In Departure this closeness becomes identity; the fish are symbols of Will. That’s why the king releases them and looks sharply away while doing so. There is no sentimentality, no wistfulness in this rejection of Will, this relinquishing of things he has acquired to satisfy his desires. The bellhop’s fish, as phallically stiff as those in Fisherwomen, signifies his subjection to Will in the form of sexual desire and thus links him with the very unhappy couple who share his stage. Because he carries the fish like a field marshal’s baton, it also plays a role in the parody of militarism implied by his uniform. Every symbol of worldly power is a symbol of Will. The fish that wriggles through a hole in the torturer’s ax places all the sadism of the torture chamber under the sign of Will. This is the force at its cruellest, the aspect that shows itself in warfare and psychosis, a mindless drive to rape, torture, mutilate and kill. The fish-ax is raised threateningly, but where it will fall remains ambiguous. Due to Beckmann’s Expressionistic distortion and flattening of space–an effect achieved by tilting the floor upward and making the background figures larger than those closer to us–we cannot tell if the ax is aimed at the man in the garbage can, at the man with no hands, or at that supremely incongruous platter of fruit.
Dream-like and nightmarish, Max Beckmann’s triptych Departure is a complex Modernist concerto of horror and hope. Its music is as jarring as anything by Berg or Schoenberg, and like all the masterpieces of Modernism–from Picasso’s Cubist canvases to the novels of James Joyce–its innovative structure and original symbolic language present extreme challenges to interpretation. Because Departure was painted in Germany at the time of the Nazi takeover, and because Beckmann later fled to Amsterdam after his works were included in the Nazis’ infamous ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition, this triptych is often understood as the artist’s response to an era of blind conformity and sadistic violence. While on one level this political interpretation must be accurate, it fails to account for the surreal strangeness of the work. If Beckmann had wanted to make a statement about Nazism, he could have conceived images much more pointed and effective than a fairy tale king in a boat and a blindfolded bellhop holding a large fish. This is, after all, the same artist who in The Night (1918-19) gave us one of twentieth-century art’s most brutally direct images of torture. But in Departure Beckmann has (I can’t resist the expression) bigger fish to fry. The painting is not a political position paper; it is the expression of a worldview intended to be timeless and universal. In a letter to his dealer Beckmann spoke of the triptych in obscure, occult terms: “For me this painting is a kind of rosary, or a ring of colourless figures, who can glow when there is real contact and who tell me truths that I cannot express with words and did not know before. It can only speak to people who, consciously or not, have within them more or less the same metaphysical code.” 1 Like that other 1930’s monument of Modernism, Finnegans Wake, Departure is an esoteric work, difficult for the uninitiated; it reveals its secrets only to those who can achieve “real contact” and see it glow with meaning.
All the paintings have the same height of 215.5cm, while the middle painting, at 115cm, is just a little wider than the side paintings at 99.5 cm each. Therefore the side paintings have considerable significance from the outset. They show bleak interiors with disturbing scenes, while in the middle painting we see the openness and breadth of the sea and the sky, and a royal family with their helpers on a bright, sunny day.
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.)
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.”
Max Beckmann, Departure,1932, Oil on canvas, Side panels 7′ 3/4″ x 39 1/4″, center panel 7′ 3/4″ x 45 3/8″
This essay was first published in the exhibition catalogue for Max Beckmann in Exile at the Guggenheim Museum in SoHo, New York on October 9, 1996.
Hilton Kramer is the editor of The New Criterion.
On the basis of such work, which was also accompanied by a copious production of graphic art devoted to many of the same themes, Beckmann made a spectacular comeback, and by the mid-20’s he was once again established as an artist of recognized eminence. He lived in Frankfurt in this period and was invited to teach a master class in its leading art academy. He exhibited his work in virtually all the European art capitals and had his first one-man show in New York in 1926, at I. B. Neumann’s New Art Circle Gallery. He had married again – to Mathilde von Kaulbach, the beloved ”Quappi” so familiar to us in the many portraits of her painted from the 20’s onward – and frequented the milieu of the social and intellectual elite.