A self-portrait tells much more than just the condition of its artist. It gives us insight into the state of the society in which they live and their relationship to the conditions of the time. In the Neue Gallerie’s exhibition “The Self Portrait from Shiele to Beckman,” displays Austrian and German self-portraits made from 1900 to 1945. Many of these works expressed the artists’ pre, mid, and post-war sentiments. We can analyze their experiences and relationships with war through setting, style, facial expression, and composition of their works. Two self-portraits that stood out to me were Erich Heckel’s Portrait of a Man and Georg Scholz’s Self-portrait in Front of an Advertising Column. Both artists served in World War I, and both of their art was affected by it. As a result of the war, artists experimented with new techniques and even established new art styles. These two pieces perfectly demonstrate the artistic development that occurred after the First World War. Erich Heckel discovered Novembergruppe, a form of German Expressionism that guided him towards accurately express his emotions, while Georg Scholz pioneered New Objectivity, an artistic movement that opposed Expressionism. War, while not pleasant, stimulated creative growth among the art community.
Before World War I, Heckel was a part of an artistic group called Die Brücke, or The Bridge. He was one of four architects who created Die Brücke, a German movement that began in Dresden in 1905. This movement re-introduced woodcut, a printmaking method in which an image is sculpted into the wood. Ink is applied to the carved wood and then printed onto paper, leaving only an outline of the image. Portrait of a Man is a woodcut print, but it does not fall under the Die Brücke style. It is categorized as a Novembergruppe Expressionist piece. We will discuss this movement later in the article. Die Brücke used unnatural colors, ignored linear perspective, and distorted space to create images of a warped reality. Other major characteristics of Die Brücke art are their sharp angles and strong, almost abrasive, brushstrokes. They were especially influenced by primitivism, especially in regards to African woodcut sculpture which is known for distorting objects by illustrating its features from different perspectives. Their use of power lines and unorthodox hues is also seen in this movement. Die Brücke artists eventually came to be known as German Expressionists when the movement dissolved, right before the start of World War I, in 1913 due to internal conflict (Donahue 12).
Heckel Portrait of a Man illustrates the impact of war on a personal and national level. This piece is a 1919 German Novembergruppe woodcut print and was made one year after the end of World War I. Having served as a volunteer in a Red Cross medical unit in Belgium, Heckel saw the horrors and tragedy of war first-hand. During this time, he did continue to create and produce works, but after the war ended, his art changed. Heckel’s experiences in war greatly shaped his art style and he began producing works of profound desolation and despair. He moved away from his Die Brücke roots and joined the Novembergruppe, a left-winged German expressionist sect that was established after the country’s defeat in the war (Hess). He replaced bright colors and beautiful landscapes with dull tones and chaotic scenes. In Portrait of a Man, Heckel has a disproportionately long face, a misshapen jaw, and worn eyes. Further, the toll of war is especially defined in his facial features, which are, as the curator states “reduced to their essence,” and sunken in (Neue Galerie). He is looking to his left, into the distance, with a saddened expression. His emotional distress is underlined by the graininess of the wood and sharp edges defining the face. Furthermore, the color of his skin is a puke-toned green, which outwardly displays the uneasiness he feels inside; the unrest is parallel to the nausea one feels when they throw up. The agony of war combined with the unstable state of postwar Germany left Heckel worried, somber, and unsure of what to next expect - the same sentiments felt throughout all of German society. Using Novembergruppe techniques, Heckel was able to express the anguish that war had caused him and Germany.
Changing gears, Georg Scholz began to produce politically-charged, sarcastic representations of postwar German society. Scholz served in World War I and fought in combat, only to come back to find Germany in a crumbling economy and political and social unrest (Art Institute of Chicago). He joined the Communist Party in 1919, during the Nazi regime. He was a critic of war and his paintings often reflected those anti-war sentiments. Around 1920, Scholz helped pioneer a new art style known as New Objectivity, which opposes the expressionists. This movement contrasts the training he received at the Karlsruhe Academy by artists such as Hans Thoma and Lovis Corinth, who painted paradisal landscapes. New Objectivity revived and modernized the techniques of the old masters, aiming to depict the sentiment of images as precisely as possible. Many New Objectivity artists were emotionally hurt by the war and wanted to portray the world as it is - with no sugarcoating. The movement somewhat disturbs realism, providing the truth of the current situation, good or bad. No topic was off-limits, and, in fact, the more candid, the better. War scenes, prostitutes, sex, and all things taboo were often the subjects of New Objectivity artworks. Their harsh authenticity reflected the frustration and political turbulence that pursued World War I. Further, it criticized the Weimar Republic, which ruled Germany from 1919 to 1933, because the party supported democracy. According to the New Objectivity artists, democracy was just war manifested in the form of economic and social polarization between classes. When the Nazi regime came to power in World War II, much of New Objectivity art was deemed “Degenerate Art,” including Scholz’s (Foster). Scholz’s art criticized the political, social, and economic unrest of postwar Germany and the Weimar Republic.
Self-portrait in front of an Advertising Column is a 1926 German New Objectivity oil on canvas. Here, Scholz is depicted as a nicely dressed professor standing on the street with an, as the curator states, “alert gaze” (Neue Galerie). In this image, Scholz is satirizing postwar, German consumerist society as seen in his elegant clothing and the Mercedes Benz displayed behind him. The Mercedes, a universal emblem for prestige, is beyond Scholz’s reach. He may appear to be wealthy enough to purchase a Mercedes, but he is not. This new consumerist society values appearance and status, and most fabricate both just to impress their peers.
Furthermore, Scholz stands in front of an advertisement column covered in posters. The yellow one on the bottom left states the word “mastery” in German, telling the viewer that he views his art with high regard. And lastly, in true New Objectivity fashion, Scholz was criticizing war and its effects on society. He portrays the bleak spirit of the German people in the Weimar Republic in his depiction of the urban setting. After World War I, industrialization boomed and mass migrations from rural to urban areas created a sense of displacement among the German people. The grey tones of the background reflected the unfamiliarity and nostalgia permeating through society. The dull green hues that overpower the environment is in reference to the loss of nature. Plush, healthy trees are replaced with somber factories. This criticism of postwar Germany is typical of New Objectivity art.
After analyzing these two works, I find it interesting that something many consider to be so evil, actually stimulates productivity. When one describes war, the words destruction, annihilation, and harm come to mind. Yet, it played a vital role in the creation of some of the world’s most valued artworks. Are we as humans more inspired by the “bad” than the “good” in the world? Try to think about examples in history where something great was produced as a result of something horrific.