Paintings commonly raise questions for viewers. But a recently auctioned Max Beckmann painting raises questions about the art market itself. The painting, Hölle der Vögel (Hell of the Birds), was bought from Christie’s for USD $45.8 million by Larry Gagosian, reportedly on behalf of American billionaire Leon Black. At issue is what Gagosian and/ or Black thought they were buying.
Adrien Meyer, a Director at Christie’s, advertised the painting as an anti-Nazi statement, declaring it, “unanimously recognised as the Guernica of Expressionism.” But that opinion is hardly unanimous, and may even be spurious. Beckmann did paint Hölle der Vögel in 1938 after leaving Germany in the wake of being included in the Degenerate Art exhibition, but he declared that same year, “I have never been politically active in any way.”
This painting shows a person being tormented by birds, while a group of people in the background wave at the birds. A half-bird-half-woman hatches from an egg, waving back to the group. In the bottom right corner is a reference to time. There are no overt, irrefutable Nazi references. So we must ask: Would it have doubled the previous Beckmann auction record without the trumped up political context that accompanied its sale? And more importantly: Should any auction house ever claim it possesses the “unanimous” analysis of a work for sale?
Image caption: Max Beckmann (1884-1950), Hölle der Vögel, 1937-38. Oil on canvas. 47⅛ × 63 in (119.7 × 160.4 cm). © DACS 2017 via Christie's