In Beckmann’s own list of his works, the titles of the individual paintings of the triptych are: The Castle (left), The Staircase (right) and The Homecoming (middle painting).
The title of the whole triptych, “Departure”, is used by Beckmann for the first time in his correspondence with the artist Curt Valentin. In a letter to him on 11 February 1938, the artist baulks from explaining the work on the one hand, while also giving an important hint, which he then tries to modify immediately:
“Departure, yes departure from the deceptive appearance of life to the fundamental things in themselves that stand behind this appearance. However, this ultimately applies to all my paintings. But, all that’s certain is that “Departure” is not a tendentious piece, and can be applied to any period. – ” (ed. trans.)
Ken Johnson of The New York Times described Max Beckmann’s Departure as “one of the saddest paintings in the history of modern art.” It also happens to be one of the most disturbing. This painting was made just as Hitler rose to power in Germany and the Nazis forced Beckmann out of his job as a professor of art at Stadel Art School in Frankfurt, where he had been living and thriving for the past seventeen years. He moved to Berlin in an effort to protect himself, but the psychological damage, which was already a large part of Beckmann’s life as a veteran of World War I, was done.
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Michael Trabitzsch widmet sich in seiner Dokumentation dem berühmten Maler Max Beckmann, den vor allem der Wahnsinn des Krieges maßgeblich bei der Schaffung seiner Meisterwerke beeinflusste. Seine zahlreichen Selbstporträts sind oft Ausdruck von starken menschlichen Gefühlen wie Eitelkeit, Zerknirschung, Lebenshunger und Todesangst. Oft ist er seiner Zeit voraus gewesen, wie beispielsweise mit dem Werk “Abschied”, in dem er die schweren Bedrohungen durch den Nationalsozialismus aufzeigt – obwohl es erst Anfang der 30er Jahre entstanden ist. Trabitzsch nähert sich diesem besonderen Künstler mittels bewegter Bilder, die teilweise auch an Originalschauplätzen entstanden sind. Zudem wurden Beckmanns private Tagebücher und Briefe genutzt, um ein umfassendes Porträt zu erschaffen.
Across Departure’s three panels, Beckmann juxtaposed images of restraint and release, aggression and refuge, contraction and openness. While the work is a triptych—a format traditionally used (in Christian altarpieces, for example) to convey an explicit narrative or meaning—Departure’s symbolic message remains ambiguous. Bound, mutilated, blindfolded, or clamping their eyes shut, the figures in the outer panels are victims of sadistic violence. However, their circumstances are uncertain; perhaps they are actors on a stage, accompanied at left by such incongruous props as a tilted still life and a crystal ball. In the center, passengers from another time—a king and queen with a child, a warrior figure, and a sailor—stand solemnly on a barge gliding on calm seas. The blue sky and net teeming with fish suggest good fortune.
Beckmann painted Departure in a time of mounting terror and uncertainty, as Adolf Hitler gained power in the artist’s native Germany. The painting was completed over several years, during which the artist was dismissed from his teaching position in Frankfurt and forced to move to Berlin, then to Amsterdam. The Nazi party had deemed Beckmann’s art “degenerate,” and he was among hundreds of artists whose work was censored for alleged immoral or anti-German qualities. While the painting is widely considered a biographical response to this period, Beckmann asserted a universal message: “Departure bears no tendentious meaning—it could well be applied to all times.”
And the woman? Tied and gagged, dressed like a whore, humiliated and offered up for sacrifice. Woman, the symbol of purity, mystery, innocence, and ruse. Beguiler and saint. Here stripped, not naked, but tarted up, debased as symbol and object of desire, object of love. Here, she is thrown over a large glass ball; her face peers into it. A glass ball? Not your butcher’s block! A glass ball like a fortune-teller’s. So, she still has powers! What does she see, this sorceress? The future? Underneath the ball is a newspaper: the front page of Die Zeit. “You want to know the future?” Beckmann is saying, “The future is on the front page of the newspaper. The future is what is happening today played out tomorrow!”
As I said earlier, the architecture of this panel is a mystery. It is colonnaded and balustraded, arched and stairwayed. The main characters stand on what is possibly a stage. In the background are people going up and down on a stairway. Where are they going? And why during the performance? In the foreground, we find our king sporting an ill-fitted golfing cap and an ermine and velvet waistcoat. What? No long robe? He is carrying and beating a drum slung around his neck. Somewhere between a bellhop paging Philip Morris in a hotel lobby and a vendor hawking peanuts at the ballpark, our king is soliciting some kind of attention. Tucked between the straps and the drum skin is a newspaper that calls us back to the fortune-tellers in the left panel. Is that what our devoted king is doing? Pounding on the drum to get us to pay attention to the headlines?