Mark Harden's Artchive Beckmann, Max
Birds' Hell
1938
Oil on canvas
47 1/4 x 63 in.
St. Louis Art Museum

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Stephan Lackner writes:

"Birds' Hell is an allegory of Nazi Germany. It is a direct attack on the cruelty and conformity that the National Socialist seizure of power brought to Beckmann's homeland. Its place in Beckmann's oeuvre corresponds to that occupied by Guernica in Picasso's artistic development. It is an outcry as loud and as strident as an artistic weltanschauung would permit. Not since his graphic attacks in Hunger and City Night in the early twenties had Beckmann resorted to such directness, such undisguised social criticism. Birds' Hell is Beckmann's J'accuse.

"Since even obvious symbols are open to various interpretations, the puzzling language of symbolism itself can be more easily read with the aid of some special historical knowledge: The Nazis enjoyed stretching their right arms into the air simultaneously, a gesture known as the Hitlergruss that was usually accompanied by raucous shouting. Rich party officials, who strutted around in well-tailored uniforms, were called Goldfasanen (gold pheasants) by the skeptical populace. It is also useful to remember the prevalence in Nazi Germany of the incessant din of loudspeakers; these are depicted in the upper right of the painting. The aggressive Prussian eagle was still a vivid memory, and the Third Reich adopted that heraldic bird for some of its own emblems. The golden coins that the eagle is hoarding symbolize monopolistic capitalism which, under the pretext of patriotism, came to the aid of Hitler and his supporters. Even the clergy who joined forces with the Nazis-especially the Deutsche Christen of Reichstischof Muller-are symbolized by the blackfrocked, bespectacled bird just below the loudspeaker funnels. All these forces are united in one vast, orgiastic demonstration, while in the foreground, unnoticed by the excited crowd, a slim, shackled, Kafkaesque intellectual is being carved up.

"But what about the enigmatic female figure in the center of the composition? This riddle could fairly easily be solved by viewers during the late thirties. She represents the all-pervasive, phony myth used by the National Socialists to gloss over their crude power game and their materialism: their Blut und Boden philosophy, or blood-and-soil preachments. Mother Earth, with multiple breasts and Hitler salute, pops out of the Nazi egg like a barbaric jackin-the-box. A perverted mother goddess, Germania bares her teeth in an aggressive grin. Fertility becomes the official duty of a warrior race. Aryan maidens lined up behind the goddess are waiting for the Nazi studs.

"On the right, a newspaper is lying on the floor. It seems that the slender, perhaps Jewish, man was just reading about the Nazi horrors when, suddenly, the contents of the Zeitung came to life for him. In the left foreground, a table displays some of the good things that people enjoyed before the Hitler cohorts invaded this room: grapes, a book, and the candle of intellectual endeavor.

"In spite of its glaring reds and yellows, this is not poster art. There is still enough good taste, enough transmutation into the sphere of symbolic disguise to lift the painting above mere propaganda. But what a lusty, spirited attack this is! It must have been a great, grim satisfaction for Beckmann to pay the Nazis home in their own coin.

"This painting was, of course, not executed in Nazi Germany, where Beckmann would soon have shared the fate of the shackled nude victim who is being slaughtered. It was painted in his newly found refuge in Amsterdam. With this work, Beckmann's exile became irrevocable."