Mirror images

“Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand” Paula Modersohn-Becker (1907) Oil on canvas. Jointly owned by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Debra and Leon Black, and The Neue Galerie New York, Gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder

Self-portraits, most done by German and Austrian artists in the first half of the 20th century, capture souls — and a world — in turmoil

By Val Castronovo

Ronald S. Lauder, president of the Neue Galerie, has been collecting art for more than 50 years. He confesses to a particular fascination with self-portraits, a genre originating with Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), the German Renaissance artist who turned the spotlight on himself with the moody “Self-Portrait” (1498), followed by the Christ-like “Self-Portrait in Fur Cloak” (1500).

Rembrandt took notice in the 17th century and became famous for his self-portrayals, producing more than 80 during the course of his long career. As Lauder writes in the catalog for “The Self-Portrait: From Schiele to Beckmann,” “In the self-portrait, the artist doesn’t just give us another wonderful work of art. He opens his soul to us.”

Referencing the roughly 70 works presented in the exhibit, most by German and Austrian artists from 1900 to 1945, Lauder observes that while other paintings reveal their makers’ intellect, self-portraits delve deeper: “We see their longing and their aspiration. And we see their anger.” Anger at a turbulent world, roiled by two World Wars and the horrors of the Holocaust.

The more than 30 artists represented include big names and lesser names — Egon Schiele, Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Richard Gerstl, Otto Dix, Felix Nussbaum, Käthe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker.

The first room pays tribute to the artists’ forebears, notably with a string of etchings by Dutch master Rembrandt, seen in a variety of guises. They share space with one of the show’s star attractions, Austrian-born Egon Schiele (1890-1918), who was obsessed with self-presentation and created more than 240 self-referential paintings and drawings, the show’s curator, Tobias Natter, has calculated.

Shattered Taboos

Schiele was a tragic figure. He died at 28 during the 1918 flu pandemic. His radical legacy-artworks are a window into his angsty inner world, more so than a comment on the tumultuous outer world that informed the art of so many of this cohort.

For him, self-portraiture need not be confined to a single image — there could be two, even three Schieles in a given work (e.g., “Triple Self-Portrait,” 1913). Nor did it mean he couldn’t share the stage with another individual, like the woman lying next to him in “Man and Woman I (Lovers I)” (1914).

Here, Schiele shatters taboos and provocatively combines the theme of the nude and the theme of the self-portrait, which Natter pronounces “so modern, so groundbreaking” on the show’s audio-guide. Schiele’s hyper-extended naked body is dark gray, contrasting with the pale gray of his partner, whose face is buried in the sheets. He looks out from the canvas menacingly, raising a long arm with a claw-like hand, a pose one critic likened to a scorpion about to strike.

Nicely coinciding with Women’s History Month, the second room offers a first look at this venue of German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker’s color-saturated “Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand” (1907), a joint acquisition of Neue Galerie and The Museum of Modern Art. Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) drew inspiration for the piece from Egyptian mummy portraits at the Louvre, riffing the wide eyes and tight, vertical format of ancient funerary pictures.

A hand placed over her tummy signals her pregnancy, arguably foreshadowed in a revolutionary work from the year before, “Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary” (May 25, 1906), also here. In the latter, she paints herself half-nude and pregnant — maybe the first artist to do so — even though her marriage was on the rocks and she was not expecting.

Her marriage rebounded, and she became pregnant some months later. But she died of a pulmonary embolism weeks after the birth. Her final words: “What a pity.”

Reflections of Nazi Horrors

The show is laced with grim reminders of human suffering and tragedy. Two paintings by Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944) confront the reality of Nazi oppression head on. “Self-Portrait in Camp” (1940) shows the artist, a German Jew, in a tattered shirt in a French detention center, with bones, barbed wire and a man defecating in the background.

He escaped and went into hiding in Brussels, the setting for “Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card” (ca. 1943), in which Nussbaum cowers behind a wall as he flashes the symbols of his persecution — his identity card, branding him “Juif-Jood” (Jew, in French and Dutch), and the yellow Star of David emblazoned on his coat. He was deported in 1944 to Auschwitz, where he was murdered.

As scholar Uwe M. Schneede states in an essay written for the exhibit, “[In] their self-portraits modern artists turned themselves into personifications of the doubt about the world.” Germany’s Max Beckmann (1884-1950), with more than 80 self-portraits to his credit, initially seemed to buck the trend, with suave pictures of himself in tuxedo or bowler hat and scarf that exude confidence and calm. He reveled in role-play and self-exploration.

Things changed after the Nazis declared his art “degenerate” in 1937. He went into exile in Amsterdam, where he completed the somber “Self-Portrait with Horn” (1938), an iconic work. He wears a striped gown and holds a horn near his ear, as if he were trying to pick up (send?) a warning signal about the Nazi menace.

These works are layered. For some, they’re personal mirrors; for others, mirrors of the artists’ relationship to seismic events unfolding on the world stage. For still more, all of the above.