The Argonauts

The Argonauts 1950 by Max Beckmann at Thyssen-Bornemisza Bornemisza in Madrid
The Argonauts 1950 by Max Beckmann at Thyssen-Bornemisza Bornemisza in Madrid

There are so many reasons to love Madrid. When we passed through here a month ago, on our way up north to finish the Camino, we saw an announcement for a Max Beckmann show at the Thyssen-Bornemisza. It opened last week so it was our first order of business today. We were there when they opened the doors at ten and we spent a good four hours with the fifty or so paintings. We broke for lunch and came back as our tickets were good for the day. We walked slowly through the Beckmann show again and then wandered through their permanent collection finishing right near closing time.

The Argonauts was Beckmann’s final triptych before he died in 1950. Beckmann was a medical orderly in World War I. The traumatic experience shaped his dramatic, expressive style. He was thrown out of Germany by the Nazis for what they called degenerative art. In this final painting the hero as a dreamer or the dreamer as a hero has conquered the nightmarish aspects of life. The young artist paints his model. In the center panel Orpheus and Jason are shown embarking on their search for the Golden Fleece with the old man on the ladder giving them advice. And the third panel shows the all women band in action.

Beckmann has his own set of symbols, some based on the decadent glamour of the Weimar Republic’s cabaret culture. He paints allegories and makes mythologized references to the brutalities of the Nazis. Clowns, circus performers, ladders, swords, horns and eclipses make frequent appearances. I love the way he paints, like Rouault or Marsden Hartley, big and bold and expressive. This show was so much fun to look at.

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