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“Bird’s Hell” by Max Beckmann Essay

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Updated: May 3rd, 2020

The picture Bird’s Hell was painted in 1938 by Max Beckmann, an outstanding German portraitist and printmaker, one of the greatest masters of the interwar period of the 20th century.

In order to understand Beckmann’s oeuvre, it is necessary to mention some facts of his life. Beckmann was interested in mysticism and theosophy. In 1933, he was suspended from teaching in Stadel by the Nazi authorities, they removed more than 500 of his paintings from German museums ranking his work as degenerative art.

Artist and his wife moved to Amsterdam, but the Nazis did not leave him alone: in 1944, he barely escaped mobilization and suffered a heart attack. All this led him to a tragic expressionist style and the deep pessimism. Moreover, Beckmann developed the tradition of figurative painting and revived the genre of the medieval triptych. His compositions’ style and method are rooted in the imagery of Middle Ages stained glass.

Speaking of the Bird’s Hell, the picture represents phosphorus yellow and blue birds tormenting people who terrifyingly threw their hands up and shout their mouths open. This is the scene of torture: a bird flaps a knife over slashed man.

On the right, a newspaper lying on the floor – perhaps the man was reading about fascist horrors when they suddenly appeared at his home. The golden coins hoarded by eagle are a symbol of monopolistic capitalism that was the goal of Hitler and his followers veiled under patriotism.

However, all this is situated on the periphery of the canvas, and in the center, the ominous bird, a symbol of Mother Earth with several breasts and Hitler salute, is hatching from the egg. Aryan maidens are waiting for the Nazi queen behind. It seems like a manifestation of death that predicts an even bigger nightmare.

One could only guess is it myth harpies or Nazi storm troopers? Whether it is squalid conditions of social life or artist’s suppressed subconscious? Reality and dream are merging in some fascinating way. Beckman often kept silent instead of responding to such questions. “The artist draws and not talking,” “life is a pain of every kind – physical and mental” these are artist’s words (Roberts 681).

According to the Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art, Bird’s Hell “depicts Nazi Germany surrealistic style reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s treatment of hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Roberts 681). The author states, nevertheless, those Kafkaesque ravings (an allusion to Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony”) are “human creation and hence a human being problem” (Roberts 681).

Undoubtedly, Bird’s Hell is an allegory on the fascist regime. This is a bloodcurdling scream that penetrates the human consciousness as a knife blade. The picture represents war atrocities, death, and violence against human nature. Bird’s Hell is something more than a reflection of space and time because it penetrates into the place and time in order to comprehend what is hiding behind the event.

In conclusion, it should be stressed that Beckmann’s paintings and drawings are represented in major museums all over the world. His retrospective exhibitions held at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Gallery in London, the Hermitage (2007-2008), in Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. Experts compare his works with those of Brueghel, Grunewald, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh.

Works Cited

Roberts, Helene E. Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. 3th ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

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