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Perseus' (Herkules') Letzte Aufgabe (Perseus' (Hercules') Last Duty)
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About the item

Depictions of the mythological Greek heroes Perseus and Hercules have long been subjects explored in Western art (see fig. 1). Rarely, though, have these subjects been combined and interpreted as freely and as expressively as in Max Beckmann’s powerful canvas of 1949, Perseus’s (Hercules’) Last Duty. Inspired by the monumentality of these demi-gods, Max Beckmann referred to the painting interchangeably as “Perseus lezte Aufgabe” and “Herkules lezte Aufgabe,” during the two years of its planning and execution.\n\nBeckmann titled the preliminary sketch for this oil as The Last Duty of Perseus (see fig. 2), perhaps indicating the predominance of Perseus over Hercules. Perseus was the son of Zeus and Danae, who was the object of King Polydectes' amorous attention. Because he was extremely jealous of Perseus, Polydectes sent him on the treacherous mission of retrieving the head of Medusa, the deadly Gorgon monster who had the power of turning men into stone if they gazed directly into her eyes. Foiling the king’s plan, the young Perseus received the divine assistance of Hermes and Athena and successfully accomplished this task. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, entrusted Perseus with a magical helmet that would make him invisible and an adamanite sickle to slay the wretched monster. In order to avoid looking directly at his deadly target and subsequently be turned into stone, the goddess Athena gave Perseus a highly polished shield in which he could safely see Medusa’s reflection. Upon accomplishing his duty, Perseus placed Medusa’s head in a magical pouch and eventually returned to Seriphos where he uncloacked the fatal talisman and turned the evil King Polydectes into stone.\n\nThe character of Perseus and the myth associated with him had previously captivated Beckmann. In 1940, the artist produced a triptych, which now hangs in the Museum Folkwang in Essen (see fig. 3), in which he provided a more pronounced commentary on Perseus’s accomplishments. As Carla Schulz- Hoffman has discussed in the 1984-85 retrospective catalogue, “The triptych Perseus… is not merely portrayed as a fact of reality but is also subjected to value judgement. The mythological theme - the liberation of the oceans from the serpent monster and the rescue of Andromeda by Perseus - has been reinterpreted by Beckmann in an extremely idiosyncratic way. There is no doubt that the hero now becomes a negative figure. His brutal exterior, unpleasant face, unkempt beard, and red mane of hair… define him as more of an aggressor than a rescuer… Beckmann leaves no doubt that this cannot be the solution to a basic human problem” (Carla Schulz- Hoffman, Max Beckmann, Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), St. Louis, 1984-85, p. 42).\nBeckmann’s thematic division of the canvas - part Hercules, part Perseus- mirrors the artist’s formal tendencies of compartmentalizing the composition as a means of expression. He uses sweeping ellipsodial brushstrokes as a framing device that encircles each figural group.  Similar to the perspectival recession achieved with the mirror in his 1943 Dame mit Spiegel (see note for lot 27), the cave of the Gorgons is clearly separated from the action in the foreground, which has its own designated encirclature.   Beckmann is able to open up the space, creating voids and areas of recession, with this visually compelling technique.  He also divides his composition into sections by means of the bold vertical lines in the background of the painting. Although formally serving as the architectural background of the scene, the juxtaposition of these disparate structural elements calls attention to the variation of activity occurring in the painting and heightens the narrative effect.\nTo the right of the composition and encircled by the griffin's tail is a reclining figure, seemingly a self-portrait of the artist who has evidently been turned to stone. Best known for the many self-portraits that he executed over the course of his career, Beckmann has not overlooked the opportunity to present himself in this work, one of the last monumental paintings that he would complete before his sudden death from a heart attack in 1950. Of his many self-portraits, James D. Burke has noted: “Like Dante, Max Beckmann has portrayed an epic journey of discovery in which our guide is the artist himself, viewed through his self-portraits. Concerned with man’s fate, Beckmann struggled with his grand and noble themes in a century racked with discord and disaster. His artistic works aspired to the heroic… he conceived himself as a hero of Homeric proportions” (ibid., p. 53).\n\nFig. 1, Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1545-54, bronze, Piazza Signoria, Florence\nFig. 2, Max Beckmann, The Last Duty of Perseus, 1948, pen and ink, charcoal and wash on paper, sold: Sotheby's, New York, May 8, 2001\nFig. 3, Max Beckmann, Perseus, triptych, 1940-41, oil on canvas, Museum Folkwang, Essen\nSigned and dated Beckmann NY 49 (lower center)
US
NY, US
US

medium

Oil on canvas

creator

Max Beckmann

dimensions

35 1/4 by 56 in.

exhibition

New York, Catherine Viviano Gallery, Max Beckmann, Exhibition of Paintings, 1925-1950, 1962, no. 19 New York, Catherine Viviano Gallery, Max Beckmann in America, Exhibition of Paintings, 1947-1950, 1969, no. 16

literature

Dore Ashton, "New York Commentary," The Studio, London, April 1962, illustrated p. 154 Erhard and Barbara Göpel, Max Beckmann, Katalog der Gemälde, vol. I, Bern, 1976, no. 798, catalogued p. 484; vol. II, illustrated p. 298

provenance

Estate of the artist Catherine Viviano Gallery, New York (acquired from the above) Stanley J. Seeger, New York and London (acquired from the above on January 9, 1962 and sold: Sotheby's, New York, May 8, 2001, lot 28) Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

signedDate

Signed and dated Beckmann NY 49 (lower center)

creator_nationality_dates

1884 - 1950





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