At the turn of the last century, a profound shift took place in the way artists approached the human portrait, which since the Renaissance had been a mainstay of Western culture. As cogently described by the art historian Alessandra Comini, this shift involved a switch from façade to psyche: that is, from an emphasis on outer appearance to a fascination with inner psychological reality. Nowhere was this transformation more dramatic than in Austria and Germany, for portraiture played a more central role in the genesis of Germanic Expressionism than it did in any of the other early twentieth-century modern movements.
A conventional pre-modern portrait characteristically consisted of three components: a physical likeness of its subject, an evocation of the subject’s personality and confirmation of his or her social identity. Until the late nineteenth-century, portraiture was an art form restricted to high-status individuals (the nobility, the wealthy bourgeoisie and eventually, heroes of the industrial age such as scientists). Portraits thus codified power and the exemplary virtues ascribed to those who wielded it. Poses frequently referenced antique prototypes, thereby imbuing the sitter with classical authority. Subjects tended to be idealized: dignity was stressed, physical flaws de-emphasized or eliminated entirely. Men routinely were portrayed in somber tones, which were associated with mental acuity, while vibrant color was largely reserved for portraits of women, who were believed to lack unique identities. As for the vast majority of lower-class individuals who did not rate as portrait subjects, their role was reduced to that of bit players in a vision of history centered on the needs of the ruling elite.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the circumstances which had fostered conventional portraiture began to change---at first gradually, and then radically. Foremost among these changes, of course, was the invention of photography, which not only obviated portraiture’s practical function as visual identification, but sullied its exclusivity by making two-dimensional likenesses available to everyone. Although the French Impressionists still painted portraits, for the first time artistic considerations, such as color, form and brushstroke, took precedence over personality, physical likeness and rank. Indeed, while portraiture had historically served as social certification for its subjects, the genre was not always esteemed by artists, who felt that their talents were better showcased in more complex allegorical, religious or historical scenes. The lack of creative freedom implicit in a portrait commission was anathema not just to the Impressionists but to all the later modernists; from here on, portraits most frequently depicted an artist’s friends and family members. This turn-around conferred new authority upon the artist: in choosing the portrait subject (rather than being chosen for a commission), and in setting the portrait’s aesthetic parameters. Finally, changes in the art market disrupted the direct contact between artist and patron necessary for portraiture to thrive. As dealers routinely came to function as middlemen, artists were naturally motivated to paint more universal subjects that could appeal to a broader general audience.
The intellectual concept of identity that had undergirded the traditional portrait changed along with the external conditions governing artistic production. The self could no longer readily be located in a subject’s physical appearance or the outward trappings of social station. According to the teachings of Sigmund Freud, the self was not even necessarily within the grasp of the conscious mind. At the same time, the ruling hierarchies had come under attack by Karl Marx, and almost all avant-garde artists, regardless of their specific politics, rejected the seemingly moribund bourgeois values of the late nineteenth century. It is perhaps not surprising that the Expressionists dealt most overtly with these issues of identity and social transformation. Freud, after all, was Austrian and Marx German. Both countries would undergo revolutions and social collapse in the wake of World War I. At the dawn of the twentieth century, these cataclysmic events may have seemed far in the future, but artists often manifest a seismographic ability to register minute tremors well in advance of the actual quake.
Expressionist portraiture was predicated on a desire to shatter the empty pretenses that had come to rule the genre--as Comini put it, to go from "schein" (seeming) to "sein" (being). Gustav Klimt's gold-encrusted society portraits may be seen as a final flowering of bourgeois decadence: visions of women so completely subsumed by colored bric-a-brac that the self all but vanishes. Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele would, by way of contrast, engage in an intense effort to recover the lost self, while at the same time expressing their profound alienation from society by stripping their portrait subjects of any surrounding context. This transition can be traced by comparing Eduard Ille’s nineteenth-century portrait of an artist (checklist no. 19) with Schiele's treatment of the same theme. Ille clearly signaled his subject's status by depicting him in the characteristic floppy bow tie traditionally worn by art students, and Schiele, in a 1907 self-portrait (checklist no. 57), follows suit. However, by 1910, Schiele had no more use for such external trappings: in his portrait of colleague Erwin van Osen, physiognomy and body language alone evoke the subject's creative spirit (checklist no. 62). Expressionist painters were often credited with a kind of clairvoyance, as when Schiele unwittingly sussed out a sitter's avocation as a hypnotist, or Kokoschka alluded to a subject's undisclosed criminal past. Stories are told of sitters who complained that their portraits did not look like them, only to be told, "They will." All too often, this proved to be the case, as Expressionists had an uncanny tendency to age their subjects by several decades.
It has been said that Expressionist portraiture replaced sight with insight. However, as a result, one sometimes wonders how true to their subjects these pictures really were. On a certain level, many Expressionist portraits were really self-portraits: reflections of the artist’s response to the sitter, rather than records of the more objective (and readily recognizable) attributes that would have been stressed by earlier portrait painters. Working primarily to please themselves, artists on occasion failed to note the names of their subjects, so that some Expressionist portraits function as depictions of generic types, rather than specific individuals (checklist nos. 17, 20, 44-49, 51-53 and 59-61). Alexej Jawlensky concentrated almost exclusively on the human face, yet his effort to capture the spiritual essence of being eventually yielded nearly abstract images that convey no sense of distinct personae (checklist no. 21). Käthe Kollwitz’s portraits of beleaguered women are often virtually indistinguishable from her self-portraits (checklist nos. 33-41). In a sense, she became a kind of symbolic “everywoman,” taking on the sufferings of the world and projecting them in her own visage. Other Expressionists similarly blurred the boundaries between inner and outer reality. It is certainly not surprising that self-portraiture was so popular among these artists (checklist nos. 3-5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 57, 63, 66 and 70).
Portraiture and self-portraiture flourished in German-speaking Europe long after the two genres had begun to decline elsewhere, in part because of the Expressionists’ preoccupation with self. However, other more practical considerations also abetted the continued depiction of human subjects. Portraiture remained a fixture of the standard academic curriculum (checklist no. 72), and the transition from academic verisimilitude to modernism is recapitulated in the oeuvres of many artists (checklist nos. 22-26 and 57-66). Austria, in particular, was slow to develop a network of commercial art dealers, and as a result, direct contact between artist and patron survived well into the twentieth century. Disdaining the capitalist marketplace, some left-leaning artists found themselves in the paradoxical position of favoring a quasi-aristocratic model of private patronage. Schiele’s ideal audience consisted of a hand-picked elite, which he attempted to cultivate with mixed success. Expressionism, after all, was not everyone's cup of tea. Anything but flattering, the Expressionist portrait was a far cry from Klimt's bejeweled ladies.
The intense subjectivity of the Expressionist portrait doomed it from a practical (albeit not an aesthetic) perspective. Once fidelity to a shared public reality--seen in terms of outward appearance or social station--was jettisoned, portraiture ceased to function as a coherent marker of identity. The collusion between artist, sitter and viewer that had given meaning to the traditional portrait had been destroyed. Personal identity was revealed as something evanescent, far beyond the realm of mere physical likeness. No longer vested exclusively in the sitter, a portrait’s identity might as easily stem from the artist’s interpretation or, for that matter, the viewer’s. The Expressionists had turned inward, away from social constraints they deemed corrupt and unworkable, to seek a private, inner self. Current art historians, on the other hand, tend to dismiss the idea of a stable, absolute self, instead maintaining that all identity is socially constructed and art simply a representation of the resulting illusions. Post-modern artists typically reject the psyche in favor of surface façade, yet in the end, this strategy is no more convincing or “correct” than any of the other conventions that previously governed portraiture. Interest in the self endures, and Expressionist portraits remain among history’s most moving tributes to the human spirit.