What is the greatest secret of the modern world

The exploration of the ego

Here an impressionistic, there an expressionistic brushstroke, a deformed body next to a realistic representation, life size versus zoomed in profile. Nine self-portraits with a common denominator: They were all created in the politically troubled early 20th century. A cabinet show in the Modern Art Collection now brings together paintings, photographs and sculptures of this traditional genre and shows tendencies with which the artists reacted directly to their political and private environment.

Exhibition view "Exploring the Self"

I feel so am I?

At a time when world wars and their catastrophic consequences determined everyday life, the focus of many artists shifted to their own emotional world. One can see the general social insecurity in their works. Above all, the many self-portraits document personal and existential losses. The individual portrayal of the person came to the fore, mostly without using well-known attributes that represent the artist's profession. The backgrounds usually remain monochrome, the individual style is all the more prominent.

Your own memory

Ottilie Roederstein created innumerable portraits of herself throughout her life. She had gained financial independence early on through commissioned work and lived openly in a lesbian relationship - an unconventional lifestyle for a woman at the turn of the century. In one of her last portraits, she shows herself again self-confident and demonstrates her autonomous lifestyle. In front of a gray-brown background, she paints herself almost life-size, in masculine clothing. There was no trace of her old age and depression about the political situation in the 1930s. The keys in her hand probably symbolize the inner end of her life's work. Roederstein sent copies of the painting to close friends as souvenirs.

Ottilie W. Roederstein, Self-Portrait with Keys, 1936, oil on canvas, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, photo: Städel Museum

Otto Dix was also aware of his impermanence: “Age sucks! When you crumble like that, it's degrading ”. The main representative of the New Objectivity left over a hundred self-portraits. On one of them he not only captured himself: deeply moved by the birth of his son Ursus, he immortalized his own - in an ironic break of medieval depictions of the Holy Family. The newborn lies in the lap of the mother Martha, daughter Nelly hands him a carnation from behind. The painter shows himself grinning in profile, facing the child. Dix exaggerates the classic, usually idealized family portrait into the grotesque.

Otto Dix, The Artist's Family, 1927, oil on wood, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2017, photo: Städel Museum

Sadness and helplessness

Two sculptures by Käthe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach represent a special ensemble. Both were personally and professionally affected by the Nazi dictatorship. In his self-portrait doubter Barlach documents the distress and hopelessness of the last phase of his life, in which he suffered particularly from defamation and his exhibition ban. When he died in 1938, this prompted his close friend Kollwitz to create her relief legal action. Her hands clasp her own face, a gesture of despair and impotence in the face of the regime.

Exhibition view with Ernst Barlach, Der Zweifler, 1931, bronze (left) and Käthe Kollwitz, Die Klage, 1938-1940, bronze, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, photo: Städel Museum

Style search

Helmut Kolle explored his self through an alienated representation: the lifelike rendering gives way to modern, avant-garde painting. Impasto areas of color form his face and body. In the portrayal, the artist appears masked, destabilized and sensitive. One year after the painting was made, Kolle died of a heart condition.

Helmut Kolle, self-portrait, 1930, oil on canvas, 81.0 x 65 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Mai, photo: Städel Museum

The earliest self-portrait in the cabinet is by Max Beckmann. Decades after its creation, in his Talk about my painting from 1938, formulated his artistic drive: “Since we still do not know exactly what this“ I ”actually is, everything must be done to recognize the“ I ”more and more thoroughly. - Because the “I” is the greatest and most veiled secret in the world. ”A secret that still needs to be revealed today.


Exhibition view "Exploring the Self"

Image in the header: Max Beckmann, self-portrait, 1905, Städel Museum, © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2017, photo: Städel Museum

Maureen Ogrocki, who works in the Modern Art Department, curated the cabinet exhibition together with Victoria Hilsberg, currently an intern at the Städel.

The cabinet show “Exploring the Self” can currently be seen in the Art of Modern Art Collection.

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