Mark Harden's Artchive Beckmann, Max
The Mill
1947
Oil on canvas
54 1/4 x 50 3/8 in.
Portland Art Museum, Oregon

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Stephan Lackner writes:

"The liberation of Holland in May 1945 was not immediately a personal liberation for Beckmann. All through the war years he was in danger of being "discovered" by the Nazi occupying forces; now he was endangered by "superpatriotic Dutchmen" who wanted to ship all Germans back to their defeated fatherland. Of course he was grateful that Holland had given him asylum since 1937, but he was eager to move about more freely. Since he could not obtain a passport or visa, he made bicycle trips around Amsterdam. In his diary on May 12, 1946, he admonished himself: "Old donkey, you are pretty well off, even though you are still somewhat imprisoned in this flat ironing-board country. So be still." On May 15 he was finally able to take a few weeks vacation in the countryside at Laren.

"From June 19 to July 23, 1946, as a result of this trip, he painted Windmill (fig. 43). With its lush, green fields and pine trees, its enormous clouds and idyllic windmills, the canvas is a declaration of love for Holland. And yet, after August 31, this lovely picture was suddenly perverted into a nightmare, and the Dutch windmill was re-created as a torture instrument. On December 15, 1946, he noted in his diary: " The Mill is finished, and so am I."

"The basic structures of the two pictures are very similar. In the later painting the arms of the windmill have become a rack on which several well-dressed, obviously normal people are being bound like criminals and senselessly whirled around. The white, round clouds in the background of the earlier version have turned into aerial balloons, and the bicycle at the lower left has been magically transmuted into a reddish balloon; escape has become the painter's wish-dream. The formerly peaceful farmhouse in the middle ground is now going up in flames. The earlier painting showed a gable and a gentle Dutch couple on the left; in the later version the space is dominated by a cage in which three or four men and a kneeling woman are handcuffed and crammed together.

"The redheaded, half-clad, helpless girl has an extraordinary, touching beauty. Her arms cross those of the standing man and together they parallel the windmill's sails which complete the unified pattern. It is a composition of cross-purposes, whose tyrannically imposed order, for each individual, amounts to senseless slavery. The windmill in this second painting, seems to have acquired the shadowy face of a demon.

"What is the explanation for this cruel deterioration of that bucolic Dutch motif, the windmill? Beckmann's memories of the Nazi era may have welled to the surface. His fight for a "non-enemy declaration," his bad health in consequence of the war years' deprivations, and his immobility and helplessness in the coils of bureaucratic red tape had a disastrous effect on his nerves. And yet, these petty hindrances, even though they amounted to personal torture for the old freedom fighter, cannot elucidate the deeper contents of the artist's soul.

"Beckmann's esoteric symbols have been well analyzed by Friedhelm Fischer. A clue is given in the half-illegible message underneath the cage: BRASITH ELOHIM. These words_the beginning of the Book of Genesis_open up a mythical perspective. Beckmann, a well-read man, knew much about Vedic, Platonic, and Gnostic myths. He studied Schopenhauer, and Madame Blavatsky's somewhat confused "Secret Instruction." Accordingly, the cage on the left may stand for the imprisonment of the human soul in fated worldly concerns, and the whirling mill may symbolize reincarnation through eternal cycles, the inescapable metempsychosis of Indian lore. Even the peaceful meadow seems to have undergone a sea change; it resembles a deluge.

"Pinning down the artist's intentions and connotations may seem a futile endeavor. He was not an illustrator of ancient myths; he himself was haunted by sometimes frightful, sometimes blissful visions. But the overwhelming forcefulness of the symbolism in The Mill must impress even the uninitiated beholder.

"It is of more than academic interest that the Portland Art Museum bought this work as early as December 1949. Such acts of recognition helped to make Beckmann's last three years_his American years_the most enjoyable of his life."