Mark Harden's Artchive Beckmann, Max
The Argonauts
1949-50
Oil on canvas
triptych, center panel 80 1/4 X 48"; side panels each 74 3/8 X 33"
Private collection, New York

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Stephan Lackner writes:

"The nine triptychs that Beckman
created are an incredibly rich and varied repository of pictorial ideas and visions. Their form is a revival of the medieval altarpiece, a shrine whose wings were closed except on holidays when its gospel lore and legends of saints and martyrs were revealed. This historical connotation explains why the wings of Beckmann's triptychs, although they do not close, are usually much narrower than the center panel (see Departure and Temptation).

"The Argonauts is the most serene of Beckmann's post-Christian altarpieces. The earlier triptychs show many tortured, shackled, and maimed people, as well as some who are deceived, sadistic, and simply foolish. The figures in The Argonauts are healthy, self-reliant, and enterprising. The elements of lust and baseness were required in the earlier works to set off the spheres of the persecuted hero and the confused dreamer; now, in the last work, the hero as a dreamer_or the dreamer as a hero_has conquered the nightmarish aspects of life. Thus, in retrospect, The Argonauts triptych appears as the logical conclusion of Beckmann's lifelong "passing show."

"Beckmann initially called this work The Artists. The bearded, intense, contemporary artist in the left panel_not a self-portrait_was the first figure that Beckmann envisioned. Perhaps he saw this painter as the prime mover of the entire phantasmagoria, in whose mind a modern model is transmuted into the classical figure of Medea. The artist knows that the head on which the woman sits is only a hollow mask, not really a decapitated Greek, and that the sword is but a studio prop. The girl musicians in the right panel are already half-transformed into an antique chorus. In the center panel, the fantasy is victorious; there is no trace of present-day metier left, no smell of studio dust and oil paint, only the clear, salty breeze of antiquity. Art has conquered the prosaic everyday.

"The center panel illustrates, quite faithfully, an episode from Greek mythology. Beckmann had read Goethe's translation of an account by Philostratus from the third century B.C. concerning the Argonauts' voyage to the Black Sea. The young heroes Orpheus and Jason are shown embarking on their search for the Golden Fleece. Orpheus, by his song, has calmed the wild sea and has put down his lyre on the sand. The ancient sea-god Glaucus emerges from the waves to prophesy the fate of the bold travelers; their magic ship, the Argo, will carry them safely to the mist-darkened kingdom of Colchis where they will "liberate" not only the Golden Fleece but also the king's daughter, Medea. This tale is a reflection of the historical first expeditions of the seafaring Greeks to barbarian lands.

"Beckmann, to heighten the portent of the sea-god's prophecy, shows sun and moon darkened by a miraculous eclipse and new planets being born. The cosmic menace does not distract the keen youths from their purpose, and the ancient prophet points the way to their heroic, and finally tragic, pursuit. Accept your fate, he seems to admonish them, fulfill your task.

"This triptych recalls some of Beckmann's very early pictographs: the darkened sun had already appeared in The Descent from the Cross of 1917. The ladder, one of Beckmann's favorite symbols, led nowhere in the early Dream and thus made cruel fun of a poor mortal searching for an exit from his misery; in The Argonauts the ladder rises out of the primeval ocean straight up into blue eternity: there is a way out, it proclaims.

"But the most touching reminiscence is the reprise of the "golden youths" from Beckmann's first large-scale oil painting, Young Men by the Sea of 1905. This composition owes much to the art student's admiration for Luca Signorelli and Hans von Marees. The maturing Beckmann often came back to the gestalt of the slender, dreamy youths with their unselfconscious charm. The center panel of his last work presents them again: thoughtful, willing to risk much for a great purpose, manly, and radiant with the bloom of youth. Forty-five years of relentless artistic effort resulted in this seemingly spontaneous personification of the elan vital.

"Through much of Beckmann's career, critics objected to two supposed characteristics of his art: brutality and sex. Beckmann never quite knew why they singled him out, for sex and violence seem to pervade the huge battle scenes and the depictions of rape and martyrdom in so many museums of the world. Beckmann used to say to me, somewhat naively: "Really, I only wanted to paint beautiful pictures." In The Argonauts this intention is undeniably fulfilled. There is no violence here, and sex, too, has disappeared. The center panel is restricted to male figures, the right to females exclusively. This separation of the sexes, very rare in Beckmann's work, gives an atmosphere of otherworldliness to The Argonauts. Eros and aggression, which are the heritage of the human psyche, are sublimated into a spiritual adventure. A glowing love of beauty and harmony prevails in the end."