Next day I encountered one of the astonishments of my journey; perhaps of my gallery-going life. We’d gone up to the Harvard Art Museum because Michael wanted to show me a painting: Gabrielle in a Red Dress (1908) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a portrait of his housekeeper, maid and companion, Gabrielle Renard, whom he painted more than two hundred times. My astonishment occurred before we found this work: it was a view, through a square high opening, on the far wall of the adjoining room, of Max Beckmann’s triptych The Actors. A riot of green, gold, pink, orange, red and grey made somehow incandescent by the deep ebonies against which the painter staged this particular drama. It was the colour that struck me: its intensity and strangeness, its radical glow; its emanation, as it were, like a chromatic cloud, from that flat surface into the air about us.
I knew the work already. The year before I tried to write an ekphrastic piece considering in detail each of Beckmann’s nine triptychs. I gathered images of all of them, from Departure (1932-5) to The Argonauts (1949-50) but, in so far as I recall, I only managed to write a page and a half about the first one. It was, perhaps, unnecessary to attempt; I think the sheer richness, the wonder, of the works themselves defeated me: what could words possibly add to the grandeur they already possessed? The Actors, however, was the first of the triptychs I had seen in the flesh; and it was a revelation. It struck me, as I said, like a blow. I walked towards its immensity as towards a blazing fire.
Beckmann painted it in Amsterdam during World War Two; between 1941 and 1942, in the old tobacco warehouse he used as a studio. Its central figure, in the central panel, a self portrait, is a king dressed in a green suit, with red high boots, wearing a golden crown and a long golden cloak; and holding a dagger to his breast so that blood spills like insignia down his jacket front. His queen, in pink, blindfolded and holding a piece of sheet music in her hand, stands before him; while behind them courtiers gather and beneath the stage, rude mechanicals contend as if brawling in a ratskeller. There is a young blond girl, in a blue coat and orange tights, holding a spotted cat, bent below the blinded queen, a grey theatrical mask behind her. When I look at the painting in reproduction now I cannot recapture half of what I saw when I was standing before it: the surpassing sweetness of this girl’s face, for instance, her luminous innocence and her simple charm.
The two side panels are theatrical in different ways: a woman with a mirror before a classical bust; musicians playing horns; a telegraph boy; two girls with flowers; a midget waving. Or, in the left hand panel, some plot being hatched between a soldier, a prophet and a woman in a white headscarf; while a crouching man reads a New York newspaper and yet another figure from antiquity looms behind; and down below the boards are five legs with golden bands about their ankles, but who those feet belong to isn’t clear. And maybe after all this is why I want to write about the triptychs: each of them encodes a different enigma, which might turn out to be explicable in words. Or not: in the face of visual imagery, language cannot help but approximate, reducing unspoken or unwritten mysteries to the banalities of sense. Fail better? The problem is, I think, without solution.
Oddly enough, standing before The Actors, I fell into conversation with a fellow who turned out to have designed the Bosch show I’d seen at the Noordbrabants. He was giving a lecture that afternoon and invited us to attend; but we had other things to do and didn’t go. We found the Renoir portrait: I said to Michael that it looked like his wife, and it was his turn to be astonished: the resemblance had not occurred to him. We wandered past extraordinary paintings: by Max Ernst, Kandinsky, Matisse, van Gogh, Gauguin and many more. There were two other Beckmann works: the famous Self Portrait in Tuxedo (1927) in which the cigarette, up close, is just a stroke of white with a red dab at the tip; which transforms into an image of the veritable smoking tube as you move away; and a small still life called The Fire (1945), memorialising the freestanding circular brazier Beckmann acquired to keep himself warm in winter in the tobacco warehouse where he painted The Actors.