“Extravagant” Demythologization of Human Pre-historic Past

Where Durer’s Eden [the reference here is to Albrecht Durer’s 1504 engraving of “The Fall of Man”] is lush and fruitful, Beckmann’s is barren, with only a few flowers sprouting from sandy soil. Where Durer’s figures are measured in classical proportions and reach across in amiable sociability, Beckmann’s are “Gothic” in the awkward arches of their bodies and in the disparity of their misshapen size. And where Durer’s serpent has been the sly instigator of the Fall, Beckmann’s snake becomes Eve’s agent – with his evil head abutting hers, and with two bends of his body pointing to her provocative sex.
Donald E. Gordon, “Expressionism (Art and Idea)”, Yale UN Pr, 1987, p. 113 – 114

Looking at Beckmann’s “Adam and Eve” it’s difficult not to exclaim: “How ugly and stupid men can be, and how ugly and manipulative can be women!”

Max Beckmann, “Adam and Eve”, 1917
Max Beckmann, “Adam and Eve”, 1917

Contrary to many paintings depicting the super-drama of Adam and Eve encounter, that provided detailed information about the flora and fauna of the lost paradise (as if, with innocent desire to restore what is irredeemably lost), Beckmann’s painting critically reduces the visual images of paradise – no background details (no attempts to naturalize and embellish a monumental story) and no shying away from the horror of the human bodies seen beyond erotic fever and ardor of seduction. “Debunking” of Adam and Eve gives Beckmann the opportunity to root his critical stance toward the human condition in his own time in our common mythological (pre-historic) past.

The first striking feature of Beckmann’s painting is that it represents the “apple“(as a biblically sealed means of seduction) as Eve’s… breast: she is offering Adam her breast as the “apple“. [We analyzed the apple-cheek in an essay “Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar – Dora as Eve, Apple and Serpent”, posted on Feb. 13, 2010]. Beckmann’s idea of Eve’s breast as a metaphor of the Biblical apple (metonymy of the metaphor) is much more radical than it may seem. It has an important semantic complication: seduction through apple/breast refers to mother-child togetherness. It is, as if, to get Adam, Eve plays with him a motherly role. Beckmann puts the brand of incest on a “normal” heterosexual desire. Adam never knew mother, but Eve, it seems, has a grand plan to make him and herself – the parents of humankind, so, he has to learn where he is going, he is supposed to support her future motherhood.

The contrast between Adam’s and Eve’s faces is impressive. It is difficult to refrain from calling his face belonging to a retarded person. He doesn’t look as awakening to life – he looks belonging to the primordial psychological fog. It’s fascinating that Beckmann made Adam’s face bearded and mustached (did God wanted to be reflected by Adam’s face as a mirror?) Does Eve awaken him to relationship with her and to awareness that he is alive or, conversely, hypnotizing him by the promises of seduction into a happy readiness for a condemned life outside Paradise? As a mother figure, she supposed to awaken him to the vitality of physical and mental awareness and by this to take him out of his autistic non-presence. But by psychological mixture of maternal connotation and seduction, Beckmann expresses doubts about a healthy future for human race. Contrary to Adams’ facial expression Eve’s has something of a cunning smile. It is not surprising that Adam, made of clay, looks retarded and autistic. But Eve made of bone made out of clay, cannot look much better. What then made her smart enough to have big plans, an initiative, to lead? It becomes clearer why Beckmann made serpent’s head that of a mammal. Devil who made Eve full of human tricks is helping her to awaken Adam to being human (to become full of human tricks). The serpent was able to stage a tricky seduction exactly because he as a mammal (something between a grey fox and coyote) and knew a more advance life than that of reptiles (more important role of mothers in mammals). Sinning and cunning come together with human life. Cognitively speaking, sinning is the first cunning, the first calculation of situational advantage.

Adam’s sexual potentiality in Beckmann’s painting looks rudimentary, as were other aspects of his personality, before devil’s intervention and Eve’s inspiring efforts. But now Adam is able to… swear – that’s what he is doing with his left hand. He is still a semi-robot, and he is giving oath of loyalty to Eve, to sexual freedom as a human right, to calculation of survival, to competition, to search for domination, to future high-tech weapon systems.

But where is Eve looking at? As somebody from the German romanticists said (was it Schlegel, was it Hoffmann?), the metaphor is born before the object it metaphorizes. Of course, she is looking not at Adam’s pre-fertilizing attribute – if she would do this it could paralyze him with shame and fear. She is looking at the phallic flowers behind Adam’s body, symbolizing the male prowess in its readiness to fulfill its natural and “devilish” function.

As it always happens, when people try to approach serious artists (capable of thinking for themselves and express their position towards life in a sharp and non-habitual ways), they become amazed that besides creators’ ability to construct works of art what they create is never pure form – veil without bride, scabbard without sword, “lipstick without pig”, smile without smiling. Talented artists, first of all, are people who live in full and who have quite bold critical ideas about the ruling dogmas, which they often express through humor, irony and sarcasm. For example, take a look at Adam’s right leg. What is it, did he have an accident – fall from the tree of life to the swamp of knowledge? Well, it’s known that god is absent-minded and not too attentive. He creates approximately, by probes and errors. Is Beckmann stating here, that our great grand-father got a crippled leg and was able to walk only with difficulties? Or does he “insinuate” that Adam is crippled in his ability to move through the historical time? Anyway, Eve doesn’t seem to mind, by smart reasons, of course.