It was Lackner who first translated the title of the Kinder Des Zwielichts as Demons Fishing for Souls, an interpretation which seems fitting for the painting’s ominous subjects. Beckmann himself also referred to the work as Orkus (Hades), which could refer to both the setting and the central figure, who wears upon his head a thorn-like crown. Beckmann responded to the human drama of the war with a surge of intense creativity - he produced over two hundred pictures in his years of exile in Amsterdam – and, as such, the trauma of death and dying is an ever-present dimension in his œuvre from this period. Throughout the 1930s, he became increasingly occupied with mythologised references to the brutalities of the Nazi regime, and here, the predatory demons who sit fishing create an inescapably threatening atmosphere. The ‘Sortie’ scrawled upon the wall could perhaps be read as Beckmann’s wry comment on the unpredictable nature of fate: some will be able to escape, slip past the children of the twilight towards the exit, just like some souls will avoid the torment of capture, but others will not be so lucky.
This underworld is characterised by the typical claustrophobic approach to composition which Beckmann often employed for his paintings of terror and suffering, including The Night (1918-19, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf) and Birds’ Hell (1938, St. Louis Art Museum), and together with the thick black outlines, create a bold image reminiscent of stained glass panel. Towards the back of the work float mysterious white figures, who look on from the edge of the river. Whether these are redeemed souls, figures in purgatory or terrified observers is an enduring secret of this enigmatic and powerful work. Throughout his artistic career, Beckmann sought to be modern whilst also aligning himself with the traditions of the medieval world and old masters, and here he uses his classical subject to express the mysteries of eternity and fate which must have felt all the more potent in Europe as war approached.
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