Hi everyone! I hope you enjoyed my previous post about modern German art at the Berlinische Galerie. As explained in my previous post, there is simply too much to say about this collection/topic to do it in one post. And so, I am analyzing key works from the collection in four increments. You can read Part 1 here.
Part 1 discussed the Berlin Secession and the Pre-War years. Today I am going to discuss a little-known work painted during World War I: Stürzender Engel, by Benno Berneis (1914). There is so little information about Berneis, we will have to use only our eyes and knowledge of historical context to make sense of this eerie painting.
* * *
At the outbreak of war in 1914, the artist Benno Berneis painted Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel).
For such an extraordinary painting, very little is known about its painter. Benno Berneis (1883-1916) was a German Jewish painter who served as a pilot in the First World War. He died in service in 1916. According to journalist Von Nicola Kuhn, from the German newspaper Tagesspiegel, Berneis’ work was exhibited with that of Lieberman and Matisse before the War. He was poised to follow in the footsteps of his fellow German Expressionists. Unfortunately, his death cut short what was sure to be an incredible career. Now we are left with a smaller collection, albeit a beautiful one. You can look at his other works on his website, which is run by his grandson, Michael Berneis. I have been struggling to find much academic information on the artist (in German OR English). Please let me know if you come across anything!
And so, in lieu of any academic information, we shall have to use our eyes and knowledge of historical context to sort through Stürzender Engel. Take another look at this beautiful painting:
What stands out to you? The loveliness of the pastel color palette? The illusion of roundness on the canvas surface? The obfuscation of the figure’s face? The curious nature of the figure itself? How about the tree bending sideways- does your mind attempt to find the source of wind contorting its thin branches?
My mind tries first and foremost to make sense of the space. It is (relatively) clear to me that the tree stands on some sort of green hilltop. The curving nature of the earth next to the tree resembles rolling hills. Additionally, the green pigment coloring the hill becomes less saturated as it approaches the bottom of the canvas. Pinks and browns are introduced, and are blended with larger, swirling brushstrokes. Not sure what I mean? Here’s a detailed look at this part of the canvas:
Note how the inch above the canvas is a wash of different colors, blended into an ambiguous mist. It is only as the eye rises up the canvas a couple inches that the brushstrokes fall into place and one can make out the appearance of a grassy mound. What results from Berneis’ manipulation of color and texture is the sensation of mist rising, clouding one’s view and understanding of the hilltop’s appearance. My extremely limited experience hiking has taught me that there is quite a lot of mist and fog at higher elevations. Atop the highest mountain in Arcadia National Park, I could see only a few feet in front of me due tot he immense amounts of fog. And so, decreased color saturation and the decreasing specificity of brushstrokes lead me to believe that this painting is situated at a very high altitude… and the drop-off from here is incredibly steep.
What sorts of things do you associate with being at a very high altitude? I think of Heaven, spirituality, isolation, pilgrimages, extreme weather, Mt. Everest and all the people who have died trying to climb it, Cloud Forest in Ecuador and my sister’s incredible experience there, and getting altitude sickness at Yellowstone National Park when I was 15. What all these associations have in common is a sense of otherness of which we are in awe. We look to the highest points on earth with a sense of amazement– for the people and creatures who inhabit them, and for their unique (and often dangerous) climates. For some, the way of life atop Earth’s highest points is so foreign that it accumulates otherworldly associations. Mountains in the sky become religious symbols. It is this angle that Benno Bernis took in painting Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel). The title immediately indicates a religious, or at least supernatural, perspective.
Because of our location atop a misty hilltop, close to the heavens, we are poised to watch the angel’s fall from grace right at the moment of its happening. Take a closer look at her exit from the clouds:
The angel’s body is still touching the voluminous clouds from which she falls. What are we to make of her descent? Firstly, she is nude. Perhaps her stark nudity symbolizes the loss of her wings; without them, she is naked. She covers her head and face, as if in shame. Berneis has actually emphasized the hiding of her face by blurring the outlines of her forearms and her head until what remains is a mass of pink and yellow over the remnants of dark brown. I have to wonder if this signifies Berneis’ chastising of the angels’ actions, or the angel’s own anguish at her fall from grace.
I think it also bears noting that this angel’s fall is more of a graceful descent. She is not plummeting out of the empty sky. In fact, the cloud from which she is released bears likeness to a human hand. Its three-dimensionality, achieved through careful shading and use of light, provide the form a firmness not characteristic of vaporous clouds. It feels thick and soft to the viewer’s eye, like a human hand. If we take this to be true, whose hand is it? The hand of God? The hand of Fate? It is a kind hand, who carefully releases the angel, newly wingless, into the world.
It follow, then, to ask what the angel has done to merit her expulsion from Heaven. Here is where context plays an important role in visual analysis. Given the context of the years preceding WWI which I detailed in my previous post, and the fact that WWI erupted in 1914, it is impossible to separate this painting from the world in which it was born.
Angels are beings believed to be messengers of God. They are women of extraordinary virtue and moral conduct. For one to be expelled from Heaven, she would need to act in an immoral manner. In 1914, what would qualify as such? Perhaps the angel represents Berneis’ homeland, Germany, and her fall from grace, Germany’s descent into violence. Or perhaps the angel is Europe, in which case Berneis’ criticism of violence would incriminate all of the countries involved in the conflict.
I also wonder if Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel) could be making commentary on the effect of war on spirituality. If angels are God’s messengers, could it be that an angel’s fall represents the death of God’s ties with the human race? Had people finally reached a violence so evil that He no longer wished to communicate with them through His messengers? If this is the case, it would explain the delicate way in which the Hand releases the angel. Her fall is not a plummet; the effect of being thrown in disgust from Heaven. Her fall is a gentle, reluctant push, enacted by a remorseful hand. It seems that Benno Berneis wondered if mankind had reached a low so low that God no longer wished to have contact with people. And so, the angels were dismissed.
* * *
I hope you enjoyed this analysis. It was exciting to dive headfirst into a work of art with no literature to bounce my ideas off of. This is a wonderful example of using visual analysis and historical context to understand a work of art. That is how accessible art is! All you need are your eyes. (And if you paid attention during history class, that is a tremendous plus…)
Until next time!
xoxo, Chloe ❤