Max Beckmann’s Bird’s Hell was last seen on Apollo’s pages on the walls of Richard Feigen’s Manhattan apartment. It was last seen by more people on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art where the painting was on loan for many years. It is one of the artist’s masterpieces, and as visceral and excoriating a work of art as one could ever expect to find.
It is a scene that still terrifies. In this dark and sinister world, the aggressors are brilliantly plumed but monstrous creatures, part bird, part human – their claw-like hands all the better adapted for staying their victims and wielding their long knives. In the foreground, one of them carefully incises the back of a pale, thin, shackled man who lies on a bench like a griddled St Lawrence. Presiding over all is a multi-breasted fertility goddess-figure who emerges out of a pink eggshell, her arm raised in an all too familiar salute that her henchman is ensuring the figures in the back emulate. In the middle looms a black and gold bird guarding a pile of gold coins.
It will come as no surprise to discover that this canvas was begun when the ‘degenerate’ artist fled Germany to Amsterdam in self-imposed exile in 1937. It was finished a year later in Paris. Beckmann was not an artist given to overtly political criticism, although there are a few earlier works like Die Nacht in this vein, and so this can be seen as an exceptional declaration, a cry of anguish, and an attack on an unrecognisable breed now hatching from the eggshells of National Socialism. It is little wonder that he turned to the fantastical imagery and allegory of Bosch, and to the impassioned, expressive angularity of the early German masters such as Grünewald, Cranach and Hans Baldung Grien. Perhaps must disturbing of all is the chilling indictment of the banality of evil – for even bird-monsters eat and read the newspaper.
Bird’s Hell was acquired by Beckmann’s friend and supporter, Käthe von Porada. She hung it in the dining room of her Paris apartment, and recorded in a letter that some of her guests ‘were so offended by the picture’s violence that they sat with their backs to it so they would not have to look at it.’ So, not an easy image to live with, or to value. When it comes to the block for the first time, at Christie’s in London on 27 June, it is expected to fetch around £30m – Beckmann’s current auction record of $22.6m was set back in 2001 by Self-Portrait with Horn, also painted in Amsterdam, in 1938. It was, I seem to remember, also sold to Richard Feigen who was this time buying on behalf of the Neue Galerie in New York. The price more than doubled the pre-sale estimate. It would be very surprising if this does not also find an enthusiastic response – as well as a raw nerve or two.