Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Self Portrait as a Soldier, 1915, is in high demand this year. After being exhibited at the ‘1914: the Avant-gardes during the War’ at the Kunsthalle in Bonn, it is shown at the National Portrait Gallery at the moment. Its popularity lies in the fact that it is easily readable as the depiction of a moment full of anxiety and existential doubts. The soldier in the foreground has dead eyes but his actions (smoking, sex, and stealing?) are very much alive. Kirchner’s painting is a contradictory one where the vanishing point seems to fall to the sides of the viewer’s space as if he was interacting with the characters depicted from a place of indifferent superiority. With his right hand chopped off. Kirchner’s traumatised artist soldier can no longer paint the nude model in the background: the military experience threatened his physical and sexual well being as well as his artistic creativity. But is he the responsible of his own doom? it is in this circularity that this painting works.
But striking as Kirchner’s painting may be, it is unrepresentative of the range of works that will be on display in the show. Only the first and last sections of the show deal with the stuff of conventional Modern art exhibitions. The first entitled ‘The Rock Drill’ shows Jacob Epstein’s extraordinary sculpture Torso in Metal from the Rock Drill, 1916, the final version of a work first created in 1913. Like Kirchner’s painting, it easily slots into contemporary expectations of artistic representations of the Great War: a mechanised created, dismembered and devoid of humanity, conjures up images of mechanised warfare, artillery fire and disfigured amputees returning from the front. The final section of the exhibition also features well known modernist artists was well as Kirchner, it includes works by Max Beckmann and Lovis Corinth.
There is one piece that could not be included in this show and is Otto Dix’s Self Portrait as a Soldier, painted shortly after he had volunteered in August 1914, but the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, has the work on its ‘red list’, which means it cannot travel at all. Dix is central, however, to this show point which is to clearly differentiate the German and the British modernist responses to the war. While Britain seemed to go backwards, Germany went forward. In the case of the former,a traumatised nation allegedly required the security offered by the familiar past and saw the widespread return to earlier aesthetic conventions, where in Germany a revulsion against the old order apparently required something ‘truer to the visceral suffering that many endure’.
I think this show clicks at the level of visualising the different temporalities in the responses to the crisis. While the British seem to cling to naturalism and the coordinates of space that are linked to our here and now, the German clearly play with a visual language were the human being is plastically manipulated to fit the needs of a higher ‘spiritual’ power. Just a thought.