Max Beckmann’s Holle der Vogel (Birds’ Hell) set a new artist record in a sale of impressionist and modern art at Christie’s London last night.
The canvas realised £36m ($45.8m), more than doubling Beckman’s previous record of $22.5m (set in 2001).
The Nazis denounced Beckmann as a degenerate artist in 1933
It’s also the highest sum ever paid for an expressionist artwork at auction.
Christie’s director of Adrien Mayer, in New York. “The sale of such a historically significant painting as Beckmann’s Birds’ Hell demonstrates Christie’s ability to lead with masterpieces that resonate on the international market,’
“This emblematic picture has become unanimously recognised as the Guernica of Expressionism and the international appetite was evidenced in the spirited bidding witnessed in the saleroom and on the phone.”
The work, executed in 1937-1938, is a deeply unsettling allegory for Germany under the Nazis.
It depicts birds wielding knives and torturing captive humans. Other humans raise their arms in complicit salutes.
The Nazis forcibly removed Beckmann from his post at the art school in Frankfurt in 1933.
In 1937, they confiscated most of his canvases. Some were shown in the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich.
Beckmann left for Amsterdam soon after, where he remained in exile until the end of the war. This work was painted there.
In his 1977 analysis of this painting, critic Stephen Lackner explains Beckmann’s use of the bird motif: “Rich [Nazi] party officials, who strutted around in well-tailored uniforms, were called Goldfasanen (gold pheasants) by the sceptical populace.
“It is also useful to remember the prevalence in Nazi Germany of the incessant din of loudspeakers.
“The aggressive Prussian eagle was still a vivid memory, and the Third Reich adopted the heraldic bird for some of its own emblems…
“With this work, Beckmann’s exile became irrevocable.”
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