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.”