I'm sure I have felt like the people depicted. I've participated in some fairly shameful decadent consumption. But my moment of identification wasn't with the "Gobblers," as Beckmann apparently referred to the piece in his diary. It was with Beckmann himself.
Revulsion at the undisciplined intake of food is a familiar response for me. Whether Beckmann, like me, was on a first-name basis with such revulsion, I have no idea, but looking at "Prunier," I felt that I - like Beckmann - had had the same artistic response: transforming my horrified disgust into art. I felt actually that I'd written the same scene that he'd painted.
Here it is, a passage from my first novel, Portnoy's Daughter, during which two characters converse over a wedding banquet:
A man flops down in the chair next to me, picks up his fork and knife and interrupts my thoughts: "Not eating?"The parallel between "Prunier" and the foregoing passage of Portnoy's Daughter made me reflective (and possibly a little combative). In what I don't think is a terribly insightful display caption, the Tate Modern writes of "Prunier":
Lifting my head out of my hands and turning to him, I am astonished to see the Don Juan of the wine cellar. He freezes, fork mid-way to mouth, chilled abalone in shrimp aspic with lemon-caper aioli and Chanel No. 5 dangling in mid-air like jello. Then, recovering his equilibrium, he locks eyes with me, uncurls his tongue and licks the abalone, abusing the helpless mollusk until the aspic dissolves and runs down his chin.
I take in his little spectacle coolly, and then say: "Mr. Fist, I presume?"
He sucks the mollusk into his mouth and chews with his mouth open, smirking with self-satisfaction.
. . . .
[He p]our[s] himself a glass of wine from the carafe on the table. . . . "May I?" he asks, gesturing at my glass.
"No," I say, covering the glass with my hand and looking at him.
"A woman who values her sobriety won't easily find a man," he quips, draining his glass and pouring himself another.
"Hardly. The wine is cheap."
"Agreed," he says, after gargling with a mouthful and spitting it onto the ground behind me.
Beckmann suffered from heart trouble shortly after beginning the painting, so that the contrast between his daily, wartime realities and the sensual pleasure conjured up in the painting may suggest a meditation on mortality.I don't have any particular insight into Beckmann, but because I feel such strong identification with the painting the Tate Modern's speculative caption strikes me as unlikely. Excess, not mortality, seems to be under examination, and especially how excess signals decline and tends to violence. The Tate Modern seemed much more on point when it referred to the "brutality" of the consumption being depicted.
Depiction may be an attempt at control - getting such excess on the canvas, or the page, is an enclosed space under the artist's command. It may also be a habit: I have a hard time not making characters who are eating repellent. (So much of accurate description of the mechanics of eating seems to invite unsavory characterization.)
And it's also no doubt an attempt at understanding and empathy. The tendency to excess is complicated. The visceral impulse to gorge is often accompanied by a cerebral stupidity, apathy or arrogance about the consequences of taking in so much of the world; while the revulsion from such behavior often coexists with such impulses and mind-sets. (Nor does preferring either the gorging, or the revulsion, have predictable results. As Hilary Mantel made clear in A Place of Greater Safety, Danton was a revolting sensualist libertine, but refined Robespierre had the greater appetite for blood during the Reign of Terror.)
By the time Beckmann's painting released me to continue my meandering through the collection, I'd come to recognize this tangle of impulses and judgments, additionally, as one of the enduring topics of art.
(Image of Max Beckmann's "Prunier" from the Tate Collection)