The reclining figure encircled by the griffin's tail at the far right may be the artist's self-portrait.
This painting depicts Perseus, a celebrated warrior from Greek mythology whose name derives from the Greek word "to waste, ravage, sack, destroy." Perseus’s most famous feat was cutting off Medusa’s head. Yet, the mass slaughter depicted here is not found in the ancient myth, but instead suggests a nightmarish allegory filled with private, enigmatic symbols, perhaps reflecting Beckmann’s experience of barely surviving two world wars. Traumatized while serving as a medical orderly during WWI, Beckmann later became the target of Nazi persecution. In 1947 he immigrated to the United States. Created in the aftermath of the Holocaust and under the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation, this painting suggests a bitter critique of mankind’s propensity for destruction. Presenting Perseus in female dress subverts the hypermasculine glamorization of military heroes common to national historical myths.
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