Max Beckmann Installation Image
The auction at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art sale in London drew three bidders but the painting was ultimately sold to American art dealer Larry Gagosian, June 27, 2017. Christie's Press Center

Max Beckmann’s painting with strong anti-Nazi themes – "Hölle der Vögel" (Birds’ Hell) – was sold Tuesday for a record price of 36 million pound ($45.8 million, 40.8 million Euros). The auction at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Sale in London drew three bidders but the painting was ultimately sold to American art dealer Larry Gagosian.

Beckmann is counted among one of the towering figures of 20th-century expressionism in Germany and Austria. The auction of one of the most beautiful and powerful paintings by the artist has set a new record for German Expressionism, an artistic genre that originated in Europe in 1920s.

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Birds’ Hell, painted between 1937 and 1938, depicts a scene of the torture of a naked, shackled man by a number of crazed anthropomorphic birds in a candle-lit, cave-like room. Also present at the scene is a gruesome-looking female with multiple breasts and emerging from a huge egg shell with her arm raised in what seems to be a half salute. The whole scene conveys a sense of turmoil where the man, tied to the table, appears to be a victim of oppression. The woman, according to Christie’s analysis, represents the National Socialist Party or the Nazi Party more than Adolf Hitler himself. Newly hatched, she signifies a horrifying new era.

The website Artlyst offers an insight into the painting. The work has been ranked among the clearest and most important anti-Nazi statements by Beckmann — mirroring the escalating violence, oppression, and terror of Hitler’s regime, it says. The painting is an allegory that portrays reality as timeless human suffering. The article further underlines: "The painting transcends the time and political situation in which it was created to become a universal symbol of humanity."

In a statement, Adrien Meyer, International Director of Impressionist & Modern Art, Christie’s New York, said: “Bird's Hell was painted as a direct attack on the cruelty of the Nazi regime. A year earlier, Hitler's government had confiscated over 500 of Beckmann’s works from German museums, and included some of these in the notorious Degenerate Art Exhibition. This emblematic picture has since been unanimously recognized as the Guernica of Expressionism.”

Beckmann created the work when he was living in exile in Amsterdam. He completed the oil on canvas in Paris by the end of 1938. It was previously shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to Christie’s, Beckmann was one of the principal artists included in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition staged by the Nazis in Munich, in a bid to name and shame those deemed to be driving forces of corruption with lots of slogans calling the artists “cultural Bolsheviks," or the artworks as “the art of the insane."

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Hitler gave a speech during the exhibition, and threatened artists, who created such works, with imprisonment or castration. Fearful of further persecution, Beckmann fled the country with his wife Mathilde to the Netherlands, July 19, 1937 — the same day when the show opened— to never return to Germany. He later embraced modernity and depicted pain and torture in Nazi Germany through gothic art. However, he is said to have actively disagreed with the Expressionists' artistic agenda.

Birds’ Hell has often been compared to Pablo Picasso’s Gurenica, the mural considered to be the artist's response to the bombing of a village by the same name in northern Spain by Nazi Germany. It was made around the same time as the Birds’ Hell, and is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history.