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"The Anatomist" and "Monkeys as Critics" by Gabriel von Max

(A Symbological Analysis)

You are rummaging about in a mouldy old document - you always enjoyed that - and intend to amuse the world with the peculiarities of some past century? I believe that the present world and the present age finds little meaning in the meaning of life.

Theodor Gärtner

In the present essay I shall consider two paintings by Gabriel von Max (1840-1915), both of which are held in the Neue Pinakothek (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen) in Munich. Von Max is not a well-known artist. His name is not found in popular art dictionaries, and, as is generally the case with late nineteenth century German art, his works have attracted little interest among art historians.

My short remarks do not pretend to fill the 'scholarly vacuum'. I shall restrict myself only to viewing the effects which von Max's painting produce upon the contemplative consciousness. My endeavour is to reconstruct the primary symbolical content of the paintings. As such, usual art historical problems remain outside of my scope.

The first painting in question, Monkeys as Critics, was presented at the first Munich Annual Exhibition opened on 1 July 1889. Maria Makela in her recent book dedicated to the Munich Secession describes the situation as follows:

Gabriel Max effectively visualized the widespread discontent with the jury's choices in his entry to the first annual, The Ladies' Club ca. 1889. Later retitled Monkeys as Critics by the artist, the painting was among the most cynical at the exhibition. Thirteen apes of varying shapes, sizes, and characters examine a painting visible to the viewer only by its golden frame. A label on the back of the canvas identifies the concealing image as Tristan and Isolde, and lists its selling price as 100,000 DM. The work has been traditionally interpreted either as an expression of the artist's well-known fascination with Darwinian philosophy or as a satirical attack on art critics. In the context of the first annual, however, its subject assumes different connotations. Notably, Max was among the opponents of a salon in Munich, and he initially refused to participate in the first annual. When he finally did submit Monkeys as Critic, it was only after the exhibition had opened. The results of the juring, which generally favoured the lighter pallet and looser technique of the artist's younger colleagues, could only have increased Max's antagonism toward the enterprise. Ultimately the picture must be read as a satire on the jurors of the first annual, whose work on the show Max likened to that of mere monkeys. A tremendous popular success at the exhibition, the work was ironically, and perhaps somewhat defensively, awarded a second-class gold medal.
(Makela M. The Munich Secession. Art and Artists in Turn-of-the-Century Munich. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 31-2)

Makela's interpretation of the painting can be expanded. To clarify the way of further discussion I shall permit myself a small theoretical digression.

Revelation of the historical context of a work as a basis for its interpretation is necessary but not enough. That is so because the artwork is always more than the circumstances of its arising. Even if it appears as a response to an actual event, it also acquires more universal significance. "Satire against a person", if done well, inevitably grows into a "satire against manners", and the latter tends to become a chapter in some eternal "Divine Comedy".

In a work of art, as well as in philosophical or religious scripture, we can thus distinguish two elements: one is temporary, transient, determined by an historical situation and the artist's biographical paraphernalia; the other is eternal and intransient, actual in all times and applicable to every man. It is exactly because of the second element that the art work retains its vitality in the everlasting stream of changing "contexts" and "interpretations".

This second element, i.e. conscious or spiritual content of the work can be roughly defined as an invariant of all its actual or potential receptions or as an aggregate of the effects which the work typically produces upon the continuum of individual consciousness.

Although transhistorical and transpersonal, this content always finds its expression in time and through the human mind (i.e. it is embodied in the forms of culture). The impossibility of the direct transmission of consciousness embraces symbology as well, which, nevertheless, presupposes the comprehension of language (including its own) as only a necessary convention.

Gabriel von Max, Monkeys as Critics, c1889, 107 x 84 cm

Let us return to Monkeys as Critics. It can be said that the painting is symbolical depiction of the situation of incomprehension. The monkeys as non-human (or, at least, quasi-human) are unable to comprehend and appreciate adequately the human spirit's creation because the world of specifically human experience is closed for them. For them it is simply non-existent.

Comprehension, however, arises as an act of co-experience or of co-existence in the spirit. That is, it is a certain self-identification of the comprehender with the comprehensible. This self-identification with one's own otherness is at the same time a self-transcendence, losing identity with oneself. Whilst the monkeys remain monkeys their "critical activity" is just a ridiculous and absurd imitation of real comprehension. The contradiction of intention and result, depicted as an ontologically irresolvable conflict, can be settled psychologically in the consciousness of viewer through the reaction in emotional modalities of laughter, fear, disgust, etc.

But von Max's painting problematises this too easy resolution by plunging the viewer into the intentional structure of the painting. The central figure - the largest ape - is looking straight at the viewer so that the latter finds himself in a mirror position as regards the ape. Thus the image acts as a reflection, and the monkeys examining the painting are equated with viewers considering von Max's work. The artist's cynism mentioned by Makela consists in fact in this equation of viewers with monkeys pretending to be critics of the work but totally unable to comprehend its purpose and significance. (Note that the work of the creator, i.e. the painting, can metaphorically mean the work of Creator, i.e. the world).

To feel like a monkey is, of course, insulting. Hence, the first reaction of the viewer: "the picture arouses unpleasant feelings". Not to feel insulted one must either ignore the mirror effect (and therefore actual seeing) or take up the position of an outer observer, i.e. regard oneself as a (critical) viewer.

Such a meta-reflective transition is set up by the substantional structure of the image itself. Recognition of the painting as a mirror prevents the viewer from objective consideration of the image and impels him to interpret the latter as a depiction of his own state of consciousness. So the viewer is forced to reflect upon his own "natural" critical reflexes, which brings his psyche out of the routine of automatic evaluation and switches his attention to the automatism, or non-consciousness, of the process.

Gabriel von Max. Der Anatom / The Anatomist, 1969, 136,5 x189,5 cm

Another painting by von Max, The Anatomist, painted 30 years earlier than Monkeys as Critics, reveals a striking parallelism with the latter in its conscious content.

It represents a dead girl laying on a platform in front of a middle-aged man who contemplates her. The girl is young and beautiful, deathly pale, her lips and eye-lids are touched by putrid blue. Her nudity is covered by a semi-transparent shroud which the anatomist lifts a little with his hand so that her breast can be seen. To the left, in the interior of the room, there is a table on which are some books, sheets of paper covered by writing and two skulls. To the right, on the platform in front of the viewer a small insect is represented. The palette is very dark and the corpse of the girl (covered as it is by the white shroud) is the only light spot on the canvas. At first sight, the painting produces an unpleasant and even repulsive impression.

What is the nature of such an impression? Firstly, for the majority of people the representation of death is conceived as a taboo for it reminds them of their own mortality. Because they fear death and are unwilling to think about it repulsion and rejection are their natural defensive response. They defend themselves against acceptance of the fact of death, in the final account, against the comprehension of existence.

Secondly, the vision of the young girl's corpse affronts the usual conception of death which is associated with old age and ugliness. Youth is implicitly connected with beginning - full of potential for development and growth; beauty with a perfect and therefore eternal being. Death is usually conceived of as an absolute end - the impossibility of continuation and mere non-being. Thus "dying whilst young and beautiful" seems to be a kind of ontological oxymoron from which reason would wish to turn away.

Thus the meaning of the image of the dead beauty can be rendered as follows: not only the old and exhausted die, but also the young and beautiful. Death is certain and its time uncertain, and it defies all our conceptions of it.

It is possible that all these are just the thoughts of the anatomist meditating on the corpse. What knowledge can he acquire from the investigation of a corpse? Not of life, because there is no life in the corpse. Not of beauty and youth, because they are ways of the self-expression of life. Perhaps he can come to know death? Yes, he can ascertain the causes of the death of this body. But how can he understand death? For comprehension means a living experience, and death is that which destroys the conditions for its own experience.

If one understands the painting as a meta-description of its reception then the viewer becomes an anatomist in front of the mystery of the unknowable. No scrupulous and meticulous description, no investigation of the body is able to bring him closer to beholding truth. Here again, as in Monkeys as Critics, we find ourselves in a situation of the impossibility of comprehension, of the fatal gap between two experiences resulting in a total dis-contact and estrangement.

One of the skulls on the anatomist's table is apparently the skull of an ape. And the image of Tristan and Isolde examined by the monkeys and unseen to us depicts the non-meeting of lovers which results in death. The dead girl is like a bride under her white garment.

Prague, March 1993

Addendum: Extracts from correspondence

[1] On Sunday, December 28, 2003, Brian Shapiro wrote:

I'm attatching an image of Gabriel von Max's painting 'Monkeys as Critics', if you care to use it on your webpage on the artist.

I want to note that Max wasn't the first artist to display monkeys acting as humans, and not only that, not the first artist to cast monkeys as art critics. I've read that there are precedents in the medieval period, but the earliest artist I'm sure of to paint monkeys in such scenes is Watteau. These were called 'singeries', after the French word 'singe' for 'monkey'. Later, in the 19th century, it was endlessly used by the French painter Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, who cast them as dentists, barbers, musicians, painters, etc. Finally, he did a painting which cast monkeys as art critics.

Here is a link to an image of the work at the Metropolitan Museum of art: http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/view1.asp?dep=11&item=29%2E100%2E196

This was painted before Max's work, it may have been an influence.

[2] On Sunday, December 28, 2003, Eugene Gorny wrote:

Dear Brian,

Many thanks for the image of von Max's painting! I could not find it for so many years. I put is on the webpage and now my article looks accomplished.

I am also very grateful to you for your remarks concerning the monkey as people motive in art history. Though I had no intention to ascribe the palm to Max and confined myself with a narrower task of comparing his two paintings, it can well shed light on the history of the motive.

The resemblance of Decamps's "Experts" to Max's "Critics" is striking. However, Max seems more subtle because what he paints is not a caricature (with all its conventionality and humour) but rather a quasi-realistic picture (with all its gloomy symbolism). There might be an influence but the interpretation of the same motive is different.

I would like to ask you permission to quote your remarks as a postscript to my article. I could also put a link to your website as a sign of my gratitude.

Best wishes,

[3] On Sunday, December 28, 2003, Brian Shapiro wrote:


You can certainly quote my comments. I am working on a website but it isn't up on the Internet yet. I plan to include a lot of artists that are important historically but obscure. Some of these are already coming back into appreciation, but others are still not being given attention. The list includes Thomas Couture, Hans Makart, Charles Chaplin, Hans Canon, Mihaly Munkacsy, Hendrik Leys, Eugene Carriere, Augustin-Theodule Ribot, Josef Rippl-Ronai, etc. I'll probably include Gabriel von Max. Eventually, I want to expand it to a large encyclopedic site on cultural history including images from artists, mp3s of composers and texts of literature, poetry, and philosopy.

Brian Shapiro

[4] On Sunday, December 29, 2003, Brian Shapiro wrote:


Also something else I forgot to mention: Gabriel von Max, from what I've read, lived with a family of monkeys, and because of this often painted them. Although in "Monkeys as Critics" he paints them normally, sometimes he, like Decamps, dressed them as humans having them doing human activities. There's one Max painting entitled "Monkey as Art Critic" where a monkey is in fine dress and holding a champagne glass. If you want me to send you an image of it let me know.


© Евгений Горный / Eugene Gorny, 1993-2014.
© Сетевая Словесность, 2007-2014.


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