Historically, this is my “No, you go on…..” outpost when visiting MOMA with friends. I can’t help it. Each time I look at this painting, I am disarmed by a kind of mysterious centrifugal force that allows the three panels to remain within their own independent orbits of composition and palette while at the same time coalescing into a larger pictorial unity. Side by side, they employ a breathtaking collagist grace. It’s as if a larger, epic painting from the 19th century has swallowed a Dadaist sleeping pill.
The two side panels match each other most closely in compositional density and color (russet oxides, tinted Naples flanked by deep Cadmium yellow, deftly subsumed purples and bold whites all framed in those unmistakable, brash, dense black outlines). Their earthy palettes create architectural frames that allow the central panel to elevate the composition with its magical blue without losing its pictorial logic. The central windowpane-like panel transcends the other two to create the symbiotic structure of the painting’s meaning.
Apparently during the threadbare time of Beckmann’s exile in Amsterdam, a collector who was brought to the studio offered to buy the central panel alone. Beckmann refused. To sell the central panel without its wings would be selling a gratuitously seductive idea of escape without the timelessly wrought, samsaric horror of corporeal reality. The graphic imagery of the left and right panels specifically refer to the terrors of the rise of the Nazis that Beckmann witnessed first hand and was forced to flee. But, like all great symbolic paintings, it creates meaning metaphorically in order to transcend its own time. And if we look openly through the window of his imagination, we can see a little clearer who we are and what we strive for and where we are and how we got here.