The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 162
In the right panel of Departure, Beckmann once said, "You can see yourself trying to find your way in the darkness, lighting the hall and staircase with a miserable lamp, dragging along tied to you, as part of yourself, the corpse of your memories." The triptych is full of personal meaning, and also of mysteries. The often-appearing fish, for example, are ancient symbols of redemption, but may also connote sexuality. Perhaps the woman under torture gazes prophetically into a crystal ball—but what she seems to see is the daily paper. Men's faces are hidden: averted in the side panels, masked in the center. Is it the same couple whose fate each image tracks?
Beckmann's accounts of Departure are fragmentary, and, in any case, he believed that "if people cannot understand it of their own accord, . . . there is no sense in showing it." But the work, however elusive in its details, is clear overall: painted at a dark time in Germany (that of Hitler's rise to power), it tells of harsh burdens and sadistic brutalities through which the human spirit, regally crowned, may somehow sail in serenity. Beckmann called the center panel "The Homecoming," and said of it, "The Queen carries the greatest treasure—Freedom—as her child in her lap. Freedom is the one thing that matters—it is the departure, the new start."
Although Beckmann denied that Departure carried any specific political content, the painting has come to be seen as one of the emblematic artistic responses to Hitler’s Germany. It was begun at the time that the Nazis fired Beckmann from his professorship at the Frankfurt Art Academy, and presages his forced emigration.Departure is the first of Beckmann’s several major paintings in the form of a triptych, a three-part format that recalls medieval or Renaissance altarpieces. Indeed, the elaborate narrative juxtaposes scenes of sin and salvation, but what makes the painting modern is the deliberate ambiguity of its iconography. When the New York City art dealer who bought the painting in 1937 wrote to Beckmann to say that his visitors wanted specific explanations of the images, the artist replied that if that were essential he should "take the picture away or send it back."