The Apocalypse (Revelation 19:11–16), from Apokalypse by Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann

The Apocalypse (Revelation 19:11–16), from Apokalypse, Executed 1941–42; published 1943, Coloured lithograph, 390 x 300 mm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Gift of Mrs. Max Beckmann, 1984.64.66, © Max Beckmann Estate, Artist Rights Society, New York/VG Bid-Kunst, Bonn

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The Birds and the Bodies

Commentary by

The figure of Revelation 19’s Rider and his Horse is the focal point here. This is fairly typical of Max Beckmann’s approach to Revelation in his series Apokalypse. Throughout his coloured lithographs, Beckmann picks out one or two verses or figures from each chapter to focus on.

Here the Rider is surrounded by his human victims and the birds that devour them (Revelation 19:21). The birds, something of an aside in the text itself, are especially prominent due to their disproportionately large black eyes and angular beaks.

In some aspects, these birds recall an earlier work of Beckmann’s, Bird’s Hell (1937–8), a searing critique of the hellish society created by the Nazis. In Bird’s Hell the birds represent Nazi torturers. Thus, although in this Apokalypse lithograph image the birds appear to be in league with the Rider on the White Horse, there is an ambiguity about them of which the viewer would be wise to be mindful. This intuition is compounded by the fact that the bird at the front centre of the image is possibly feasting on the body of the Whore of Babylon. The semi-nude female certainly bears a resemblance to Beckmann’s ambiguous visualizations of this figure earlier in the series. Perhaps picking up on Revelation 17:16, which deals with the grisly death of the Whore at the hands of the Beast and has given rise to interpretations of the Whore which explore her own victimhood, Beckmann’s half-naked Whore appears to be a victim of sexual violence at the hands of three men.

The potential identification of the Whore of Babylon as one of the Rider’s victims allows the viewer to sense a continuity in Beckmann’s visual narrative which, as here, often seems to dwell on those whom Beckmann perceives to be the text’s real victims.

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