The Prodigal Son | Art for Lent 4C

The Prodigal Son, oil on canvas, 1949, Max Beckmann, 1884-1950

At the time artist, Max Beckmann volunteered to serve in the German army’s medical corps during World War I (1914-1818), the nations of Europe had not been in an all-encompassing conflict for almost a century. During those years the industrial revolution changed not only the way people lived but it changed the way wars would be fought. Humans were up against tanks, machine guns, mortar shells, and airplanes. As a member of the medical corps, Beckmann was unnerved completely by the carnage he saw. This led to a breakdown and subsequent discharge from the military.

After its defeat, Germany was in disarray and the aftermath of war left people without direction or purpose. An uncertain future and relaxed social values during the Weimar Republic aided the onset of moral decay, and many Germans were living for the moment. Entertainment and self-indulgence was available in popular cabarets that offered escape into a world of drinking, dancing and shows featuring lewd performances, nudity and bawdy songs. Prostitution was commonplace and to Beckman, this was all a continuation of an abhorrent world.

Despite social conditions, Beckmann’s reputation in the art world grew immensely during the 1920s and many awards were received. He also was awarded a teaching position at the Frankfort School of Art. With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, however, Hitler determined that modern trends in art and music were unacceptable and Beckmann was dismissed from his teaching assignment. In his youth, Hitler himself sought a career in art and believed he was an excellent judge of value.   Beckmann’s art was among works that he called, “degenerate.” When World War II appeared to be inevitable, Beckmann left Germany to live in Amsterdam. A degree of peace finally came to him when he arrived in America in 1947 and taught at George Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

The parable of The Prodigal Son was given by Jesus and recorded in the Gospel of Luke but when Beckmann depicted a portion of the story, his imagery was based on conditions he witnessed in Weimar during the 1920s. The parable’s older son’s complaint that his wastrel brother had been living among harlots was a description that brought up images of a seamy reality that Beckmann knew.

In Beckmann’s painting, the prodigal son is in a brothel surrounded by three coarse, tawdry and partially clad women with claw-like hands; all are under the watchful eye of a Madam. The unsmiling bare-breasted blonde has wrapped her arms around the prodigal son while the woman wearing a blue hat and blue-corset is holding a drink and looking on with a vacant smile. None of the figures seem to be enjoying themselves and the young man looks “wasted.” His hands prop up his head as he remains without expression. Perhaps he is realizing the attractive fantasies of his youth were not based on reality.

The Prodigal Son is not painted in a “realistic” style but it reflects a reality that Beckmann observed. The painting’s style, like its subject matter is raw, harsh, and visually abrupt. It is not “pretty.” The black smudges throughout its surface add to an effect of something unclean. Though some would prefer art to be an escape to a lovely place, this painting’s subject matter and style reflects Beckmann’s thoughts and experiences during difficult times.

Hovak Najarian © 2019

Prodigal Son in the Tavern | Art for Lent 4C

Luke 15:11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.

Prodigal Son in the Tavern

Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son in the Tavern
c. 1635
Oil on canvas, 161 x 131 cm
Gemäldegalerie, DresdenREMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn
(b. 1606, Leiden, d. 1669, Amsterdam) Click image for more information.

______________
Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son in the Tavern, 1635, Oil on Canvas, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669

Like other young men in Holland during the early seventeenth century, Rembrandt’s formal education consisted of studying Latin and Religion but when his skills in drawing became apparent, he was guided toward a formal study of art. After an apprenticeship in the studio of Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, Rembrandt opened a studio in Leyden and was recognized for his exceptional work. His success led him back to Amsterdam which was the most prosperous city in Europe at that time. People of wealth liked having their portraits painted and Rembrandt excelled in portraiture. This brought fame and wealth but he did not manage money well. Soon he was in debt and personal tragedies as well became an ongoing part of his life.

Before financial and personal problems developed, Rembrandt married Saskia. He idolized her and painted her as the Roman goddess, Flora. A person not knowing anything about this painting might regard it simply as a portrait of a woman with flowers but symbolic content and subtexts are often found in an artist’s work. In this portrait, Rembrandt’s admiration and love for Saskia is revealed in his portrayal of her as Flora, the goddess of flowers and springtime. Soon after painting Flora, Rembrandt painted a double portrait representing a blissful time in their recent marriage; the two were young and happy. This painting’s subject, like the “Flora,” also may be appreciated for its subject; in it we see a celebration that does not seem to represent anything other than what it appears to be. Yet a tavern is part of this painting’s subtext and there are similarities between Rembrandt’s drawings of the prodigal son in the tavern and this double portrait.

In 1925, German scholar Wilhem Valentiner concluded that Rembrandt and Saskia are playing roles. Just as an actor may direct a movie as well as play a leading role in it, Rembrandt has cast himself in the role of the wastrel prodigal son; his wife, Saskia, is acting as a carefree prostitute. Valentiner’s conclusion has been supported by an x-ray analysis that indicates the composition once contained a woman playing a lute as well as objects that are associated with a tavern. Rembrandt painted over them as the two principal figures became the object of his attention.

Note
Rembrandt’s penchant for casting family members and people from his community as subjects in scenes continued throughout his life. His study of Latin was likely the source of an early interest in Roman subjects such as Saskia in the role of Flora. As he became older, his interest in biblical themes increased greatly.

Unlike almost every other artist in Europe, Rembrandt did not go to Italy to study the classics. Elements of classicism and its tendency toward formality are not found in his work. Whereas classicism tends to guide a viewer to an intellectual appreciation, the works of Rembrandt contain a sense of emotional warmth and psychological insight.

Hovak Najarian © 2013