This essay was first published in the exhibition catalogue for Max Beckmann in Exile at the Guggenheim Museum in SoHo, New York on October 9, 1996. 

Max Beckmann, Departure,1932, Oil on canvas, Side panels 7′ 3/4″ x 39 1/4″, center panel 7′ 3/4″ x 45 3/8″

At the time that I “discovered” Beckmann’s Departure, in the mid-1970s, I was in a state of turmoil and discomfort over the abstract paintings that I was making. I had known Beckmann’s work, mostly through reproduction, when I was still a student. Attracted as I was to his paint handling, there was such a prejudice against any kind of representation in painting that I virtually ignored him as a possible source of inspiration or as a way into narrative painting.

I visited the Museum of Modern Art on a day when I was feeling either relaxed enough or lost enough to stop in front of this great work and ask it a few questions. For me, Departure, like all of Beckmann’s triptychs, seemed daunting. His iconography is both historical in a literary and eventful way, as well as personal almost to the point of being a private language. My fear was that I could never penetrate its content without first reading what he or others had to say about it. This I am loath to do, believing, as I do, that painting is and should be a direct experience of audience to painting, as it is for the artist, painter to painting.

I begin today as I did then, with the left panel and with its central figure, which I described to myself as a sailor, perhaps a pirate. Why do I think that? The shirt — the purple and black-striped shirt. It is a kind of uniform, neither military nor naval, but that of a sailor/fisherman/pirate. I think possibly pirate because of the way he wields that ax. It is malevolent. Ax? Yes, ax: like an executioner he is going to cut off the hands of the bound woman. He has already cut off one person’s hands. The whole scene reeks of destruction and chaos. Ax? Wait. It is not an ax. It is a fishnet with fish in it! How could this be? Were my associations wrong? Or has Beckmann painted images in such a way that they flip back and forth? Ambiguity reveals dualities of feeling as well as states of being. Here stands a man, executioner/fisherman/pirate/nurturer. I say nurturer because the fisherman brings fish to eat. Is Beckmann, by combining fishing with this violent scene, saying life feeds off death, literally?

And the woman? Tied and gagged, dressed like a whore, humiliated and offered up for sacrifice. Woman, the symbol of purity, mystery, innocence, and ruse. Beguiler and saint. Here stripped, not naked, but tarted up, debased as symbol and object of desire, object of love. Here, she is thrown over a large glass ball; her face peers into it. A glass ball? Not your butcher’s block! A glass ball like a fortune-teller’s. So, she still has powers! What does she see, this sorceress? The future? Underneath the ball is a newspaper: the front page of Die Zeit. “You want to know the future?” Beckmann is saying, “The future is on the front page of the newspaper. The future is what is happening today played out tomorrow!”

Why is our executioner/fisherman going to harm her? Cut off her hands, mutilate her? Is he going to kill the messenger? Beckmann had a thing about hands, and in this panel we see perhaps his most definitive and anguished statement. Hands: the first tool. What we clutch, what we release, what we build, what we destroy, and how we feel, literally and metaphorically, are expressed through the hands. So what we feel coming from this panel is a lot of anger and derision directed through the hands.

There’s a guy, his back to us, waist-deep in a wine barrel filled with water (a liquid anyway), hand tied behind his back — this guy ain’t going nowhere. What an expression of impotence! There is the other man, gagged, bound to a pillar (representing cultural and male sexual power?), his hands already severed. And, of course, the woman who is about to lose hers.

In the midst of such violence, a still life, absurdly large. Its specific meaning eludes me. It is a quiet moment in this tempest of insanity. It is the only thing in this picture that doesn’t need anything. Therefore, its experience must be purely aesthetic. The still life is an introspective, artistic reflection on the abstract problems of composition. Weights, balances, shapes on a flat plane and in space. Volumes, density, color, light — historically, the still life has been the humble expression of awesome metaphysical ambition. And here, Beckmann surrounds this still life with blinded eyes, gagged mouths, and mangled hands — all the tools required for the perception and expression of these values are damaged. This panel is a profound statement of outrage.

By contrast, the middle panel is the essence of calm and order, familial order. The nuclear family is here mythologized, elevated to metaphor, and given magical powers. It is the family of both royalty — king, queen, prince, and attendants — and holiness — Christ (the fisher king), the Madonna and child, and disciples. The father/king/Christ, is fishing. That is to say, he is holding a fishnet, but in such a stunningly blasé way! His back is to us, to the sea, and to the fish he has captured. He stands counseling/comforting his family. Beckmann here is brilliant. If you look closely at how he has painted the fish, you will see that he has with paint created a double entendre. You cannot tell whether the fish are swimming into or out of the net. In doing this, he reinforces the reference to Christ, for the fish is the symbol of the soul and Christ is both the gatherer and the releaser of the soul. So the middle panel appears to offer redemption from the chaos, violence, misery, humiliation, and disappointments that surround it.

There is in this panel, as there are in the other two panels, elements that I cannot be sure about. Like the oversized beak of an exotic bird and what appears to be a mask from some exotic culture in the background of the left panel or the strange architecture of the right panel, there are some things in the boat that I just don’t know what to make of. There is the man behind the mother/Madonna with what appears to be a pot on his head. A cooking pot! Why? There is also a soldier whose helmet shape makes him look very much like the large fish he is holding. What is that connection? There is also the fish itself. One could take a cynical approach to this scene by describing the king’s handling of the little fish in the net as careless, rather than the way I described him above, in lofty, metaphysical terms, as the gatherer and releaser of souls. I have always felt that the calm of the middle panel is akin to the calm at the center of a storm, a very bad storm.  

The right panel echoes the malevolence of the left panel, but also shows the resulting malaise. At the center is our family, no longer royal, no longer magical. The woman and man are eternally bound in a psychopathologically perverse interpretation of yin and yang. She is dressed in white and holds out a lamp, symbol of the muse, of wisdom and insight. She seems confident that she still knows the way, though I am not so sure. The upside-down man/lover/father is bound to her, and, judging form the wound on his back, is quite dead. “You always kill the one you love,” Beckmann is reported to have said, and, judging from the recent tabloid stories, he is probably correct. The offspring of this murderous love is, as you might expect, a dwarf homunculus, who tugs at his mother’s hem. Next to them stands a messenger blinded by his hat, which has fallen over his eyes. He carries a fish, which he is perhaps trying to deliver. I think, here, the fish is no longer the mystical symbol it was in the middle panel but has become a sexual one. Perhaps the messenger awaits the answer to the question of what to do with sex after love has been destroyed.

As I said earlier, the architecture of this panel is a mystery. It is colonnaded and balustraded, arched and stairwayed. The main characters stand on what is possibly a stage. In the background are people going up and down on a stairway. Where are they going? And why during the performance? In the foreground, we find our king sporting an ill-fitted golfing cap and an ermine and velvet waistcoat. What? No long robe? He is carrying and beating a drum slung around his neck. Somewhere between a bellhop paging Philip Morris in a hotel lobby and a vendor hawking peanuts at the ballpark, our king is soliciting some kind of attention. Tucked between the straps and the drum skin is a newspaper that calls us back to the fortune-tellers in the left panel. Is that what our devoted king is doing? Pounding on the drum to get us to pay attention to the headlines?

There is no summary that can be made of this masterpiece. I have thought about it ever since I opened myself to it twenty years ago. It is not a moral tale. There are no lessons to be learned. Beckmann is not calling for a shift in course. You cannot change what comes as a result of what has been; a murderous love produces a corpse. Departure bears witness to this in human nature. The brilliance of Beckmann is the insight he achieved by overlapping and conflating the various structures and times, political, social, mythological, historical, religious, and familial, in which we, both culturally and individually, have placed our beliefs, desires, and needs. I can almost hear Beckmann saying, “Read it and weep.”

Eric Fischl, Krefeld Project; Dining Room, Scene #1, 2003, Oil on linen

Eric Fischl is an internationally acclaimed American painter and sculptor.