Bad Frankenhausen is a small German city surrounded by rolling hills. The wooded heights overlooking the town are foothills to the Kyffhauser Mountains. In a grotto hidden beneath the dome of the Kyffhauser, Frederick Red Beard (Barbarossa) sits at an oak table. The German emperor seems to be dead, but he is only sleeping. This can be ascertained by the immense scroll of his red beard, a wilderness of whiskers that has pierced the oak table and cascades down to the limestone floor of the cave. The beard is flame-red and it has been growing untended for more than 900 years, the period of time that has lapsed since the German ruler was said to be drowned crossing a river in Turkey swollen with meltwater from the high mountains during his march across Asia Minor to Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. According to legend, the emperor did not die in this ignominious accident, but was instead spirited across the Dardanelles, carried over the Carpathanian mountains and deposited sound asleep in the secret cavern under the summit of the Kyffhauser. Frederick Barbarossa is said to be roused from his sleep and active in the defense of the Germans when needed by his people. Hitler’s invasion of Russia was named Operation Barbarossa in his honor. Apparently, he wasn’t of much assistance with respect to that endeavor.
At the center of Bad Frankenhausen, there is a medieval church with a curiously crooked tower. The church leans precipitously over the adjacent buildings and the town square. The leaning tower is massive and it looks threatening like a thunderstorm poised to pelt the rest of the town with rain and hail and staring at it for too long will make you dizzy. When I was there, I felt a little unsteady on my feet, afflicted by vertigo – the leaning burly leaning tower made me feel as if I were leaning as well. If you stand in the square and look away from the church toward the blue and green mountains rising above the village, you will see a peculiar structure located on near the crest of one of the wooded ridges rising over the town. The building is circular, a rotunda with fluted metallic sides. The local people call the structure the "silo" or, sometimes, Elefantsklo – the "Elephant’s toilet." A casual glance might persuade you that the building is some kind of sleek, bright water-tower or, perhaps, a reservoir for natural gas. This curious apparition sits on the hilltop of the Schlachtberg, a sinister name that means "Slaughter-mountain" or "Battle-peak."
In fact, the structure gleaming in the Kyffhauser foothills is the Panorama Museum. The rotunda is a cyclorama that houses the largest painting in the world, Werner Tuebke’s monumental canvas "Early Bougeoise Revolution in Germany." The web-site for the Panorama Museum and tourist literature downplay the rather daunting name for the enormous mural – these writings simply describe the painting as the centerpiece of "the Sistine Chapel of the North." The canvas is 123 meters long – that is, 404 feet, or a football field and a half in length. The painting is 14 feet tall. All told, Tuebke and his assistants painted 1722 square meters of canvas.
The name Schlachtberg is prosaically descriptive. On the hill overlooking Bad Frankenhausen, Landsknecht mercenaries under the command of the princes of Saxony and Hesse massacred an army of peasants led by the radical preacher, Thomas Muentzer. The slaughter occurred on May 15, 1525. In the fighting, the peasant army withdrew into a fortification made from overturned wagons, the so-called Wagonsberg. The rotunda containing Tuebke’s huge canvas is built on the place where the Wagonsberg was located during the battle. The destruction of the peasant’s army at Bad Frankenhausen was decisive in the so-called Peasant’s War. Thomas Muentzer was captured, tortured, and beheaded. And, although there were other skirmishes and massacres, the calamity at Bad Frankenhausen effectively ended any hope that the peasant’s might succeed in their quixotic rebellion.
Like many terrible events in history, the Peasant’s War arose from a misunderstanding. Martin Luther’s Reformation discredited the Catholic Church in much of Germany. The Church was entangled in secular affairs and many of the German princes were closely aligned with Roman Catholic interests. As a result of a variety of economic factors, the princes were impoverished, at least, by their standards, and imposed a series of increasingly confiscatory demands on their serfs. The exercise of arbitrary and tyrannical power over the peasants – for instance, demands that they cease their agricultural labor to gather snail shells for ornamenting the garments of princesses – led to widespread unrest. Luther wrote an open letter to the princes’ recognizing the the peasant’s grievances and admonishing them to behave in a more humane and just manner. Peasant insurgents interpreted Luther’s letter as support. Furthermore, the peasant’s mistakenly believed that Martin Luther’s defiance of the Catholic Church licensed them to revolt against princes and nobility closely associated with the Church.
Thomas Muentzer was a Protestant preacher and visionary. His dreams convinced him that he was another Daniel, a prophet living in apocalyptic end-times. Muentzer encouraged the peasant’s to arm themselves and rise in violent insurrection against the feudal princes. (It is an open question as to whether Muentzer led the peasants or, opportunistically, joined their rising and was, in effect, led by them.) Gangs of peasants attacked cloisters and abbeys. Noblemen were assaulted and some of them killed. An expedition mounted by several of the princes was ambushed and a number of noblemen were tortured to death. Martin Luther was horrified. He took up pen and wrote a notorious diatribe Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Luther believed that it was the duty of all Christians to be obedient to secular authority and that the only passive resistance was authorized against the nobles. However, Luther’s immoderate prose style is particularly prone to misinterpretation – the nobles construed his polemic as authorizing indiscriminate slaughter of all "murderous and thieving" peasants.
At Bad Frankenhausen a ragtag peasant army, perhaps as many as 8000 insurgents, was surrounded by mercenary forces. In the ensuing battle, almost all the peasants perished. Thomas Muentzer was captured. Under torture, he confessed that he had preached the doctrine of omnia sunt communa – that is, "all things should be held in common." By the end of 1525, the peasant revolt had been brutally suppressed. Luther was urged to retract the vehement words that he had written in his screed against the peasants. He refused, although also alleging that the prince’s had misconstrued his polemic and that their brutality was unwarranted.
Werner Tuebke’s painting was conceived in 1975 to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the massacre at Bad Frankenhausen. The canvas cyclorama stands on the site where the slaughter occurred.
The Panorama Museum has a large parking lot a couple hundred yards from the cyclorama structure. The walk from parking to the museum is pleasant. The vista from the Schlachtberg is impressive and there are places to sit and enjoy the view of the rolling fields and green meadows around Bad Frankenhausen.
The Museum is entered through a modernist annex, a variant on the minimalist modular structures designed by Mies van der Rohe. In the annex, there is a gift shop, a small restaurant, and gallery – the museum hosts exhibitions of figurative artists. Some subterranean ramps lead to the underbelly of the cyclorama where there are some artifacts, mostly ornate scabbards and rusty cannon balls, together with facsimiles of luridly illustrated pamphlets written by participants in the uprising – a copy of Luther’s notorious diatribe is on display.
You can take an elevator or a spiral staircase up into the rotunda where the painting is encircles the exterior walls of the cyclorama building. I recommend that you use the staircase to ascend to the picture. In the former DDR, for many years, deodorant was thought to be a capitalist luxury – workers in the workers republic were supposed to smell like workers. People either were soused in perfume or reeked of body odor. The residue of these stinks remains in the elevator – perhaps, the smell makes some people nostalgic, because it reminds them of the good old days in the Deutsches Demokratisches Republik. Standards in personal hygiene have improved markedly in East Germany today, but traces, olfactory remnants of the past remain and, unless you are interested in encountering them, you should take the steps to the upper level where Tuebke’s picture is displayed. (In any event, the elevator is an elderly socialist-vintage contraption, airless, claustrophobic, and very slow.)
On first impression, Tuebke’s panorama is breathtaking. There is no place to focus the eye and the huge painting wrapped around the walls in a 360 degree display induces a kind of visual panic. The eye slips from place to place in the picture and finds itself lost in a labyrinth of convoluted and interlocking forms. About a third of the canvas is very brightly painted – this is the battle itself – and has a glittering, brilliantly agitated surface. The remainder of the canvas is gloomy, painted in dull browns with highlights for fire and fields of cream-colored snow. The figures in the foreground of the image are, more or less, life-size, but the perspective recedes rapidly and the people and animals depicting in the middle distance, that is, higher on the wall, are small, but mostly clearly legible. Every forty or fifty feet, there is a node, that is, an intersection where turbulent fields of figures form a sort of vortex, often swirling around a single statuesquely painted allegorical emblem. The painting’s composition exploits a rhythm of alternating compression and decompression – in some areas, the hordes of soldiers are so densely painted that they form solid, mosaic blocks of writhing figures; but these passages of tightly compressed men and women alternate with open spaces in which vignette-like tableaux are scattered across ominously dark fields or snowy distances – the tableaux have something of the character of Brueghel’s paintings of Netherlands proverbs: we see groups of figures sufficiently isolated to be read as allegorical or symbolic emblems, metaphoric icons set apart from the frenzied action around them.
The canvas is not exactly beautiful, but it is certainly immensely impressive and daunting. The painting exhausts you in looking at it. People emerging from the elevator or coming up the steps into the rotunda invariably greet the picture with gasps, laughter, little squeals of astonishment. But, then, a morose silence sets in – the eye must slog through the windrows of violently gesticulating figures and the task of seeing becomes arduous. Don’t let your cell-phone ring here: security is quick to pounce and they will admonish you for your rudeness in torrents of German abuse.
Tuebke’s smaller figures – that is, those that are half life-size or less – have a curious elongated and mannerist character. The soldiers and allegorical personages in the painting look flimsy and they are not conceived in volumetric terms (such as the figures in the Sistine Chapel). Rather, Tuebke’s people are imagined as marks on the canvas, somewhat spidery and two-dimensional, a bit like the harlequins and prancing mercenaries in Jacques Callot’s graphic works. In general, the hordes of smaller figures are grotesque: they lunge and hop around like marionettes or flames caught in crosswinds. The people have mask-like faces that seem somewhat bloated – their eyes are dead, dull buttons. There is a disconcerting sense that the huge mobs of soldiers and peasants are figures resurrected from mass-graves – there is a faint aroma of decomposition about their expressionless faces. Tuebke, unlike other German figurative painters (for instance, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix) is uncomfortable painting flesh – the great German painters of the 20th century luxuriated in fat, heavy bellies and breasts, plump bodies encased in blubber. Tuebke’s figures are much more ascetic, emaciated – the larger personages look somewhat like El Greco saints, some mystical force is whirling and twisting them upward like points of fire.
A dozent will explain the picture to you in German, but be prepared for a long, tendentious lecture. If you squint, or blur the focus of your eyes, large portions of the painting will look like Jackson Pollock to you – that is, fields of squiggles unified by a color composition, vaguely organic brackets and parenthesis markers, elbows and genitals, all tangled together on a surface of agitated oil paint.
What you will look at first, but, perhaps, most superficially, is the part of the painting that seems to be historical – that is, the representation of the Battle of Bad Frankenhausen. This comprises about a third of the canvas surface and is brightly: turbulent rivers of figures sweeping across green meadows in a vast sunlit landscape that rolls back into the blue distances of the Kyffhauser Mountains. It is May and everything sparkles as if lit by sun on dewdrops. A couple thousand figures, most of them a foot high or so, are locked in combat and there is a smear of horses, lances, and pennants where the armies collide. The tangle of armaments and writhing men is indecipherable, an almost abstract mass of limbs and armor and helmets, zombie-like faces floating on the surface of tangled thicket of soldiers. (Parts of this sector of the painting look like Albrecht Altdorfer’s surreal Battle of Darius in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, an extraordinary foliage of knotted troops, figures like the leaves in dense shrubbery, displayed against a bluish visionary landscape.)
The arch of a rainbow defines the scope of the battle. At one of the arch, the colors seems to rise prismatically above a harlequin figure, a dead fool lying on his side under the throng of battling soldiers. At the far end of the rainbow, the female figure of Justice sits rather uncomfortably on a sphere the size of Volkswagen and apparently representing the world. Justice holds a scales in one hand and a huge sword in the other, but she seems indifferent to the massacre occurring next to her. Another ornately dressed woman flanks Justice – an advisor is whispering to her, but he is, unfortunately, a skeleton clad in a monk’s robes. Above the dead fool, men are carrying a flag that is featureless. A bird of prey, perhaps an black disheveled eagle, although with something of the mien of a vulture, flies toward the flag and casts a shadow on the banner – the eagle against the flag looks like a imperial standard, but the effect is an illusion, a trick on the eye. (Some writers have imagined this eagle to be outside the picture-plane and fluttering around within the spectator’s space within the cyclorama – I don’t think this interpretation is valid.) Another banner that says Freiheit rhymes with the first flag – it stands on the opposite side of the field in a turbulent mass of men and horses near where the other prong of the rainbow comes to earth.
Directly under the center of the rainbow, Thomas Muentzer stands alone on a greensward between mobs of fighting men. In the distance behind him, we can see the modest ramparts of the wagon corral. Muentzer looks disconsolate and droopy. With one of his hands, he ineffectually strikes his chest – with the other, he holds another fallen flag.
At the edge of the picture, closest to us, a crowd of famous men stands around a big fountain that looks something like a masonry punch bowl. Blue fluid fills the punchbowl and brilliantly red lilypads are floating in that liquid – the effect is like an expensive mixed drink, perhaps, with strawberries floating in it, albeit on a colossal scale. The famous men and their punchbowl are screened by the battle by a dark hedge and they seem indifferent to the carnage behind them. The men are notable figures from the early 16th century: Hans Sachs, the Meistersinger, Columbus, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Johannes Gutenberg, Erasmus, Copernicus, the banker Jacob Fugger, and, at the center of this frieze of life-size portraits, Albrecht Duerer and Martin Luther (as portrayed in the famous painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder.)
Above the arch of the rainbow, Icarus falls from the sky in a halo-shaped "glory". Thomas Muentzer’s flag carried at Bad Frankenhausen bore, in fact, the image of a rainbow.
Friedrich Engels wrote a book on the Peasant’s War of 1524 and 1525. Engels thought the war was a precursor to the unsuccessful socialist and communist uprisings that had occurred across Europe in 1848 and he interpreted the 16th century conflict in that light. The Peasant’s War was an "early bourgeois" revolution, hence, the title of Tuebke’s painting. In Engels’ view, the peasants were defeated because they were insufficiently radical – that is, they failed because they were not prepared to adopt a wholly materialist and economic view of the world: By entrusting leadership of their rebellion to figures that were intrinsically conservative – that is, the preacher Thomas Muentzer -- the peasants signed their own death warrant. (Today, even Marxists don’t accept Engels’ interpretation of the Peasants’ Uprising.)
In East Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Muentzer was revered as a sort of proto-Lenin, also a profound misconstruction of his aims and character. Although Muentzer had failed, his revolt was claimed to be instrumental in forging a new class-consciousness among the peasants and, further, had instituted an alliance, albeit a fragile one, between the nascent working class and their rural brothers.
Werner Tuebke was East Germany’s most renowned painter. In the mid-seventies, he was engaged in completing a massive fresco at the Leipzig University, entitled Intelligentsia and the Working Class. (This painting is probably Tuebke’s most accomplished work and his masterpiece – it is 42 feet long and eight feet tall.) On the strength of this mural, Erich Honecker, the prime minister of the DDR, met with Tuebke personally and enlisted him in the project of commemorating the 450th anniversary of the massacre at Bad Frankenhausen. Another commemoration was on the horizon – 1988 would be the 500th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Muentzer.
Tuebke made sketches and preliminary paintings and, by 1982, had created a 1 to 10 cartoon on which to base the finished painting to be installed in the cyclorama. Tuebke’s 1 to 10 prototype for the large canvas was, itself, forty feet long and a one and a half feet wide. The picture was displayed in Leipzig and Honecker himself congratulated Tuebek on the brilliance of this preliminary work. An order for canvas suitable for painting and 400 feet long by 14 feet was placed with Sursk, a manufacturing firm in the Soviet Union. No one had ever produced a canvas on that scale before and special equipment had to be devised to manufacture the surface on which the painting was made. East German and Soviet scientists, apparently, collaborated on the process and cultural emissaries from both nations spend considerable time inspecting the great swath of canvas and preening themselves on their enterprise in ultimately manufacturing the thing.
One might detect a slightly aggressive and, even, hostile agenda in the interactions between the Soviet Union and its East German satellite with respect to Tuebke’s painting. First, the rotunda painting was planned to be the same approximate size as the cyclorama showing the Battle of Borodino unveiled in 1911 and supervised by the Russian artist, Franz Alexsayevich Roubaud. Originally, the painting was exhibited on the Smolensk Road near Moscow at the location of the Kutuzov hut, the place where the council of war prior to the battle with Napoleon was conducted. In 1962, the picture was moved to Victory Hill in the Poklonayya central Moscow and installed in its current building – that structure is identical to the rotunda on the Schlachtberg at Bad Frankenhausen. The fact that little East Germany might compete with the mighty Soviet union with respect to this cyclorama must, certainly, have rankled some Russians.
But more problematic is the subject matter of the German cyclorama. In Engels’ view, the peasants’ revolution failed because it occurred too early in the class struggle. The revolt among the rural peasants was doomed because it was historically premature. Engels wrote: "The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and the realization of the measures which such domination would imply." Clearly, this idea has relevance to the Russian Revolution which was, to some extent, founded on a peasant revolt in a largely agrarian, and non-industrialized country. How could the Russian Revolution succeed in the absence of a fully developed industrial working class?
These concerns were not merely theoretical. In the debate between Lenin and the less radical Mensheviks, Engels’ historical interpretation of the peasant’s revolution was cited for the proposition that communism would surely fail in Russia. Indeed, the quotation from Engels’ cited above was repeatedly used to argue that Lenin was asserting vanguard revolutionary ideas that could not take root in Russia because the revolutionary class would be comprised, largely, of peasants. Thus, the East German celebration of the failed Peasants’ Revolutions masks a critique of the Marxist - Leninist regime in Soviet Russia. Perhaps, the East German regime was suggesting to their Soviet masters that the true revolution might be possible in industrialized Germany but was likely untenable in Russia.
Paintings are always present-tense. There is no before or after. In a picture, events depicted occur simultaneously. This impairs narrative, an arrangement of incidents that depends on causality.
Italian painters in the Trecento sometimes divided narratives into separate images and distributed events in the story occurring at different times to different parts of the landscape: a saint suffers martyrdom in the picture’s foreground but beyond a hedge of trees or rocks he casts out hairy red demons or performs some other miracle. Tuebke uses this device to some extent in the Bad Frankenhausen painting – Thomas Muentzer and Martin Luther appear at various locations in the panorama. But the canvas is designed as a cyclorama – it forms a continuous, uninterrupted panorama with neither beginning nor end -- that is, a perpetual present.
What were the causes of the Peasants’ War? Thirty or forty feet of canvas immediately to the left of the sunlit battle-scene address this issue. Here, Tuebke probably operated under constraint. All organized societies are hierarchical and embody certain inevitable, structural injustices. Certainly, the Communist regime in East Germany was as dissolute, corrupt, and unjust as any other social order and, indeed, was probably worse than most. Thus, depicting the causes of the rebellion runs the risk of satirizing inequities that were rampant in the DDR. A building imagined to exist in the 16th century might look suspiciously like the headquarters for the STASI, the state secret police. A cruel prelate might be given Erich Honecker’s features and a drunkard staggering through the snow might resemble, albeit coincidentally, Brezhnev or some other figure in the Soviet politburo. It is inevitable that the past will be read as symbolic of the present. Tuebke’s problem was to invent a pictorial grammar and iconography that would not run afoul of local authorities or their patrons in Moscow. For this reason, Tuebke adopts imagery that is fantastic, grotesque, surreal; he loots the pictorial repertoire of Bosch and Brueghel for monsters, devils, and tortures. A characteristic of art created under conditions of tyranny is its indirection, its highly metaphorical and symbolic nature, its retreat away from reality into allegorical representation.
Immediately to the left of the quasi-historical battle scene, the sky is pitch black. It is night and winter. Fields of snow marked with pink highlights of spilled blood outline masses of figures that all seem hurrying in one direction or another. The shattered masonry mass of the Tower of Babel, as imagined by Brueghel, rears up against the inky sky. Part of the Tower is a labyrinth opening into catacombs. At the mouth of the maze, Thomas Muentzer is preaching to group of huddled peasants. To the left of Muentzer, an enormous blue-green fish floats over a field of snow where there is a perfectly elliptical egg, white against white, beneath the fish’s belly. The fish may be some kind of pennant – it is attached at the tail to a withered and oddly-shaped tree but the nature of the apparitions is unclear. In its guts, the fish bears a naked man and is marked with the sun and moon. A veil of blue fin or, perhaps, an emanation of hazy blue, transparent light emerges from the fish and falls on the snow, casting a ghostly aura around a ruined city, fortified towers and steeples fallen so as to resemble the ice-field in Caspar Friedrich’s Wreck of the "Hoffnung" ("Hope") – Arctic Sea. Mercenaries are looting a town and murdering farmers. Crowds of refugees stagger across the snow and there are strange monsters with peacock feathers emerging from their foreheads squatting under barren trees. A naked woman is being shoved into a barrel and weirdly mechanized hordes of soldiers like robot armies collide under the black sky. A man broken on the wheel hangs over a cavalcade of horseman crossing a snowy field and a ragged veteran with a pegleg looks up at the corpse. In the sky, the pope is borne aloft by a floral garland of small winged monsters. Golgotha is visible on a distant hill but no one pays any attention to it. A pig peers into a box-like pit where men are confined and a woman rides a galloping horse peering into a mirror that she holds before her face. Marching along the edges of a ruined city, a procession of plague victim carries a huge banner that depicts Christ in his grave as a colossal, disfigured corpse.
After eleven years of often-agonizing labor, Werner Tuebke’s panorama was finished in 1987. Tuebke had been hospitalized several times for muscle injuries to his right arm and hand, the extremity that he used to paint the canvas. His work was complete in August 1987. Assistants completed the painting in September and Tuebke signed the painting on October 16, 1987.
Construction work delayed the opening of the Panorama Museum in Bad Frankenhausen until 1989. In any event, the initial exhibition of completed panorama was planned for August 1989, the 500th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Muentzer. On August 22, 1989, the DDR issued five commemorative postage stamps illustrated with images from Tuebke’s painting. The grand opening of the museum occurred a week later.
The former "iron curtain" borders of East Germany had become porous and tens of thousands of its citizens were flooding into Prague, Budapest and Vienna. The regime was collapsing, bankrupt, mortgaged to Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, an empire that was equally moribund. Erich Honecker was sick; he had tumors in his colon and on his liver and kidneys and underwent emergency surgery in August 1989. Unable to attend the debut of Tuebke’s mural, Honecker sent his wife, Margot. The world’s greatest example of "socialist realism" was first shown to dignitaries and, then, the awestruck public only eight weeks before the collapse of the Deutsches Demokratisches Republik.
Honecker was deposed and the Berlin Wall collapsed. (Honecker became famous for another huge painting, a mural drawn on the Wall showing him kissing Leonid Brezhnev on the mouth: the painting by Dmitri Vrubel was labeled: May God Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love.) In 1961, Honecker had facilitated the building of the Berlin Wall, an act that he later justified as done to "avoid a third world war in which millions would have died." He had given the order that sentries on the wall should shoot to kill defectors escaping across the no-man’s-land between the two Berlins. Accordingly, after his regime collapsed, Honecker was indicted on 68 charges of murder and tried in Berlin. The case dragged on for half a year and Honecker’s cancer flared again. Excused for attendance at the trial, he fled to Moscow and, then, Santiago, Chili where he died in 1994. His trial was never concluded.
Werner Tuebke had been awarded the medal of the Order of Karl Marx in 1989 in recognition of the eleven years of his life that he spent painting the Peasants’ War panorama. In 1990 and 1991, he painted several large canvases containing self-portraits of the artist wandering in a maze filled with grotesque and terrible monsters. With his wife, he traveled to Italy and designed set decorations for opera companies – one notably beautiful set for Weber’s Der Freischutz restored him to some level of fame. He accepted commissions to paint altar-pieces for German churches and continued this work until his death in 2004. Tuebke’s altars feature lurid images of the Last Judgement. His Christ figures are emaciated and cruelly lacerated, surrounded by furry, flying monsters.
To the right of the rainbow demarcating the bright battle scene, an avalanche of brownish corpses falls out of the sky. The sky is stormy, lit with eerie bruise-colored highlights. A ship has run aground on a rocky shore and its sails collapse over battered seaman. A tempest is approaching. This part of the painting is Tuebke’s vision of the Last Judgement. His apocalypse occupies about half of the cyclorama.
The Last Judgement consists of figures clumped together in enigmatic groups scattered across a stony, brown wasteland. The painted surface is mostly monochromatic but shot through with areas of discordant color: violet, acid greens, neon blues. The wedge of bodies falling out of the sky, representing, it seems, the triumph of death is painted as a brown turgid grisaille, a single dirty-looking shaft of corpses raining down on the denuded earth.
Below the falling bodies, Pilate washes his hands while a jester mocks him. A woman with long braided pony tails dances in front of a gallows on which corpses are hanging. Nobles dine behind a high wall, surrounded by musicians who, undoubtedly, try to drown out the roar of the trumpets and trombones signalling the Last Trump. Like chimney stacks, ranks of trombones crowd together, herds of inverted bronze-colored antlers. Martin Luther, Janus-faced, burns a papal bull at the edge of blood-red lagoon and, above a hellish-looking print shop, elegantly tasselled tents house mice and cat and dog generals, supervising a battle between the species. Tuebke has painted himself in the middle of this chaos, gazing quizzically out of the picture to the spectator. His wife mounted on a horse holds up an extinguished candle. And a few feet higher up, we see Tuebke again, this time as a naked corpse with a demon extracting his soul from between his rigid jaws.
On a grim, rocky ridge, St. Anthony is being gnawed by rat-faced, verminous demons under Christ crucified. Monks hang from trees. The world sphere shines like will-o-wisp on a hilltop. Sphere contains a disk on which the map of the world as once imagined, a flat plain with oceans inscribed on them, transects the globe. A skull-faced angel appears to a distraught peasant announcing that Columbus was right and the world is, in fact, globular. Angels dump purple clouds of poisonous mist from basins held in their arms. The poison gas forms mist around knights in armor on armored caparisoned horses. Jeremiah stands in a yellow beam of light next to the waxy-looking corpse of a young woman, her baby reaching toward her dead breast. Conga-lines of monsters dance across the landscape passing a calf wearing a papal tiara and there are boar-headed prelates, figures with crocodile profiles, parrot beaks, jackal and ibis heads. Counterfeiters forge currency and moneylenders scuttle like cockroaches across the waste land. Above a crucified pope a demon with a monkey tail rockets upward. Near the figure of Jeremiah, a crowd of noblemen, princes, and dukes are gathered around cloud. In the center of the cloud, a decapitated head shrieks at the center of a nimbus of fire. Amidst the lords and ladies, a fool wearing a cap with tassels and bells drooping over his face weeps.
In the center of the desolation, a ship sits on pebbly dry land. The vessel is crowded with craftsmen, artists and engravers, silver smiths, men holding keys and instruments of their labor. At the back of the boat, an old man paddles vainly, stirring the soil with a shovel-shaped oar that does nothing except disarrange an old shoe lying beside the stranded vessel.
Whatever else he was, Tuebke was no party-hack. There is a crazy integrity to his paintings. The retrograde esthetics of the DDR let Tuebke exist and, even, flourish. In West Germany, he would have matured into an artist like Gerhard Richter or Sigmar Polke, fashionable, enigmatic, sardonic and obscure. But in East Germany, Tuebke was free from prevailing trends in the art world, liberated from art-market pressures. He didn’t have to be ironic or imitate Duchamp or Andy Warhol or the Pop Artists to sell his work. There never was any market for his work in any event – he was state-subsidized, the much respected Rector of the Leipzig Art Academy until the DDR collapsed. Tuebke was sincere and earnest, a solemn heir to great traditions in art and the gigantic fantasia in Bad Frankenhausen must have secretly appalled and dismayed the commissars who purchased it for their regime. Conceived on the scale of Tintoretto, and sharing with that Master some of the turbulent, sinister energy of the Venetian’s great frescos, the panorama invokes Duerer and Brueghel, Bosch and a host of other artists, and the message conveyed by the massive work is almost completely indecipherable, hermetic, mystical and, even, occult. Certainly, the East German officials did not expect the kind of work that they received. (And, if they did anticipate the bizarre outcome of Tuebke’s eleven years of labor, these administrators are to be saluted for their radical boldness.)
In some ways, the 20th century artist that Werner Tuebke most resembles is Max Beckmann. Beckmann was a figurative artist and worked on a large-scale. Before World War One, his two signature paintings were both on grave and portentous historical subjects – the sinking of the Titanic and the earthquake at Messina. Each of those pictures were conceived on a massive scale and involved dozens of figures in Baroque and hectic interaction with one another. After World War Two, Beckmann’s work became more boldly stylized but still was thematically ambitious. Indeed, in the last twenty-five years of his life, he painted enormous triptychs, wall-sized paintings that were overtly symbolic. The vocabulary of Baroque emblems exploited by Tuebke is similar in many respects to Beckmann’s gaudy imagery of harlequins, masked figures, dancers and circus performers, sages and fortune-tellers and sinister jesters. In Beckmann, we find the same quasi-religious iconography: terrible tortures and martyrdoms, elongated Gothic personages, men falling from the sky, the world-globe, and supernatural fish. Tuebke borrows one figure directly from Beckmann. At the Museum of Modern Art, Max Beckmann’s most famous triptych, Departure ("Abscheid"), depicts a noble king with his wife and child setting sail: their ship holds a net filled with fish and an ominous helmeted figure stands in the stern of the vessel. On both sides of the serene central panel, there are images of torture – bodies trussed to columns and mutilated, people hanging upside-down, a man beating a bass drum. (Like Tuebke’s painting, Beckmann’s works are full of images of people playing musical instruments – oboes, flutes, trombones, and drums.) In the left-hand panel, a figure is bound with hands fettered over his head; the figure is squatting on his knees and bent over a sphere, apparently an image for a crystal ball or, perhaps, the world itself. The figure’s face is not visible, pushed up against the translucent sphere over which he is crouched. In Tuebke’s Bad Frankenhausen canvas, the same figure appears, bound and crouching face-down on a plank. Tuebke ups the ante by showing a goat-headed demon slicing the skin from the back of the bound man. Another demon squats behind the man who is tonsured like a monk. That demon seems to inspect the man’s anus. To my eye, Tuebke has clearly borrowed this personage from the left-hand panel of Beckmann’s Departure. (Although I hasten to observe that there is a common source for this figure – the little squatting demons displaying their rectums in the engravings of the deadly sins made by Hieronymous Bosch in the mid-16th century).
Common to Max Beckmann and Werner Tuebke is the theme of the Theatrum Mundi, that is, the world as a stage. The World-Theater has several meanings, all of them relevant. First, "world-theaters" were little marionette or puppet stages equipped with simple levers, pulleys, and string apparatus to animate stylized figures (knights, ladies, jesters, monsters). Metaphorically, the Theatrum Mundi refers to the idea that people have no real identities, that they are merely performers in a vast theatrical work whose meaning they can’t grasp – we are all marionettes buffeted by hidden forces that we don’t comprehend. Our freedom is merely an illusion. Finally, the Theatrum Mundi implies that nothing is real; the world is a meaningless, incoherent spectacle. Ultimately, all human endeavor is play-acting and, fundamentally, inconsequential. What we see is not what exists, but, rather, only a kind of charade. Both Max Beckmann and Werner Tuebke’s major works of art express this nihilistic proposition.
Why do sixty linear feet of Tuebke’s canvas show the end of the world? Why is the dark sky full of serpentine vortices and clouds full of fire? Why do the nine muses, each labeled like beauty contestants (Miss Idaho, Miss New York, Miss Minnesota) march in a column to the place where a statuesque Adam and Eve are filching fruit from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil? Why is a farmer sowing tiny heads in field as if they were seeds? And are those cabbage-shaped vegetables growing in the furrows also decapitated heads? Why is the sower followed by a woman on a white horse wearing a bright green dress and carrying a whip? Why are noblemen gambling and throwing dice? Why are peacock feathers set like tendrils of a rare plant in a big pot? Why are meteors and comets plunging to earth? Why does Cain gloat over the murdered body of Abel? Why are there six men dragging a rope to which there is attached the cyclopean tail of a fox? Who is this well-dressed Death breaking a staff across the apron of his elegant garments? Why is the Pentecost occurring next to painting of the crucifixion, bright orange flames sprouting from the company’s heads? A pelican has opened its beak and uses it like a caliper – what is the bird measuring? Who are the dead men being deposed like Christ from wooden gallows, a scaffold that is defended by an animate corpse who has climbed into a tree on the edge of a snowy field?
It is remarkable that the final spasms of Eastern Bloc communism yielded Werner Tuebke’s vast panorama at Bad Frankenhausen. Marxist thought purports to be materialist, anti-religious, and invested in the idea that history, originating in class struggle, progresses inevitably toward certain necessary outcomes. But Tuebke’s painting is mystical, densely inflected with religious symbolism, and entirely ahistorical. Indeed, the very form of the painting, a huge cyclorama, defeats Marxist notions of historical progress and the inevitable succession of social organizations developed as a result of class struggle. Tuebke’s State, the DDR, regarded itself as historically inevitable, the result of class struggle that led inevitably to the Communist regime. To Marxist idealogues, history had a direction and meaning – it moved in a certain direction in accord with certain Hegelian rules. But, of course, the circular form of Tuebke’s painting defeats this idea. You walk around the vast canvas, inspecting it on the rotunda where it is displayed. Tuebke has constructed the cyclorama to follow the progression of the seasons: Winter gives way to Spring (and the May battle on the mountain), followed by desolate, sulphurous Summer and an even more tempestuous Autumn and, then, it is Winter again and the bands of brigands sweep across the snowfields once more to ravage the village under the Tower of Babel. The cycle of the seasons is circular – no progress can occur because the engine of the seasons simply repeats itself. As you scrutinize the canvas, you walk in a circle and, inevitably, end up exactly where you began. History doesn’t progress: we simply move in circles.
Critics suggest two ways of thinking about Tuebke’s 404 foot long painting. Perhaps, the canvas painted on specially manufactured Russian fabric and supervised by German and Soviet commissars is a work of subversion. Perhaps, the chaos and brutality that Tuebke shows in the painting is simply a disguised portrait of Marxist-Leninist doctrine and a critique of the decomposing DDR. Some writers think that Tuebke either intentionally, or accidentally, painted the portrait of the tyrannical, moribund political system in which he worked. By this account, Tuebke’s painting encodes a secret message of resistance to the corrupt East German regime. I’m skeptical of this theory. Tuebke was a serious, apparently humorless, German with an interest in utopia – we know this because of interviews that he gave – and a belief in the artist’s high calling, his vocation as prophet and revelator of a paradise that we have lost, but can, perhaps, regain. (In books published in the DDR, the artist is always referred to as the Rector of the Leipzig School of Art, "Prof. Dr. h. c. WernerTuebke".) To regard the battle canvas at Bad Frankenhausen as satirical requires us to impute irony to the image and, even, a sly kind of comedy. I don’t think Werner Tuebke was capable of irony and think it unlikely that he saw the enterprise of painting the massive cyclorama as an occasion for comedy.
A second approach to the painting is more fruitful. Tuebke read everything he could find about the Peasants’ Rebellion. He studied Engel’s book and other academic histories including Marxist treatises by Manfred Bensing and Siegfried Heyer. As preparation for his work on the painting, he visited the Schlachtberg, sketched its landscape, and the medieval buildings in the town. Tuebke examined renaissance armor, architecture and building techniques, learned how people dressed in 1525, read sermons that Thomas Muentzer preached, and immersed himself in the writings of Martin Luther. In short, Tuebke imagined as fulsomely as possible what it would be like to live in the era of the Reformation. Tuebke didn’t so much paint the appearance of that age, but its psychology – what was the nature of the soul of man in 1525?
The Reformation and late medieval period in Germany was an era of enormous and frightening change. An entire New World had been discovered – Tuebke refers to this in the image of the world globe and the demonic angel’s annunciation to the peasant: the world is not a flat disk, it is a sphere teeming with strange peoples and lands. Scientists were plotting the laws of planetary motion, but construing the celestial mechanisms in terms of astrology and the occult: Sir Isaac Newton spent the last years of his life writing about Daniel’s prophecies. Tuebke’s imagination, I think, was steeped in the febrile fears and hopes of the early Reformation, imbued with wild utopian longings and terrible hatreds. He imagined a intensely religious world, a world governed by certain immutable symbols, that was falling apart, dissolving before the horrified eyes of its inhabitants. Werner Tuebke set out to portray that Zeitgeist, to show what it was like to live in a new world that was not yet fully formed, but that was arising out of the wreckage of the old truths that had once governed men’s lives. The Reformation and the scientific and geographic revolutions occurring simultaneously made reality seem mutable: the world had become fantastic, abysmal, no one could trust the earth on which they walked – huge voids and chasms were opening up everywhere. All that was solid seemed to be melting into the air. The world was a pageant of sound and fury that signified nothing – a Theatrum Mundi made from desire and dream and the imagination. By creating a psychological portrait of that age, by embodying the apocalyptic fears and hopes of its people, Werner Tuebke inadvertently painted his own portrait, the image of a man struggling with collapse of his world.
Werner Tuebke’s painting is not the largest in the world. The Guinness Book of Records asserts that the world’s largest painting is David Aberg’s picture "Mother Earth," painted on the roof of an aircraft hangar near Stockholm. That picture, really a huge cartoon of a woman and a peace-sign, covers 86,000 square feet – that is, the painting is about 293 feet square; in fact, it’s shape is rectangular. To be appreciated, the picture has to be photographed from the air. Aberg claims to have used 200 tons of paint and worked on the picture for 2 ½ years, finishing the work in 2006.
Aberg’s painting doubles the size of Eric Waugh’s canvas at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the painting called "Hero". Waugh is an Australian artist who paints abstractions in bright pop-art colors. "Hero" is reported to be 41,4000 feet or about 203 feet on each side.
More mysterious and questionable are reports of an immense painting somewhere in Shandong province, China. That painting is said to be called "The Beautiful Soul of China" and is alleged to be 232,442 square feet in extent. It’s not clear where this painting is supposed to be, how it was made, or the surface on which it is located. An artist named Sun Lei is said to have made this image around 2009. Internet images show a rather conventional Chinese landscape of karst formation cliffs, mists, and lacy waterfalls. The painting appears to be in a one to four aspect ratio – that is, it is four times longer than it is tall. However, the images don’t provide any sort of perspective on the image or context – something that seems suspicious to me since the scale of the picture, after all, is its principal claim to fame. Assuming 1 x 4 format, the picture would be 810 feet tall and 3050 feet long – it is hard to imagine a surface this size. Accordingly, I am assuming the Sun Lei’s gigantic painting is some kind of misunderstanding or myth.
Tuebke’s image of the Bad Frankenhausen battle is not even the largest cyclorama in the world. That honor belongs to a Soviet-era depiction of the Battle of Stalingrad that is about ten feet taller and 30 feet longer that Tuebke’s picture. I don’t know if anyone has taken the measure of several thousand square feet of panorama at Ataturk’s mausoleum complex in Ankara. I have see huge murals there of bloody massacres of Turks and the battle of Gallipoli displayed on the walls of huge darkened corridors with realistic debris piled up in front of paintings. For instance, the picture showing Gallipoli is exhibited in a long corridor with barbed wire lining the walkways and mannequins of dead bodies strewn around the base of the painting.
Some critics have construed Tuebke’s Early Bourgeois Revolution as a Totentanz – that is, an image of "the Dance of Death." Clearly, Tuebke has in mind Brueghel’s big painting called "The Triumph of Death". Anne Sexton wrote a verse about the painting in her poem: "Two Views of the Cadaver Room" --
‘In Brueghel’s panorama of smoke and slaughter
Two people only are blind to the carrion army:
He, afloat in the sea of her blue satin
Skirts, singes in the direction of her bare shoulder, while she bends
To finger a leaflet of music over him,
Both of them deaf to the fiddle in the hands
Of the death’s head shadowing their song.
These Flemish lovers flourish; not for long.
Yet desolation stalled in paint, spares the little country
Foolish, delicate, in the lower right hand corner.