In October 1907 Paula Modersohn-Becker, a painter, excitedly wrote to her mother: “I would like to go to Paris for a week. Fifty-six Cézannes are being shown there!” She was eight months pregnant and housebound, yet her mind was teeming with plans. She had already secured her place in art history the year before by becoming the first woman to paint naked self-portraits. One particularly transgressive work, “Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary” (1906, right), depicts her pregnant – though she was not at the time. Her protruding belly symbolised the germination of her artistic talent. Sadly, Modersohn-Becker’s talent would never be fully realised, and she would never get to see those Cézannes. She died of a post-partum haeommorage at the end of November 1907, shortly after giving birth to a daughter.
Modersohn-Becker is one of the 30 artists whose work is on display in “The Self-Portrait from Schiele to Beckmann” at the Neue Galerie, a museum in New York City dedicated to German and Austrian art and design from the 20th century. The exhibition includes 70 self-portraits made between 1900 and 1945, a period described by the curators as “a pinnacle of European self-portraiture, second only to the Renaissance.” It’s bookended by two modernist masters, Egon Schiele and Max Beckmann, who sprang from the two dominant artistic movements in Germany and Austria during the first half of the 20th century. Schiele was a proponent of Expressionism, a movement known for its bold use of colour, exaggerated shapes and emphasis on emotion. Beckmann, who had been traumatised by his experiences of life on the front line during the first world war, was a follower of New Objectivity, a style known for its crisply detailed naturalism and its satirical take on Weimar society. It is not surprising that German and Austrian artists gravitated towards the self-portrait during this particularly unstable half-century. Many channelled their anxiety and existential dread onto the canvas, depicting themselves with ambiguous expressions or in visible distress.
After what at times can feel like a sombre parade through history, some visitors may crave an aesthetic antidote. The museum offers lighter, more glamorous fare one floor down, where its crown jewel, Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (also known as “The Woman in Gold”), hangs alongside some of his other sparkling and pastel-coloured paintings. But after spending time with the exhibition’s cast of troubled, introspective, fascinating characters, Klimt’s languid society beauties may seem relatively lacking in substance.
Egon Schiele, “Self-Portrait in Brown Coat” (1910)
Mad, bad and dangerous to know, Egon Schiele was the Byronic bad boy of the Viennese art world. In 1912 he was arrested for seducing a minor. During a search of his studio, police found some of his racy nudes and charged him with exhibiting pornography. In court, the judge set fire to one of his drawings.
Compared to those of his mentor and friend Gustav Klimt, whose use of bright colours and languorous curves became associated with fin-de-siècle femininity and genteel eroticism, Schiele’s paintings are abrasive and primal. In his imagination, bodies are contorted and twisted, and ribs and legs jut out at unnatural angles. Pubic hair and genitals are meticulously detailed.
Schiele died aged just 28 during the Spanish-flu pandemic of 1918. During his short life, he painted 240 self-portraits. Some were fairly straightforward nude drawings; others expressed his existential anxieties. In one portrait in the exhibition, “Triple Self-Portrait”, Schiele appears in three guises, representing his multilayered personality. Here, in “Self-Portrait in Brown Coat”, Schiele portrays himself in an ascendant pose: with his tall frame and arms at his sides, he looks as if he is rising into heaven. The otherworldly effect is heightened by the white halo around his head. Schiele believed everyone had a spiritual aura, and often added a halo to portraits and self-portraits.
Paula Modersohn-Becker, “Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand” (1907)
Paula Becker started to draw when she was 16. After studying in London and Berlin, she moved to Worpswede, a German village, to join an artists’ colony. There, she befriended the poet Rainier Maria Rilke and Otto Modersohn, an artist who would become her husband.
Modersohn-Becker’s paintings are distinctive for their muted colour palette and their determination to show women as they really are, rather than as idealised representations of feminity. Despite Modersohn-Becker’s obvious talent (Rilke wrote that she painted her surroundings as “nobody else had seen or could paint”) she often felt that her artistic career was inhibited by her sex. Her most decisive break with convention was to separate from her husband for a year so that she could move to Paris and paint. In 1906 she returned, pregnant, to Modersohn in Germany – probably propelled by a need for money and the comforts of home.
This self-portrait was Modersohn-Becker’s last, painted shortly before her death. One hand rests on her swollen belly, while her other hand holds aloft two pink flowers: traditional symbols of fertility.
Käthe Kollwitz, “Frontal Self-Portrait” (c. 1910)
Another woman to break into the male-dominated art world at the turn of the century was Käthe Kollwitz, an artist who specialised in cutting social commentary. Today she is best known for her prints portraying the plight of working-class people and women who lost husbands and sons in the first world war.
Kollwitz’s use of black and white distinguished her from other more colourful Expressionists. In this charcoal sketch, half of Kollwitz’s face is shrouded in darkness, while the other half appraises the viewer with a weary stare. It hints at the ultimate unknowability of other people – no matter how accurately an artist may render their appearance in a self-portrait, their precise emotions remain impenetrable.
Max Beckmann, “Self-Portrait in front of Red Curtain” (1923)
Set amid carnivals, circuses and cabarets, Max Beckmann’s portraits and self-portraits demonstrate his deep unease with the decadent atmosphere of the Weimar Republic. He combined an unsentimental approach to reality with an acidic sense of humour and an appreciation for the uncanny. This is a typically unsettling painting. Judging by the red curtain, embellished furnishings and fine clothes, Beckmann seems to be at some kind of glamorous event, yet his grimacing face indicates that he’s not pleased to be there.
Felix Nussbaum, “Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card” (c. 1943)
Felix Nussbaum, a German-Jewish artist, fled Berlin for Brussels after Hitler came to power in 1933. When Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, Nussbaum was arrested and sent to a camp in France. He managed to get permission to go back to Germany, and on his way there escaped to Brussels, where he went into hiding with his partner, Felka. They would remain in hiding until July 1944 when they were found by the Nazis. Nussbaum was murdered a week after arriving at Auschwitz in August 1944. He was 39.
“Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card”, painted a year before his death, captures Nussbaum’s increasing sense of claustrophobia and dread. He looks as though he’s trapped in a corner, between tall, concrete walls, and his expression is startled and scared. Stitched onto his coat is a yellow star, the infamous badge that Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe had to wear. In his hand, held aloft as though to show a Gestapo officer, is an identity card, rendered as clearly as a photograph. We can easily read his name, and his designation as a “Juif-Jood” (French and Flemish for Jew), but the town of his birth, Osnabrück, is blurred out, and his nationality is listed as “sans” (without, or none). The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped Jews of their German citizenship.
The Self-Portrait from Schiele to Beckmann Neue Galerie until June 24th 2019