Max Beckmann’s Kreuzabnahme (Descent from the cross) presents an unflinching look at bodily suffering—a timely topic in the midst of a seemingly never-ending war. Multiple perspectives are combined to focus the eye on Jesus’s oversize corpse, his pale flesh covered in bruises and sores, with coagulated blood pooling around the gaping black holes of the stigmata. His emaciated arms stretch across the picture and in their rigor mortis still mirror the shape of the cross. Beckmann thinly and precisely applied paint in cold, restrained hues, in contrast to his exuberant brushwork for his prewar canvases.
Beckmann possibly made this painting to answer a challenge posed by curator Gustav Hartmann to create a modern work as powerful as medieval German art, which they had viewed together in Frankfurt (along with works by Italian, Flemish, and German Old Masters that significantly influenced Beckmann’s style). Beckmann, after spending a few years making only prints, had recently returned to painting.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.