We who live in the Western world at the present time continue to suffer under the reign of a great tyranny — the tyranny of artistic modernism.
New English Review, August 2012
It gets tiring, this lingering need to swipe at modernism. To the extent a date applies, the waning of modernism hovers between the late 1930s and the end of the Second World War. Yet seven decades later, one Quixote or another still gallops forward to tilt at the carcass. Beating a horse in extremis is unseemly. And doltish. It keeps us from recognizing the singular achievements of this fluid and variegated offensive against Victorian-era academies.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, modernism’s heyday, biblical imagery still held purchase on Western culture. One stunning example of modernist reimagining of a traditional subject is Max Beckmann’s Deposition:
Beckmann reintroduced the sepulchral, nightmare quality that centuries of familiarity have drained from—to take the closest example—Gerard David’s Deposition:
David evokes the graveyard that was Golgotha—”place of the skull”—by scattering bones in the foreground. With that gesture he observed the customary iconography which separated skeletal remains from the corpus of Christ. Beckmann, steeped in death as a volunteer medical attendant on the Belgium front in the First World War, reversed David’s diagonal composition. He turned his eye, and ours, to the skull beneath the taut-drawn skin of the dead Christ. The corpus is distorted by rigor. Violent death reveals itself in tortured angularities: feet contorted upward to display wounds from the underside; arms stiffened into unsupported extension, locked in unnatural outreach. Emaciated shoulders and clavicle tell their own tale. Skeletonization has begun.
Julius Meier-Graefe, a modernist art historian—one of the few included by the Nazis in their attack on “Degenerate Art”—commented on the severity of Beckmann’s initial post-war work, so reminiscent of Gothic painting. Writing in 1919, he interpreted Beckmann’s Deposition as a collective indictment on their place and time:
These paintings are anything but decorative. Their disposition is much more violent. An almost mystical embitterment impels such forms. The voluptuousness of pain . . . A fleshless Grünewald—fleshless, not soulless. The details spell out the want of ardor of our machine age . . . Color, which could soften the factual details, is despised . . . The apparition stands with inexorable clarity. But it is nonetheless animated. These terrifying figures [indicate] a prodigious self-conceit . . . embraced by an entire nation, which sinned extravagantly and atones extravagantly, which by means of monstrous instruments of torture has its rotten flesh burned away so that its spirit might come to its senses.
The imitatio Dei is not a matter of copying. It is a matter, first, of comprehending; and, then, of seeking forms to render that comprehension. Modernism did not abandon form. Rather, it sought a means of creating fresh forms for interpreting the world—the world of our own time—not merely duplicating what greets our senses. Or repeating routinely what we love in the art of an earlier age.