Jay Vincze describes the moment he first saw Max Beckmann’s shocking Nazi-era painting, which set a world-auction record for the artist when it was sold in London on 27 June
‘Max Beckmann’s Hölle der Vögel (Birds’ Hell) (1937-38) is a painting I have known from reproductions all my life, but it was not until I stood in front of it in our New York galleries that I finally understood its power,’ says Jay Vincze, International Director of Impressionist & Modern Art at Christie’s.
Just as shocking today as it was in the 1930s, the painting signals Beckmann’s abhorrence at the rise of Nazism. After Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, the artist immediately lost his job at the Frankfurt Art School. Within hours of Hitler’s 1937 speech threatening to imprison and castrate ‘degenerate artists’, Beckmann was on a train heading to Amsterdam; he would never again set foot in Germany.
‘Hölle der Vögel is brutal, arresting, horrifying and fascinating. It screams out across the decades, and it is as ferociously visceral as any artwork you will ever experience’
As art historian Jill Lloyd told Christie’s in June 2017, ‘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.’
Although it had been kept in a private American collection since the 1980s, the painting was widely known from reproductions published following the Second World War. After being consigned for auction, it toured to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Basel before being installed in its own exhibition space in Christie’s King Street galleries in London.
‘There was a real intensity to the space,’ Vincze recalls. ‘Hölle der Vögel is brutal, arresting, horrifying and fascinating. It screams out across the decades, and it is as ferociously visceral as any artwork you will ever experience.’
On the evening of 27 June, the painting sold for £36,005,000, the highest price of the season and a world record for the artist. ‘That Hölle der Vögel attracted interest from all over world is testament to Christie’s ability to lead with masterpieces that resonate with international collectors,’ Vincze says. ‘It was also one of three works in the sale to exceed £20 million, demonstrating the strength of the London market for major works of art.’