Looking Good Is Not the Point: What Artists Bare in Self-Portraits

A single self-portrait is an oddity — a titillating peek into an artist’s private life or self-conception, but otherwise no different from other figurative paintings. But when you see about 70 of them, by more than 30 artists, in “The Self-Portrait, From Schiele to Beckmann” at the Neue Galerie, you start to notice that this narrow genre has a universal scope. It’s a consciously constructed illusion of spontaneous self-revelation, a sincere put-on. And as such it’s a peek beneath the hood of art in general.

Like most shows at the Neue, this one is tightly focused on German and Austrian painters from the first half of the 20th century, combining museum-owned works by the famous Egon and Max of its title with lesser-known loans, like Paula Modersohn-Becker’s memorably odd 1906 “Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary.” But the curator, Tobias G. Natter, sets the stage with a handful of earlier European art works, including six wonderful small Rembrandt etchings.

In five of these, the Dutch master renders himself with eyes facing forward, as if staring into posterity. But in the sixth and latest, “Self-Portrait Drawing at Window” (1648), Rembrandt shows himself as he actually would have looked, with the slightly worried face of an artist at work, his eyes averted. It’s because he’s referring to a mirror, of course, but it also evokes the fundamental difficulty of attending to oneself and someone else at the same time.

Two drawings by Schiele bring out a related paradox. In a gouache made when he was 15 or 16, he depicts himself as a fiery young genius with sculpted features, lit up so dramatically he seems to be wearing white makeup. In the 1917 black crayon drawing, “Seated Male Nude (Self-Portrait),” by contrast, made the year before his untimely death, he’s lank and knobbly, sitting naked on the floor. The line is intent, the image graphic and unforgettable: Schiele’s increased confidence as an artist has allowed him to uncover his vulnerability as a human being.

The progressive German artist Käthe Kollwitz confronts the fathomlessness of the self. In a somber 1901 lithograph, Kollwitz shows herself deeply shadowed and surrounded by darkness. The sharp black and white marks of the litho, as a group, clearly describe the contours of her cheek; but each of them, considered alone, deviates like a staticky hair. Compare this to the musical obedience of Rembrandt’s lines and you have to conclude that introspection is more demanding than observation.

Oskar Kokoschka finds the lighter side of the inexhaustibility of self in his 1923 painting “The Painter and His Model II.” The artist is a lovely, slightly ridiculous patchwork of colors in a blue smock, fully absorbed in painting a good-humored zombie. Wielding the brush in one hand, he cups the fingers of the other in the sort of gesture you might make when relishing an exquisite borscht. But by including a more present and accessible figure right behind him — a woman in yellow wringing her hands — Kokoschka reminds us that the real-life painter who conceived the whole must have had a broader range of experience and insight than any self-portrait could capture.

A long line of paintings hammers in the self-portrait’s limited range: Whether it’s Lyonel Feininger as a translucent monolith in 1915, Otto Dix in 1926 and Rudolf Wacker in 1927 in nearly identical tan suits, or Lovis Corinth’s sensitive, gray-tone treatment, there’s an unrelenting sameness about the underlying project. Georg Scholz stands out in “Self-Portrait in Front of an Advertising Column,” also 1926, in part for the glittering precision of his bowler hat and eyeglass lenses, but mainly because he includes alongside himself a piece of the larger world. The visual and conceptual relationships between the dapper artist and a new Mercedes seen through a showroom window are much more interesting than he would be alone.

But the artist who most effectively, and devastatingly, puts himself into larger context is the German-Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum, who escaped from a French internment camp during World War II and continued painting until he was arrested again and murdered in Auschwitz. His 1940 “Self-Portrait in the Camp,” made in hiding in occupied Brussels, shows him in luxuriously rendered rags, grim but determined, against a hellscape out of Hieronymus Bosch. “Self-Portrait With Jewish Identity Card” is another incandescent vision of the relationship between self and world. The tension between Nussbaum’s discreet and dangerous self-possession and the hostile forces around him is searing, and it shows his precarious individuality in high relief.

Follow Will Heinrich on Instagram: @willvheinrich

The Self-Portrait, From Schiele to Beckmann

Through June 24 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-994-9493, neuegalerie.org.

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