Perseus’ Last Duty
Wiliam Robinson Curator of Modern European Art
Perseus’ Last Duty 1949. Max Beckmann (German, 1884–1950). Oil on canvas; 89.4 x 142 cm. Sundry Art–Miscellaneous 2013.7
To many, Max Beckmann (1884–1950) is an enigma. A leading figure in the German Expressionist and New Objectivity movements, Beckmann is widely regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Yet he maintained a certain distance from organized groups, preferring to remain a fiercely independent voice, never veering into complete abstraction, always insisting on his own highly personal style and complex system of cryptic symbolism. By recently acquiring Beckmann’s Perseus’ Last Duty of 1949, a major allegorical composition, the Cleveland Museum of Art has added a powerful anchor to its German Expressionist collection and significantly enriched its presentation of 20th-century art.
The son of a grain merchant, Beckmann was born in Leipzig and began his formal art training at age 15. He moved to Berlin in 1906 and joined the city’s Secessionist movement. While serving as a medical orderly during World War I, he suffered a traumatic mental breakdown and began painting in a far more radical style of powerfully distorted forms and psychologically disturbing content. By the mid-1920s, Beckmann had emerged as one of Germany’s foremost artists, a leader of the Expressionists, acclaimed for paintings filled with dark, indecipherable symbolism and profound feelings of distress and foreboding. In 1933 he became one of the principal targets of the Nazi campaign against “degenerate” art and was dismissed from his teaching position at the Städelschule for fine art in Frankfurt. More than 600 of his works were confiscated from museums, and many of them destroyed. In 1937 he fled to Amsterdam, where he remained throughout World War II, living in extreme poverty, isolation, and danger. After the war, he left Europe and spent his last years in the United States.
Beckmann painted Perseus’ Last Duty in New York the year before his death. The powerful forms and shocking, enigmatic subject are typical of his finest works, which are often impossible to interpret in any straightforward, conventional manner. He mentioned the painting four times in his diaries, without ever explaining the subject. He began working on the canvas around September 4, 1949, initially referring to it in his diary as Hercules letzte Sendung (Hercules’ Last Mission). On October 4, he recorded making considerable progress, but now described the subject as as Perseus letzte Aufgabe (Perseus’ Last Duty). Beckmann’s last reference to the painting appears in his diary entry for October 25, in which he vacillates between calling the composition Perseus or Hercules before concluding with the remark that the sound of thundering airplanes in the night still brings back memories of “lost nights” in Amsterdam during World War II.
The sword and costume worn by the painting’s principal figure indicate that in the end Beckmann shifted the subject toward Perseus. Hercules and Perseus are both celebrated warrior-heroes in Greek mythology. While Hercules is usually portrayed wearing a lion’s skin and holding a large club, Perseus wears a steel helmet and carries a sword. Perseus’s most famous feat was entering the cave of the Gorgons and slaying Medusa, a female monster whose stare turned men to stone. By only looking at Medusa’s reflection in a shield, Perseus managed to draw close enough to slice off her head.
Max Beckmann 1928. Hugo Erfurth (German, 1874–1948). Image courtesy of the Museum Folkwang. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Beckmann may have known earlier representations of Perseus slaying Medusa, a subject that appears in ancient Roman murals at Pompeii and in Renaissance sculptures. In stark contrast to these works, Beckmann’s interpretation is considerably more violent. Rather than slaying a single figure, Perseus stands in a pool of blood surrounded by mass carnage. He swings an enormous sword that reaches beyond the picture frame and into our own space. Dead bodies float in the blood; others lie on the stairs in the upper left. The two figures behind the decapitated woman seem lined up for execution, while four half-naked, weeping women appear in the mirror in the upper right. The recurring circular forms, such as the shape of the mirror and the pool of blood, may allude to an unending cycle of cruelty and violence. A fierce animal with a blood-spattered face witnesses the executions, perhaps a reference to Cerberus, the three-headed dog in classical mythology that guards the entrance to the underworld and prevents the condemned from escaping. This hybrid beast also incorporates elements of the Sphinx, a demonic part-human, part-animal creature. When approached, the Sphinx asks a riddle, then kills and devours anyone who fails to answer correctly.
According to etymologists, the name Perseus derives from the Greek verb for “to waste, ravage, sack, or destroy.” Although Beckmann’s painting evokes references to classical mythology, this grisly scene clearly belongs to the modern world and suggests a personal dream or nightmare. Having been traumatized as a medical orderly during World War I, and after barely surviving yet another world war, Beckmann was confronted in the postwar years with horrors of the Cold War and fears of nuclear annihilation. In his diaries, he called the atom bomb “evil,” but noted, “at least we can protest against the apparent madness of the universe.” He wrote the following in his entry for September 28, 1950: “MacArthur takes Seoul, next he approaches the border [with China], God help us, now the last world war is coming.”
Beckmann’s bitter social critique emerges in this horrifying image of Perseus, the great warrior, ironically presented wearing a dress and nylon stockings, transforming the Greek warrior into a debauched anti-hero, a counter-myth to standard histories that glamorize military victories, war, and conquest. While Beckmann’s precise intentions are unknown, the painting suggests a commentary on the human propensity toward conflict, violence, and cruelty that erupted with unprecedented furor in the modern age.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2013