If you are a museum director intent on enriching your collection with art that is both historic and challenging, Cleveland Museum’s C. Griffith Mann, a.k.a. chief curator, shows the way with the recent purchase of a painting by Max Beckmann, who Hitler tagged “degenerate.” (Translation: one who makes art without Arcadian romance). Hitler, arbiter of taste-in-chief, http://tapeunit.com/article/when-pols-dictate-to-painters confiscated 600 of Beckman’s works from museums.
Even now, this purchase is a big deal.
Called “Perseus’ Last Duty,” it shows Perseus, the demi-god known in Greek mythology for slaying monsters like the gorgon Medusa, in a blood-soaked scene of slaughter. And while the carnage belongs to mythology, Beckmann relates it to the modern world.
Although Beckmann lived through two world wars and emigrated to the U.S., he never got over the traumas of those wars. “Perseus’ Last Duty,” was painted fully four years after WWII ended and is no less grim than his work done in Germany, such as “The Night.” What you see is a scene of horror, torture, and death in a cramped space and colored a gangrenous green. Distorted, angular figures pushing into each other are made with harsh line and coarse texture to intensify the discomfort of the viewer.
In the journal Kunst und Kunstler, Beckmann explained what he was trying to accomplish:
“I want a style that, in contrast to the art of exterior decoration, will penetrate as deeply as possible into the fundamentals of nature, into the soul of things. I am fully aware that many of the feelings I experience have already existed before. But I also recognize what is new in my feelings, what I have drawn from my time and its spirits. It is not something that I want to or care to define. It is in my pictures.”
Because “Perseus’ Last Duty,” made a lifetime ago, describes life now, it seems fair to say that the Greek myths may not be as fabled as we think.