision of collective human bondage, to use Spinoza's term. It was the same morbid bondage pictured in the right panel of Beckmann's Departure. Höch's and Heartfield's Dadaistic realism also has a dream-like absurdity -- a fantastic quality of unreality that was nonetheless true to reality.  Everyday reality is always a component of a dream, but in Höch, Heartfield and Grosz it becomes the whole ugly dream. Indeed, they suggest that society is a kind of mad dream -- its reality is so insane it has to be a dream. For the German Dadaist realists, reality itself is Dadaistic, that is, it has the bizarre coherence of a fantasy. The fantasies of the German Dadaist realists are not manufactured, like those of the Surrealists, but routinely real. Fantasy and reality are indistinguishable in fact as well as in the fiction of their art, which tries to capture the fantastic character of reality.

In short, the German artists were fascinated by social reality because strange, unfathomable human forces seem to inform and shape it. From Cézanne on, artists have perceived a mysterious tension at the core of physical reality; the German artists found this same primitive tension in social reality, whose workings came to seem mysterious. Indeed, the more they showed how the social machine worked -- for them society was like a malfunctioning machine that needed a complete overhaul -- the more mysterious it seemed. The artists used all the avant-garde means at their command to give it esthetic credibility, but in the end they found it incredible. Grosz's frustration with all ideologies suggests that there is no political or economic explanation for social insanity and violence. Intuitive sociologists, the German artists nonetheless came to realize that no social science could explain human absurdity. In their vision, human beings are irredeemably irrational because there is no reason for reality itself. This is why it looks so strange in their art, however mechanical. Reality cannot be mastered by scientific explanations or artistic representation, which is why there is a profound aura of unreality in their pictures of social and human reality -- an uncanny sense that the features of their life-world are inexplicably the case and cannot be fundamentally changed, even by social revolution, which is why they gave up on it.

Fantastic realism is a compromise formation, as it were, not only between the artist's inner world and the outer world of contemporary events, but between avant-gardism and traditionalism. More broadly, fantastic realism integrates abstraction (in whatever primitivizing, ironical form) and representation, for whatever social or emotional purpose. The subdued, enigmatic figures of Wilhelm Lehmbruck and the powerful, assertive biblical types of Ernst Barlach are perhaps its most unexpected manifestations. The former turn inward, often in despair, the latter outward, sometimes in anger, and both are streamlined -- on the one hand delicately abstract, on the other hand forcefully abstract. Both kinds of figure are representational and abstract at once, resulting in a feeling of magical reality -- reality with an unspoken secret.

When Picasso and Klee integrate abstraction and representation in a figure, the result seems more abstract than representational, that is, the representational seems embedded in the abstract, even to dissolve and disappear into it, or at least to be garbled by it. Abstraction no longer has any secrets, nor does it generate a sense of secrecy and mystery. But when Lehmbruck and Barlach do so, in such haunting embodiments of human hurt as Lehmbruck's Seated Youth (1917) and Barlach's Beggar (1930), the abstract seems embedded in the representational, which remains conventionally intelligible and communicative -- readable as everyday reality, however strange and secretive.

In fantastic realism, the mysterious strangeness of reality becomes beautiful, even seductive. More particularly, the strangeness in beauty, as the philosopher Francis Bacon called it, seems to stand out without becoming disruptive, that is, with no loss of the sense of that harmonious integration called beauty. For Lehmbruck and Barlach, ideal beauty and fantastic social reality converge in human suffering, which brings with it a sense of fate -- a fate which the German Dadaist realists tried to resist with their Dadaist esthetics, as though that could avoid it.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here