Even in the early years of his career before World War I, Beckmann had received considerable acclaim, but during the postwar period he acquired a national as well as international reputation, and by the end of the 'twenties his standing in the German art world seemed quite secure. Stephan Lackner, a staunch friend and supporter of the artist, has recalled that at this time "he was a much-discussed and widely acknowledged master. Many German museums were acquiring his paintings, and the Berlin National Gallery had a special room dedicated to his work. As a professor at the Frankfurt Art School he was venerated by his pupils; he was lionized by literary circles and by Frankfurt's 'high society.'" A self-important as well as self-conscious individual, Beckmann greatly enjoyed playing the formidable personage at social gatherings. Lackner gives a vivid account of Beckmann's attitude and appearance in society: "In life as in his figure compositions, he liked sharply defined, widely divergent types. For a party to be well 'composed' for him, it had to contain one old-fashioned, debonair aristocrat, two or three spectacularly beautiful women, some business-like, energetic bourgeois, a vivacious, swarthy and somewhat mysterious art dealer and several slim, intellectual, adoring youngsters. . . He himself certainly looked like his self-portraits: a more-than-life-size figure with a massive rocklike head reminiscent of an archaic idol, an athletic, well-shaped body which, at that time, was clothed with easy elegance; he had a cold aura of distinction and distance around him . . . One had the impression: Here is a man on the heights of life, at the pinnacle of his artistic and personal powers."
But Beckmann was fundamentally sensitive and anxious underneath the egocentric callousness and tough cynicism that he cultivated as a protection against the world. Alfred Neumeyer has written of Beckmann's "tender nervous (as well as brutal) nature." So too has Perry Rathbone, who like Neumeyer knew Beckmann toward the end of his career, after his move to the United States in 1947: "His countenance with its intellectual brow, its wide, downturned mouth, was deeply serious, but his eyes were soft and kindly . . . Max Beckmann was a proud man . . . whose self-created image was one of seriousness, masculine courage, and strength. Yet Beckmann's appearance somehow belied the true state of his constitution. He was a man made sleepless by the subconscious projection of his anxieties and fantasies. He told me he had been plagued by wakefulness for twenty-five years. Insomnia had left its mark; his was the face of a tired man, a man with a burden." Although back in the early 'thirties Beckmann was undoubtedly less tired than during the period of his friendship with Rathbone, there is no reason to suppose that he was any the less ridden by anxiety, especially because of the ominous political situation in Germany, which was having immediate repercussions on his career and personal welfare. In connection with a later, less serious ordeal in 1949, when Beckmann was obliged to leave a temporary teaching position and move on to a new post, Rathbone attests to his hypernervous response to uncertainty and points to the situation out of which this condition arose: "I recognized that all decisions of a vital kind, especially those that involved his bodily or personal existence, were never easy for Beckmann, and they could be agonizing. I was struck in fact by the tension that built up within him over any impending new experience . . . He never developed any ease of life and rarely knew solid contentment. Ever since the traumatic experience of the first World War the element of anxiety in his nature continued to deepen."
Like all Germans of his generation, Beckmann was deeply affected by World War I. It is a matter of record that he was both stimulated and psychologically wounded by the horrors he witnessed while serving as a member of the German army field hospital corps in 1914-1915. A significant parallel may be drawn between those years and 1932-1933, both of which were times of personal crisis for him. The later crisis, when the artist's career was set back by the rising Nazi tide and he felt compelled to move away from the town that had been his home for seventeen years, may not have been as severe as that of 1915, when seriously ill, he was invalided out of the army. But the disturbances of the time and the accompanying threat to Beckmann's personal welfare and security would in all probability have been sufficient to reactivate the nervous anxieties and fantasies that had overtaken him on the occasion of the earlier breakdown. His retreat into the realm of mythology, as well as his return to an imagery of horror - both of which tendencies are found in Departure - appear to be related to both the national political crisis and to the personal crisis that accompanied it.
The story of German politics in the fateful year before President Hindenburg finally named Hitler as chancellor is one of sordid plotting, frantic electioneering, and unprecedented violence in the streets. National elections were called on four occasions. During these contests the Nazis introduced new and revolutionary propaganda techniques. "They plastered the walls of the cities and towns with a million screeching colored posters, distributed eight million pamphlets and twelve million extra copies of their party newspapers, staged three thousand meetings a day and, for the first time in a German election, made good use of films and gramophone records, the latter spouting forth from loudspeakers on trucks." The Storm Troopers, "now 400,000 strong," threatened to take power by force and institute a reign of terror. Suppressed in April, the Nazi private army was as free as ever just two months later, when the ban was lifted by Franz von Papen. "A wave of political violence and murder such as even Germany had not previously seen immediately followed."
It was at precisely this moment that Beckmann conceived his first triptych. In turning to the form, the artist may have been harking back to the example of Hans von Marees, whose grand-style idealism had been an inspiration to him in his student days. However, Departure can be most meaningfully compared to late Gothic representations of martyrdom and salvation. When the triptych was first shown in America, a critic rightly observed that the painting affirmed Beckmann's Gothic inheritance. "In its daemonic 'Walpurgisnacht' quality his work has affinities with Hans Baldung and in its violence it suggests the Calvaries of a Cranach or a Maleszkircher."
The Gothic spirit inherent in Departure is most strikingly evident in the contrast between the serene otherworldliness of the center section and the violence of the wings. The latter depict dark nightmarish scenes of brutality and degradation. On one side a stocky man in a striped polo shirt holds aloft a bludgeon-like bag of fish, as though about to "execute" a partially clothed woman who kneels at his feet with her arms bound stiffly above her head. She bends over a round, green object that has been thought to be a glass globe. A newspaper - one can easily read "ZEITU[NG]" - lies on the floor immediately to the right of the woman and the strange green object. Directly beyond the brutal executioner looms the strictly frontal form of a naked, gagged, and mutilated man of corpselike paleness, whose bloody stumps of arms are tied above his head to a stumpy column. another male figure stands in a waste barrel with his hands shackled together behind his back. He faces directly into a column. Between a third column and the inner edge of the panel, part of a dark, barred window can be seen. The low ceiling and otherwise constricted space of the room, together with the presence of bars, suggests a prison or a torture chamber, while the barbarous, closely spaced columns are suggestive of a pagan temple. Next to the man in the polo shirt is a still-life display of immense fruit. The fruit lies on a circular tabletop, which in turn rests like a stage property upon a little cart or wheeled truck. It has been suggested that this conspicuous still-life arrangement could be an allusion to an artist's studio; it is perhaps equally significant that fruit is traditionally associated with luxury and pleasure.
Opposite this image of sadism and debasement, the right panel presents a scene which, if less violent, is equally charged with an atmosphere of degradation and suffering. On the stage of a dimly lit theater appear a strange couple. The woman is clothed in a queer white garment - apparently her nightdress - which reaches to the floor but leaves one side of her body exposed. She carries an old-fashioned kerosene lamp; however, her face and shoulders are in deep shadow. Trussed to her body is the inverted and rigid form of a man dressed only in a short-sleeved, yellow-green shirt. This unhappy couple is escorted by a blindfolded figure in an usher's uniform. Under his arm he carries a long fish, a symbol frequently met in Beckmann's paintings after the mid 1920's. Occupying the stage with these figures is a small naked child - Selz calls him "a horrible dwarf-like Eros" - who makes a gesture of shame or revulsion. Out front in the pit a man in a curious costume beats a big bass drum. His ermine-collared coat and trinket-laden cap recall the wily French King Louis XI. Finally, through a narrow gap to one side of the backdrop at the rear of the stage, shadowy little figures can be seen peering down from balustraded stairs or galleries.
The brutal, bizarre scenes of the two side panels are staged within equally cramped and confining interior settings: a seedy, tarnished theater balancing an unholy temple of depravity. In strong contrast to the violence and oppressiveness of these scenes, the central panel, dominated by broad expanses of clear primary colors, shows a group of heroic figures standing calmly in a small boat upon the open sea. A family of three - a sort of Holy Family - appears between two majestic figures, one draped in red, the other in blue. The figure in red is a savage hooded being who grasps a huge fish with both hands. His companion is a crowned Christ-like personage , who holds a fully laden net in his left hand while making a blessing with his right.
In a letter dated September 30,1963, Mrs. Beckmann expresses her opinion that "the best and most authentic explanation" of the meaning of Departure is the one given by Perry Rathbone in his Introduction to the catalogue of the 1948 Beckmann retrospective. Mr. Rathbone states: " The side panels symbolize, on the left, man's brutality to man in the form of a callous executioner and his victims; on the right, the unbearable tragedy that Nature itself inflicts on human life as symbolized by the mad hallucinations of a woman encumbered by the lifeless form of a man . . . Out of this earthly night of torment and mental anguish, the figures of the central panel emerge into the clear light of redemption and release, embarked for Eternity."
The contrast that Rathbone observed between the "majestic optimism" of the central panel and the "earthly night" of the wings led one of Beckmann's patrons, Lilly von Schnitzler, to try to persuade the artist to sell the center panel separately, as she did not wish to own the remainder of the triptych. The following dialogue ensued in Beckmann's studio on the Graf Spee Strasse in Berlin in February 1937:
"You want to buy the centerpiece, Lilly, but you can't have that alone, the three belong together - the center is the end of the tragedy, but the meaning can only be understood by the three parts together."
"Well, can you explain what the meaning of these terrible, savage panels right and left is? I like the peace, the serenity in the figures, in the composition, the marvellous colours of the centerpiece, but the two others are a nightmare which I could not face daily in my living-room."
Beckmann smiled half ironically half enigmatically: "Life is what you see right and left. Life is torture, pain of every kind - physical and mental - men and women are subjected to it equally. On the right wing you can see yourself trying to find your way in the darkness, lighting the hall and staircase with a miserable lamp, dragging along tied to you as a part of yourself, the corpse of your memories, of your wrongs and failures, the murder everyone commits (Beckmann meant spiritually) at some time of his life - you can never free yourself of your past, you have to carry that corpse while Life plays the drum ."
"And in the center?"
" The King and Queen, Man and Woman, are taken to another shore by a boatsman whom they do not know, he wears a mask, it is the mysterious figure taking us to a mysterious land."
"Does it mean Acheron, is the water the river Styx, does it mean that they are dead, being taken to Hades - or to some kind of resurrection?"
"Do we know? - The King and the Queen have freed themselves, freed themselves of the tortures of life - they have overcome them. The Queen carries the greatest treasure - Freedom - as her child in her lap. Freedom is the one thing that matters - it is the departure, the new start."
In this exchange between Beckmann and his patron, it is a fair question whether the word "freedom" carries any political significance. Inasmuch as Departure was painted at just the time the Nazis came to power, some American critics have seen in the horror of the side panels an outspoken reference to the sinister course of events at the beginning of the Hitler era. Bernard Myers is one who interprets the triptych in terms of explicit social commentary. According to Myers, these panels "symbolized the cruelty of the Nazi torturer on the left-hand side and the madness and despair of the era at the right." Perry Rathbone, who obtained information in consultation with the artist himself, describes the situation more exactly when he writes: "The rise of National Socialism and the sinister shadow it cast before it, shocked Beckmann into a larger realization of life . . . Beckmann was determined that his art should defy the political atmosphere generated by the Nazi revolution. The inner conflict that now possessed him first found release in the great triptych, Departure." Although Rathbone suggests that the meaning of the triptych is more religious than political, he also notes that Beckmann thought it best to hide the finished painting in an attic, and "lest its provocative content arouse the suspicions of the Nazis, he labeled the back of the canvas, 'Scenes from Shakespeare's Tempest.'"
Does Departure actually contain political overtones or explicit topical allusions? It does, I believe, express an attitude toward politics in general, one that hovers between disgust and bemused fascination with power. Earlier, Beckmann had been outspoken in his condemnation of the Weimar Republic. Stephan Lackner has recalled that, in the pre-Nazi years when he and Beckmann were both living in Frankfurt, the painter was "full of misgivings about Germany's social structure. After the First World War and through the inflation period he was one of the harshest critics of the economic and moral depression." During the Nazi period, however, and on the occasion of the New Burlington exhibition in London honoring German artists defamed by the 1937 "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich, Beckmann spoke as one completely disinterested in politics. "Painting . . . absorbs the whole man, body and soul - thus, I have passed blindly many things which belong to real and political life." This is an odd statement for one who has been called "the eye of the epoch."
At the same time Beckmann declared that "the greatest danger which threatens mankind is collectivism. Everywhere attempts are being made to lower the happiness and the way of living of mankind to the level of termites. I am against these attempts with all the strength of my being." He also made cynical reference to politics as "an odd game, not without danger I have been told, but certainly sometimes amusing." Beckmann's attitude toward politics was clearly not one of indifference, but he held himself aloof from political polemics as such. It would seem that Departure is therefore the expression more of anxiety and foreboding than of protest. Beckmann himself denied that the painting made any direct political comment: "It is to be said that Departure bears no tendentious meaning - it could well be applied to all times." It would nevertheless be misleading to assume no connection between the nightmare elements in the triptych and the civil chaos and violence that erupted as the Weimar Republic was crumbling. As an expression of brutality and demonic force versus paralysis and impotence, Departure is profoundly true to the emotional climate of Germany in the early 1930's.
The nearest thing to an explicit political symbol in Departure is the drummer in the costume of Louis XI. (The crowned figure in the central panel belongs to a realm aloof from politics.) In view of the constant party agitation and electioneering - parades, rallies, street demonstrations - plaguing Germany in those days, the drummer with a broadside pasted to his drum is surely a reference to rabble-rousing political activity, perhaps even to the noisiest and most conspicuous party, the Nazis. With his scrawny body and sunken features, the drummer somewhat resembles Joseph Goebbels. In a wider context, the heavy throb of a big drum might suggest the same irrational life force that drives the executioner on the left. Drummer and executioner, in fact, are formally linked by means of the parallel position and similar shape of the objects they carry: drumstick and bulbous-headed weapon.
Clifford Amyx has suggested that the horror in the left wing of Departure may constitute a comment upon the fate of art in an atmosphere of political brutality and social disintegration. Noting the presence of the still-life "prop" and " the fact that the figure wielding a weapon of brutality is dressed as an artist himself might be dressed," Amyx points to "the possibility that the artist himself may be an instrument of brutality" through his "submission to any contemporary brutality." The massive body, squarish head, and stiffly heroic pose of the man in the striped shirt suggest that Beckmann may have put himself in the grim role of the executioner.
The question arises of how to evaluate Beckmann's expressions of force and violence. They are a recurrent element in his work, suggesting that he was as much fascinated as repelled by them. When he wrote in 1938 of resisting intimidation by the horror of the world, he voiced an attitude of mystical fatalism. "Everything is ordered and correct and must fulfill its destiny in order to attain perfection." The notion that everything, including the horror, is ordered and correct reminds one of Nietzsche's advice that history is to be accepted with a Dionysian outlook that submits joyously to tragedy. In Beckmann there is the same implication that tragedy and horror are not to be externally denied but may, through an inward force of ego, be surpassed. Knowing that Beckmann held this view, we are probably not far wrong in assuming that the executioner has semi-heroic status as an active natural force.
Perhaps this brutal figure should also be regarded as an expression of compulsive defiance as well as of wanton assertiveness. Perry Rathbone refers to an inner conflict and a determination on Beckmann's part to defy the "political atmosphere generated by the Nazi revolution." After Hitler had become chancellor, all of the arts and the mass media were quickly put under nearly absolute state control. Not only did the new federal bureaus for culture determine which artists should be permitted a public career, but the official threat of the Arbeitsverbot (Work Prohibition) might be invoked to stop a painter even from working in private. What such a threat would have meant to Beckmann may be judged from a statement of his in 1915, when military service had made painting all but impossible: "I am often amused over my idiotically tenacious will to life and art. I take care of myself with a vengeance like a loving mother - I must live and I will live. I have never, God knows, stooped to court success, but I would wind myself through all the sewers of the world, through all humiliation and dishonor, in order to paint. That I must do. All the form conceptions that dwell within me must be released to the last drop; then it will be a pleasure to get rid of these confounded torments."
Beckmann was acutely aware of the evil inherent in violent impulses and unrestrained will, but he appears to have been even more horrified by power" less inaction and loss of self. In contrast to the heroic stance of the executioner, the condition of the mutilated man with raised arms, suggesting an attitude of punishment or surrender, or of the junked man in the barrel , is utterly debasing. The taut, frozen immobility of the inverted man in the opposite panel is a living death. He is lost, damned, nullified. However, there is something heroic and defiant in his rigid perpendicularity; like a sentient corpse, he is the martyred counterpart of the artist-executioner, in whose ambiguous forcefulness one may see a parallel with Picasso's bulls and minotaurs. That the bullish man in the striped shirt is also an expression of aggressive male sexuality may be assumed from his relation to the other figures and from the fact that the bludgeon he wields is a bag of fish on a stick.
The sexual significance of the fish in Beckmann's symbolism is inescapable in paintings such as The Big Codfish (1929) or The Fisherwomen (1948). But to him the fish was more than a phallic symbol. H. W. Janson puts it well when he comments that for Beckmann the fish was the "primeval symbol of male creative force and spirituality." The Jungian critic Armin Kesser gives a similar interpretation: "The symbol of the fish expresses perhaps not only fertility, lucky destiny, creativity, but at the same time one's own soul, Christ and the redemption." The meaning of the fish in Beckmann's art varies somewhat according to the context, suggesting raw lust in one place, fruitfulness or productivity in another. In the most general and inclusive terms, it appears to be Beckmann's symbol for the life force, considered not only as a biological, but as a spiritual impulse eternally driving all incarnate beings. The fish carried by the blindfolded usher in the right wing of Departure would appear to represent the biological fate that bound two human beings together in an unhappy relationship and engendered a third.
The wings of Departure present a pair of tragic alternatives: man bound to woman as her inverted and negated mate, and woman as the object of a sadistic sacrifice by man. As Clifford Amyx observes: "Their roles are 'reversed' in the dominance of man in one panel, woman in the other, and there is nothing in either panel to suggest that their relationships are natural." Amyx has drawn attention to the fact that Beckmann's Journey on Fishes (1934) dramatizes in explicit terms the fate of a couple in bondage similar to the one in the right panel of Departure. In this sadly beautiful work, which belongs to the same period as the triptych, the couple are plummeting through space, bound to two huge fish that dive vertically down like agents of doom. The man goes head foremost, the woman rides on his back. She is poised, aloof, resigned. He holds his crossed arms over his face as though he were plunging to perdition. "Placed against sea and sky, in a universal 'fate' . . . they represent themselves to each other through cold black masks."
One may reasonably suspect a substratum of deeply felt personal emotion in Beckmann's psychological "dramas," but whatever the biographical significance of the ill-fated couple in the right wing of Departure, Beckmann surely intended a more universal commentary on the relation of the sexes. If the blindfolded usher with the fish is interpreted as an agent of destiny - Beckmann himself spoke of "liftboys" as modern messengers of fate - the couple acquire a kind of mythic grandeur. It comes as an added stroke of ironic enrichment that the three figures (attendant, doomed man and woman) echo two sublime themes from the art of the past: the Expulsion from Eden, with the attendant now driving the sinners forth with a fish instead of a sword, and Orpheus and Eurydice guided from the Underworld by Hermes. The portal-like backdrop then becomes an ambiguous gate symbol appropriate to either Eden or Hades. To suggest both lost innocence and lost love might have been very much to Beckmann's purpose.
In the side panels of Departure, Beckmann thus expressed his apocalyptic sense of the horror of life and his vitalist stance of outfacing horror in the manner of a Nietzschean superman. As the newspaper in the left panel indicates - with the visible first syllable of Zeitung making explicit reference to time (Zen') - the horror and depravity of the side panels belong to the world in time, the world of events, or as Beckmann would say, "the world of political reality." Opposed to "this earthly night" is the world of "spiritual life" in the center, where a mythic company floats peacefully on the wide blue sea of eternity. The world of spirit, in contrast to the tight confinement of the scenes in the wings, partakes of open space, with the elements in tranquility. The figures are larger in scale than those in the wings, and they are seen in more natural perspective against the stabilizing line of a level horizon. Colors are brighter and more intense; purity is implicit in the normative primaries, red and blue.
The dominating figures are the crowned fisherman and the mysterious "hooded" man with the enormous fish. The Christ-like figure holding the net confers beatitude on the little band of voyagers with the familiar Christian gesture, but his semidraped form gives a somewhat pagan impression as well. The other figure, with his ominous mask, gold arm band, and horn-shaped red sash, is a savage, rather frightening being, though generally presumed benign in the context. This masked figure, like the big fish he holds, appears to represent the blind demonic energy of life, the elemental life will. He stands by an oar, suggesting that his is a propellant role. At the same time, Amyx was probably right to associate this disguised being with the "ego" or "self," which Beckmann characterized as "the great veiled mystery of the world."
The Christ-like fisher king , on the other hand, is lord and keeper of the world of spiritual life. Holding a full net rather than a scepter, he expresses welling fecundity in the context of human (or divine) control, thereby symbolizing culture and creativity. His disciplined, authoritative bearing suggests that he personifies the sublimating power of mind and imagination, the reflective consciousness that transmutes the experience of the senses and lifts the will to a higher plane. He is the redeemer of reality. There is something akin to Freudianism in such conceptions, but their source for Beckmann would have been Schopenhauer, who saw reality as reducible to the senselessly striving and self-devouring energy of the "will," and the reflective intelligence that can redeem life in a meaningless universe by elevating and transfiguring that will into "idea" (Vorstellung, perhaps better translated as "image" or "representation").
Clifford Amyx has observed that the hooded figure and the crowned fisherman "inevitably recall those figures in [T. S.] Eliot's [The] Waste Land, the Hooded Man and the Fisher King." But Beckmann's fisher king is not a vegetation god. He is not a symbol of reproductive nature, but of freedom from the tortures of life. His is a spiritual fertility. He is full-bodied and vigorous, as Amyx himself points out, whereas the Fisher King of the poem and the legend was a mutilated or impotent figure. He contrasts with the inverted man in Departure, who does have a wound between his shoulder blades, and with the gagged man, whose mutilated condition suggests impotence. In The Waste Land, according to another authority, "the Fisher King's role is to represent man's fate as it originates in sex but cannot transcend it; without this transcendence . . . he is doomed to death." The Christ-like king in Departure represents precisely this transcendence. In The Waste Land it is the "hooded figure" who is associated with the resurrected Christ, whereas in Departure the masked man is a demonic elemental force of nature, a kind of savage virility symbol.
Between the majestic king with the full net and the savage oarsman with the mask - paired by Beckmann as necessary contraries - a dignified Holy Family may be seen. Beckmann referred to the woman with the child as the "Queen," saying that she carries freedom, the new beginning, as her child in her lap. It is clear that the artist was speaking, not of political, but of spiritual freedom - the freedom of a fresh start in a new existence. The queen is easily identified with the artist's second wife "Quappi," whose portrait he painted many times. In the present context she represents fruitfulness and the blessedness of the creative principle. The inconspicuous "Joseph" may be seen as a vague father-figure, benign but overshadowed. The true father is the fisherman king, ruler of the spacious realm of spirit and imagination.
Thus, the essential opposition in Departure is that of worldly bondage to metaphysical release, of life or history to imagination and art. To use the terminology of Schopenhauer, the world as idea is shown as a moral refuge from the horrors of the world as will. The contrast between open and enclosed space dramatizes the Erlosung or "deliverance." Referring to Departure as an expression of mystical redemption, Beckmann wrote: "Departure, yes departure, from the illusions of life toward the essential realities that lie hidden beyond." Yet the so-called "illusions of life" are presented with a vividness equal to that of the "essential realities." Nonetheless, a transformation is felt in the passage from the imagery of the side panels to that of the central one. Looking from the executioner to the parallel but magnified figure of the fisherman king, one sees brute force transmuted into heroic and authoritative vitality. Looking from the woman with the lamp and exposed breast to the similarly frontal figure of the queen, one sees lust transfigured into creative fulfillment. In the convergence, crossing, and confrontation implicit in these relationships, one senses a sublimating union. Like Nietzsche, Beckmann believed in the need to span good and evil, but in Departure he expressed a sort of neo-Platonic idealism that would make "good" the central and essential reality, whatever the status of its opposite. The work may in the final analysis be another celebration of the marriage of heaven and hell, but in this instance at least, one is left in no doubt that heaven is fair and hell is dark, and although the two may have been married a long time, they are still not compatible.