Mark Harden's Artchive Beckmann, Max
Brother and Sister
1933
Oil on canvas
52 1/2 x 39 in.
Collection Dr. and Mrs. Stephan Lackner, Santa Barbara, California

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Stephan Lackner writes:

"The figures in Beckman
's Brother and Sister seem like magnificent creatures of Nordic mythology. Yet neither the medieval Nibelungen sagas nor Richard Wagner's operatic cycle contain this occurrence of forestalled incest. It is Beckmann's own mythic invention. The painting depicts that moment when primeval vitality is being conquered by civilization's laws and frustrations. The oversized sword that separates the loving siblings is the pictograph for humanity's cruel but necessary taboos.

"The almost barbaric and yet strangely aristocratic figures have tumbled down on pillows and princely gowns. But the man has thrust his sword between himself and his sister; his hand continues its motion, which is converted into a secretly loving approach. The girl places her fingers on the blade, half-regretting and half-acknowledging its presence. The viewer's eye hovers above the figures, looking down on their shoulders in violent foreshortening; no anatomic realism is intended.

"The tremendous force of the vision has not precluded lovely psychological nuances. Note, for instance, the two parallel lines of the profiles. Usually when two profiles are painted facing each other, the resulting design is a symmetrical mirror image, which, often awkwardly, prevents their unification. But Beckmann fits them evenly alongside each other in a continuous response, so that a black abyss seems to be bridged by their invisible vibrations. Or note the wide, unnaturalistic rounding of the brother's knee at the upper edge of the canvas; this establishes a formal correspondence with the round curve of the sister's buttocks. The sweep of these two curves holds the composition together as if in parentheses. The structural distortions give the scene a sense of inevitability. It is condensed to essentials, like a Gothic escutcheon.

"Sometimes one glance at a work of art fixes it indelibly in the viewer's memory. The image seems to be the one valid formulation of an exactly circumscribed idea. If memorability is a criterion for artistic value, then Beckmann's Brother and Sister is of the highest rank.

"This quality of instant impressiveness cannot be explained or defined, but it is one of the strongest emanations we can receive from art. To give a familiar example: millions who have no detailed knowledge of Michelangelo remember the outstretched hand of God the Father transmitting the spark of life to Adam's finger. Rodin's Thinker has it. Since Vincent van Gogh painted his Sunflowers, one can never again see these flowers in art or in nature without being reminded of the finality of Vincent's formulation.

"It seems to me that Beckmann's work Brother and Sister, in its love and renunciation, has this quality."