In Plato’s Republic, Socrates illustrates his theory of the parts of the soul with the story of Leontius, who saw some corpses rotting outside the walls of Athens and was torn between revulsion and the desire to gaze at them. Leontius covered his eyes, but the desire was overpowering. “Look for yourselves, you evil things,” he scolded his eyes, “get your fill of the beautiful sight!” This was an early example of what the ancients called akrasia, or weakness of will, where we find ourselves doing what we know we shouldn’t. But the example illuminates an uncomfortable truth in the psychology of moral perception: Human beings derive pleasure from seeing what disgusts them; hence there is a pornography of torn and bloodied bodies, as well as of buff and sexy ones. This explains why viewers, rather than being simply revolted by depictions of martyrdoms and crucifixions, are instead drawn to them–a truth that underscores the Counter-Reformation’s belief that the church might strengthen people’s faith by increasing the luridness with which Christ’s tormented flesh was represented. It explains an aspect of the power of images. It also helps explain why art that undertakes to show the horrifying truth of war is so often counterproductive. It serves to attract viewers precisely by repelling them.

Consider Max Beckmann’s The Way Home, the first plate in Hell (1919), a portfolio of ten large black and white lithographs that can be seen in New York at the extraordinary exhibition of his work at MoMA-Queens (until September 29). Two figures face each other beneath a street lamp, one the artist himself in suit and bowler, the other a grossly disfigured veteran, wearing the familiar brimless cap of the German enlisted man at the time of World War I. Half his face has been blown off, he is noseless and almost eyeless, and the stump of an arm protrudes, like a stick, from his sleeve, which Beckmann grips with one hand while he points “the way home” with the other. A shadowy pair of crippled veterans are further up the street, behind a woman, from whose boots and jutting hips one infers that the street is her milieu. It is not entirely clear that the soldier can see which way the finger points. But Beckmann can see: Like Leontius, he cannot take his eyes off the veteran’s ghastly, skull-like head. And neither can we.

There is visual evidence that Beckmann actually saw such a head when he was a medical orderly in Flanders in 1915. A drypoint, The Grenade, shows wounded soldiers in the foreground, one of whom has lost part of his face. We can see the teeth through the hole. The scene of the explosion is imagined: Several panicked figures flee the bursting shell. But the cheekless man must have been drawn from life; Beckmann made many sketches of the maimed and dead, and throughout his work he called upon his knowledge of what human beings actually look like, dead or barely alive, on the field of battle. But his time as a field medic did more than provide opportunities for life (or death) studies. Beckmann, who lived in an apartment above the morgue, and once dreamed that dead bodies invaded his room, was left with traumatic memories that he struggled in vain to master, and that ultimately led, in 1915, to a severe breakdown. Counting on art to help him through his ordeal, he managed to visit the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, where he came to admire the so-called Flemish primitives, including especially Rogier van der Weyden. They were to help frame his vision of reality when he returned to his career as a painter after the war, but looking at art did him little good in keeping despair at bay.

Beckmann started to paint again while still in uniform, during his slow recovery behind the lines in Germany. In a haunting self-portrait as a medical orderly, which is not, unfortunately, in the MoMA show, he appears in his green uniform, with the Red Cross insignia attached to his collar, presumably in the act of painting the picture of himself that we see. It’s as if he were bringing himself back to life by painting: He shows himself closely studying his still frightened expression, getting outside himself, as it were, away from the images that trouble his dreams. Beckmann’s output of self-portraits is matched only by Rembrandt’s, but this is one of the few in which he actually depicts himself as an artist, perhaps because painting, just after his time in the field hospital, was his particular “way home.” Typically, Beckmann shows himself as part of the life he depicts. In his 1918 artistic statement, “A Confession,” he wrote: “I need to be with people. In the city. That is just where we belong these days. We must be part of the misery that is coming.”

The shattering truth was that, as the title of his portfolio implies, life in postwar Germany had itself become hell, the fabric of civilian life having been torn to shreds. A lot of the painting made by German artists who did military service was angry and accusatory. The Dadaist George Grosz had also undergone severe breakdown, and even tried to drown himself in a latrine in order not to be sent back to the trenches. Otto Dix, a machine-gunner throughout the war, published his brutal War Portfolio afterward. Gruesomely wounded veterans stumble through their postwar pictures. Max Ernst, another Dadaist who had served as an artilleryman, later wrote: “A horrible futile war had robbed us of five years of our existence. We had the collapse into ridicule and shame of everything represented to us as just, true, and beautiful. My works of that period were not meant to attract, but to make people scream.” It was an art of shock and disillusionment, a mirror of what Germany had done to itself.

Beckmann’s initial impulse, by contrast, appears to have been to use his art to help heal German society. In a letter to his wife in 1915, he had written, “What would we poor mortals do if we didn’t continually equip ourselves with ideas about God and country, love and art, in an attempt to hide that sinister black hole?” He rarely painted the war as he knew it, at least as such, but his medical observations gave him a vocabulary for dealing with damaged bodies in scenes of biblical enactment, especially so in his exceedingly ambitious if somewhat embarrassing Descent From the Cross of 1917. A patron, with whom he had been looking at a Gothic woodcarving of a Pietà, challenged the artist to make a modern painting as powerful as it. The immense, awkward Descent From the Cross is unmistakably a modern work, with art-historical allusions to Rogier and Matthias Grünewald, and with irresistible metaphorical associations for a shattered nation hoping for resurrection. Beckmann brought the knowledge he had acquired in observing dead bodies to his depiction of Christ’s body, which is very much that of a cadaver. It could not easily fit into a coffin without breaking its arms, which, because of rigor mortis, are stiffly extended from the time on the Cross. Christ’s drawn, emaciated body is lacerated and bruised, and the soles of his feet are turned upward in pronate position, showing the nail-holes.

Descent From the Cross is an ugly painting, and it is difficult to know what consolation it or its pendants–Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, or Adam and Eve of that same year–might have brought to viewers. The figures are as dispiriting as the landscape is bleak: a jeering figure, pointing at the Adulteress, is straight out of Bosch, while Adam and Eve look as if they had spent their lives in, respectively, a coal mine and a beer house, rather than in the Garden of Eden. Beckmann’s Gothic borrowings enabled him to show human beings as morally disfigured as the world the war had left them with.

Berlin after the war was an exceptionally violent city, torn by revolution and beset by crime–a site of cold, hunger, epidemic disease, demoralization and radical disorder, of rape, torture, murder. These are the subjects of Hell, which shows how cruelly men and women can treat one another when the social structures that underwrite daily life unravel. Beckmann prefaces his portfolio with a portrait of himself as a circus barker, beneath which he wrote the following sardonic caption:

Honored ladies and gentlemen of the public, pray step up. We can offer you the pleasant prospect of ten minutes or so in which you will not be bored. Full satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.

It is difficult to resist the thought that Beckmann’s model for Hell was Goya’s suite of etchings, Los Caprichos, which also has a self-portrait at the beginning, and the slogan “The sleep of Reason produces monsters.” Goya’s images are moral allegories, which refer partly to the comédie humaine, and partly to the inhumanities of politics and religion in the Spain of his time. So far as I know, Goya does not show himself as part of that world. But Beckmann is outside the world of Hell as barker, and inside it as witness and commentator. Hell is like Los Caprichos fused with The Disasters of War, comic and gruesome at once.

Plate 6 of Hell is titled The Night, which Beckmann worked up into one of his most famous paintings, bearing the same title. It depicts a scene of brutality that could as easily have taken place during the Thirty Years’ War, which had been a high point, until the twentieth century, of the suffering war can inflict on human beings, with the difference that Night‘s agony takes place after hostilities have ceased. Vicious intruders terrorize a household. The woman of the house is shown from behind, tied by her wrists to a window frame. Her legs are spread, her buttocks are exposed, her corset has been opened and her garments lie torn about her. A lit candle sits on the floor behind her, and it seems clear that she has been raped and tortured. Her husband is now being tortured on the dinner table: A man is tightening an improvised noose around his neck; another, with a bandaged head, smokes a pipe while twisting the householder’s arm. The victim’s left leg sticks rigidly out, the sole of his foot is blackened. A third hoodlum is holding the comically angelic, fair-haired daughter, wrapped in a red curtain, under his arm, who gazes tearfully at her mother’s face, which we cannot see. A dog howls from beneath the tablecloth. Beckmann employs a kind of soft Cubism to evoke the spaces in this nightmare scene, and to insinuate, perhaps, the shattering of a world. It is often classed as an allegorical painting, scholars poring over it to find local allusions, but I think it was just current events, like so much else in Hell.

Martyrdom (Plate 3) is a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg, her arms outstretched as if crucified, her eyes rolled upward in death, as stiff as a Romanesque Jesus. Her body is being pulled from an automobile by a grinning banker in tailcoat and checked trousers, while coarse militiamen beat her with rifle butts. The Last Ones (Plate 9) shows a firefight of bitter-end Spartacists, one of whom grimaces with pain as his guts spill out like curly worms, while figures fall this way or that, as in a comic drawing of slapstick performers. A starving family sits before empty dishes, a porcine man carries a skeletal corpse, gasbags harangue the crowds, suave dancers two-step to string players and drunks sing a patriotic song to the wheezing of an accordion. In the last plate, The Family, a young boy gleefully plays soldier, with toy grenades and helmet. His severe-looking grandmother protects tomorrow’s grenadier, as Beckmann, pointing with one hand, as he did in the first plate, holds his head in the other hand. Nothing has been learned.

In The Night, Beckmann discovered his artistic vocation. He was never quite so topical or political again. The thought that The Night is allegorical is a retrospective judgment, since his most distinctive work is increasingly allegorical and symbolic. He portrayed himself as a clown the following year, wearing the same clown’s traditional collar of points he wore in the frontispiece to Hell. He is holding a slapstick and a mask in his left hand while extending his right hand in pronate position, as if displaying stigmata. A horn is in his lap. Later he did two paintings, which seem pendants, Carnival and The Dream. Each is filled with symbols: musical instruments, masks, clown paraphernalia, candles. In The Dream, a mustached man with bandaged, perhaps amputated hands, climbs a ladder, carrying a large fish–a symbol that often recurs. An organ grinder, perhaps blind, blows a horn, and a clown (judging by his collar) pulls himself along on cut-off crutches, as his legs have been amputated at the knee. A blond girl displays a palm, as if soliciting coins for the organ grinder, while holding a Punchinello doll with the other. A girl in carnival costume lies on the floor, her skirts flying, playing a kind of viola. A mandolin lies beside her. The interpretation of dreams is always intricate, and so far as I have been able to read in the Beckmann literature, we are more or less on our own to say what it all means, here and elsewhere, in these strong, handsomely painted, unsettling works, including the nine triptychs upon which Beckmann’s greatest reputation rests. He painted magnificently in the thirty years that remained to him, but it is impossible, because of the complexity of the individual works, to discuss in suitable detail the remarkable art he left us, so much of which is shown in what is, after all, a retrospective exhibition.

I shall, however, offer an interpretive conjecture regarding Departure, the great triptych Beckmann finished in 1935, with which visitors to MoMA have been long familiar. The central panel shows three figures in a boat: a mother and child, a king fishing with a net and a mysterious personage wearing a strange headdress. There is a Fisher King in Arthurian legend, a maimed figure who lives in a bleak castle set in a wasteland, and I believe him to be the subject of this work. The Grail quester, Perceval, witnesses a strange procession in the Fisher King’s castle: Young people carry a bleeding lance and a golden chalice that the knight later realizes was the Holy Grail, which could have healed the Fisher King–if only Perceval had asked what it was–while restoring the wasteland to fertility. The left panel shows, among others, a brutally wounded figure, with bleeding arm-stumps tied together above his head. The right panel shows a blindfolded figure carrying a fish, and a couple bound together, one upside down. A passing musician beats a drum. Germany had been a wasteland in 1918; it was about to be a wasteland again. Two years after finishing Departure, Beckmann had the supreme honor of having his work displayed in the notorious “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich. The day after it opened, he and his wife left Germany forever, spending the war years in Amsterdam before coming to America. His art is the mythography of wounds.