Oil on canvas
triptych, center panel 78 3/4 X 67"; side panels each 85 X 39 3/8"
Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, Munich
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Stephan Lackner writes
"Temptation (often referred to as The Temptation of Saint Anthony), the second of Beckman
's nine triptychs, was painted in Berlin before the artist went into exile. Full of foreboding about the bellicose Nazi politics, Beckmann retreated into a world of personal ideology. He explored the hidden forces deep in the human soul that cause the upheavals erupting at the surface of our everyday existence. His triptychs are certainly splendid storytelling, but they have the ambivalence of dreams. They do not illustrate existing fables.
"The very center of Temptation contains the germ cell of the unfolding drama. A bluish black iron idol with two heads embraces itself Beckmann may refer here to the ancient Diana of Ephesus, or to the Chaldean myth that Oannes taught concerning the origin of mankind: "Men had one body, but two heads_the one of a man, the other of a woman. They were, in their several organs, both male and female." This tale persisted throughout the antique world. Plato tells us that these bisexual beings were so contented and blissful that the gods became envious and split them apart with a sharp sword; since then the two sexes, with burning passion, crave reunification to heal their wounds. Sigmund Freud developed the psychological validity of this idea that each psyche contains components of both sexes. Beckmann, in his diary, declares: "The whole thing is an enormous self-mirroring, established so we can enjoy always anew our Atman, the Self And we have to admit that this trick-to partition ourselves into male and female-is really a fabulous, almost unending stimulus to drag us around by a tight rein."
"The two emanations of this hermaphroditic idol are seated in front of it among sacrificial flames. Are they themselves offerings to the deity? The young man looks like a simple shepherd; his ankles and wrists are bound together, and the shackles appear to be made from the same metal as the idol. His profile shows a touching, classical beauty; this may be the handsomest male face that Beckmann ever created. The young man gazes steadfastly at the woman flaunting her fleshly charms, but, restrained by his fetters, he knows that he can never attain her. She averts her face, languidly holding a tired lotus flower. The atmosphere is filled with quiet tension, and the room is a strange mixture of artist's studio and pagan temple. A standing column appears to be steadying the idol, but another column has fallen-as if, in the foreground, dissolution of the heathen world had already set in-with the Christian message "In the beginning was the Word. " Both the youth and the seductress seem to have emerged from the picture frames behind them; the painter's fantasy figures have come to life.
"The temptations presented in the side panels are of a worldly nature; the youth disdains them in favor of his fate-ordained love. The Athena-like warrior in silvery armor in the left panel represents heroic action; she seems to indicate to the boy that he, too, should go out to slay monsters. The swarthy sailor invites him to oceanic adventures and exotic discoveries. Half-nude captive women await their liberator in vain. The young bellhop in the right panel is about to serve the shackled youth with a crown and a female slave. Beckmann's parrot of fame is ready to introduce him to high society. But the poor boy has eyes only for his beloved. The seductions of the rainbow-colored, wide world are not enough of a temptation to break the hold of silent, faithful devotion.
"The sensual, luscious quality of the pigments is quite extraordinary and makes it clear that this is not painted literature; it is overwhelmingly visual art. True, there are allusions to Gustave Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony, among other books, but none which would provide the "key" to the meaning of this picture. (Beckmann's title in his handwritten list of his works is simply Versuchung [Temptation]). No literary knowledge is required for the understanding and, above all, for the enjoyment of this vast and mysterious triptych; it is open to multiple interpretations. As Beckmann himself has put it: "Certain last things can only be expressed through art, otherwise they need not be put into painting, poetry, or music."