The Descent from the Cross
Oil on canvas
59 1/2 x 50 3/4 in.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
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Stephan Lackner writes:
"This Descent and the preceding work, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, are companion pieces of almost identical size. After Beckmann returned from World War I-during which, as a field-hospital soldier, he had witnessed the most horrible scenes to which any man can be exposed-he was preoccupied with a series of religious paintings. From 1916 to 1918 he attempted a gigantic Resurrection, which he left unfinished, and in 1917 he also painted an Adam and Eve. The Christian concept of guilt and atonement became his leitmotiv for several years.
"The Descent from the Cross shows a darkened sun, symbol of utter despair. The future itself seems blacked out. Beckmann borrowed this gloomy phenomenon from the Tegernsee altarpiece (attributed at the time to Malesskircher) in Munich, which he had admired as a youth. It is no coincidence that this motif appears in Beckmann's art around 1917; he felt a strong inclination toward the "manly mysticism" of Northern Early Renaissance masters, and his new style was deeply influenced by their sparse, dour, hard-edged realism.
"The body of Christ in its pitiful rigor mortis still reflects the shape of the Cross: this magic figure has now been imprinted indelibly on humanity. The entire canvas is spanned by the oversized corpse. The kneeling women are reduced in size, another stylistic device derived from Gothic and Early Renaissance art where it was used for the depiction of donors.
"The upper end of the ladder is not visible, which gives us a feeling that the suffering Son of God has come down directly from outer space, a cosmic entity.
"Beckmann was now working very slowly. From 1905 to 1913, as a self-confident, voluble young artist, he had painted an average of twenty pictures annually. Between 1916 and 1923 he created only from three to seven works each year. His productivity was channeled inward, with an extreme concentration; he now had to invent not only paintings but a new style. His works began to acquire Expressionist elements which made them true products of their time. As his artistic situation became much closer to that of the other German Expressionists, Beckmann joined the forefront of the artistic revolution which changed the concepts of European art.
"In November of 1917, an exhibition of Beckmann's new graphics opened at J. B. Neumann's gallery in Berlin. On this occasion the artist formulated his program in a few laconic sentences: "The editor of this catalogue has asked me to write something about my work. I don't have much to prescribe: Be a child of your times-Naturalism toward your own ego-Objectivity toward inner visions. My love belongs to the four great painters of manly mysticism: Malesskircher, Grunewald, Bruegel, and Van Gogh."
"Objectivity toward inner visions: this part of the program was applicable to such paintings as The Descent from the Cross. And the imperative to "be a child of your times" led on to new and terribly exciting works-terribly exciting in the true sense of the words."