Survival, Procreation and Zoo of Life


Max Beckmann, “Lion Couple”, 1921

Beckmann’s lithograph belongs to a very rare tradition – of serious, not for children and not for the innocent (childish) curiosity in adults, representation of the life of animals in art. The point is not that serious comment about the behavior of animals has to be completely free from anthropomorphic projection/distortion but that in Beckmann’s lithograph anthropomorphism is metaphorical – the analogies between animal and human life lose their superficial and emotional character and rather point at the problems not only in animal but in human life also. By saying that this work is “for adults” I, of course, don’t mean that its content “is not suitable for children’s viewing”, but that its general semantic context is free from limitations on associations, comparisons and perspective.

We see the lion couple in a zoo and for this reason we can be inclined to explain the particularities of the lion and lioness’ emotional reactions by the fact that they’re in captivity – the lion is “angry”, because he “hates” to procreate in what for him is a prison, and the lioness is hateful because she sees the zoo visitors or/and its personnel: these disgusting arrogant pieces of meat which dare to think that they are mentally superior to us, lions.

In his cosmic roar the lion expresses to his and the world creator his decisive disapproval of having a life full of despotic necessities. The problem is not zoo versus the desert. In a sexual situation depicted by Beckmann, the lion’s behavior in a natural setting psychologically is not different, as many documentaries about lion life can testify. While the necessity to perform sexual act very often makes the lions irritable, lionesses as food providers are pretty ferocious too. With their magnificent self-centeredness lions perceive their own sexual drive as a despotic command, and they, as it is well-known, don’t like to follow commands.

Look at the lioness’ paw securing (while serving the crown-mane keeper!) a presence of precious bone. Will she be able to tolerate the male’s advancement without simultaneously having this bone-pacifier? We get a feeling that the lioness is condemned to a life of violent survival like the lion to a life of the necessity to satisfy his creator’s idea of the animal reproductive function. According to Beckmann, the lion hates it while lioness hates us. Can’t this double condemnation (to fight and to procreate) be taken as an essence of human life? The creator didn’t ask us for our agreement with these burly burdens. He made us an appendix to them. He forces us to follow the software regardless of our fraudulent free will. Shouldn’t democratic freedom include our potential psychological independence from the usual human obsessions and compulsions – to make money, to get sexual release, and seek power over others? Isn’t Beckmann’s lithograph really about humans trapped in a zoo of “civilization” that makes us to excessively produce exaggerated (animalistic) instinctive reactions not because we are nostalgic for “pre-civilization” but because of the maddening tyranny of our biological, psychological and social needs?

Beckmann throws into our eyes this terrifying scene of the lion angrily mounting the indifferent lioness to show us ourselves locked into behavioral imperatives demanding our unconditional obedience to the majestic will of god-creator. And even when we learn how to tax the axiomatic forces of life with material prosperity and physical orgasm – what a cheap bargain we are pulled into.