‘This painting is a warning about what can happen if we don’t listen to our impulse to transcend our own human tendency to destroy,’ says art historian Jill Lloyd of Hölle der Vögel (Birds’ Hell ) by Max Beckmann (1884-1950). ‘Painted at a very fraught moment in his own life and a very fraught moment in European politics, this is a very major painting — a compelling and striking image that once seen, it’s impossible to forget.’
Max Beckmann was born in 1884 in Germany. Having enjoyed a degree of success in his early years, his life was to be turned upside down by World War I. ‘Like many of the artists and poets of his generation, he had a nervous breakdown,’ explains Lloyd. ‘And at this point his art changes very drastically. He has a crisis. He begins to embrace modernity and look back at gothic art, with its pain and torture scenes. He starts to paint these very disturbing paintings.’
Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933 and Beckmann almost immediately lost his job at the Art School in Frankfurt. In 1937, the Degenerate Art exhibition took place in Munich. ‘It was hung in a very haphazard way,’ Lloyd says, ‘with lots of slogans calling [the artists] “cultural Bolsheviks”, or [describing the works] as “the art of the insane”.’ Hitler gave a speech in which he threatened artists who created such works with imprisonment or castration. Beckmann listened to this speech, and within a few hours he was on a train to Amsterdam. He never set foot in Germany again.
Beckmann’s sister-in-law lived in the Dutch capital, where the artist and his wife settled in a two-room apartment. Birds’ Hell was one of the first paintings that he made there.
His first ideas for the work derive from a sketch that he made just under a month after his arrival in the Netherlands. The drawing, dated 2 August 1937 and titled Land der Wahnsinnigen (The Country of the Insane), depicts a scene that Beckmann would have been risking his life to paint in Nazi Germany — the same scene of torture that would appear in the finished oil painting, along with a crowd of figures giving the Hitlergruss, and a later-abandoned idea of a group of figures holding crystal balls.
Lloyd describes Hölle der Vögel (Birds’ Hell), completed over the course of 1937 and 1938, as a canvas that’s ‘full of violence on every level’, painted in ‘colours that underline the frightening atmosphere of a torture chamber’. Like a 20th-century Brueghel or Bosch, Beckmann conjures a scene of mankind’s descent into darkness and terror as if it were a medieval portrait of hell.
The dynamic brushwork adds to the sense of a topsy-turvy world of noise, violence, madness and mass hysteria. In using the imagery of colourful birds of paradise as the ludicrous instigators of this revolt, Beckmann powerfully conveys the atmosphere of a plague or infestation. And it is in this way that the allegory of Hölle der Vögel (Birds’ Hell) expresses a more universal and timeless sense of the Nazi phenomenon as a kind of periodic madness.
There are other artists, of course, who found ways to refer to the dire political situation of the time. ‘Perhaps,’ says Lloyd, ‘the most interesting comparison would be with Picasso and his response in Guernica to the bombing [of the village in Spain’s Basque country]. There is much in Beckmann’s painting, in terms of its artistic qualities, to rival Picasso.’
Apart from the stark contrast in scale and colour, the central difference between these two great, angry paintings is one of notoriety. Whereas Picasso’s Guernica garnered immediate, worldwide acclaim when it was hung in the the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, Beckmann’s Hölle der Vögel (Birds’ Hell) is a work that, due to the artist’s situation, was only seen by a handful of people before the end of the Second World War.
On Beckmann’s completion of the painting in 1938, Hölle der Vögel (Birds’ Hell) was hung privately in the Paris apartment of the artist’s friend and promoter, Käthe von Porada, where she encouraged a discreet audience of sympathetic admirers to view the painting. It was to remain there throughout the German occupation of France until after the war, when, like the Beckmanns themselves, it travelled to New York.