Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary by Paula Modersohn-Becker
Museen Böttcherstraße, Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen
Paula Modersohn-Becker: Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary, 1906

Ever since Giorgio Vasari wrote Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in the sixteenth century, we in the Western world have understood artworks and biographies as intertwined. This isn’t inevitable. A glance sideways geographically, or over the shoulder historically, shows that most cultures have not much cared how someone was feeling when an artist sat down to carve a particular idol or paint a certain krater. We, on the other hand, are so accustomed to using the art to illuminate the life, and the life to interpret the art, that when faced with a skeletal CV and a great painter—Johannes Vermeer, perhaps—we fill in the gaps with novels and biopics.

Self-portraits present particularly attractive targets for this approach. They allow us to put a face to a name, and (we fancy) a personality to the face. “The Self-Portrait: From Schiele to Beckmann” at New York’s Neue Galerie was one of several ambitious exhibitions on the genre to be organized this year.1 Its specific purview—German-speaking Europe in the first half of the twentieth century—encompassed dozens of important painters against a background of overarching historical calamity. Such pictures have the capacity to make monumental tragedy both personal and complex. But to have taken these sixty-plus pictures at Facebook value, as autobiographical documents tagged on a timeline, was to have missed what is most captivating about the self-portrait as a form: in no other mode of art is the mechanism of representation—the looking and the lying—laid so bare.

The show’s opening artist, Egon Schiele, is a good example of this. Schiele has come down to us as the poster boy for overwrought Viennese subjectivity. In a career lasting barely a decade (he died in the flu epidemic of 1918, at the age of twenty-eight), Schiele made himself the subject of some thirty-two paintings and two hundred works on paper, by the tally of Tobias G. Natter, the exhibition’s curator. In the fine group of drawings on view, we saw Schiele as a brooding roué, a twisted totem, a martyred Saint Sebastian, and what now looks like a cocky member of a boy band. In one, he figures himself as a triad—one third fidgety, one third haughty, one third blasé. This shape-shifting, along with his habitual gothic hands, gaunt torso, and bruised flushes of color, has been seen as a marker of intrepid psychological exposure, and fed a certain modernist ideal of the self-portrait: a picture that shows not just the face but the soul. (Neue Galerie founder Ronald S. Lauder writes that the first self-portrait he ever bought was a Schiele, around 1964.)

But there is also something jejune about Schiele’s personae. The preening and martyrdom can seem a bit adolescent. And while…

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