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