PRINT December 1980

The Horror of Bearing Arms: Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Soldier, the Military Mystique and the Crisis of World War I (with a Slip-of-the-Pen by Freud)

EXPRESSION IN GERMANIC ART shows itself not in limpid beauty but in the truth that hurts. Anxiety itself becomes a sign of life. By that reckoning Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1915 Self-Portrait as a Soldier, at Oberlin College, is definitive. In 1915 Kirchner was already a painter of exquisite fluency, and the Self-Portrait as a Soldier offers a head-on look into his most immobilizing anxieties.1

Antithetical notions of expression, Mediterranean or classical versus Germanic, can apply to different times, and to different personality types, as well as to different phases in a single lifetime—as when Goethe is compared by Thomas Mann, in “The Difficult Hour” (1905), to a suffering Schiller who resents the ease with which Goethe composes. Within the history of modern painting, there is Van Gogh’s like envy of Gauguin’s facility, at a time when their painting concerns were as close as Van Gogh, at least, could make them.

Van Gogh was certainly the great prophet of Expressionism, all the more so in view of that anti-intellectual hostility toward modern culture which Fritz Stern (The Politics of Cultural Despair, 1961) explains as part of the Germanic cult of Rembrandt from way back in the 19th century: Van Gogh did extend Rembrandt’s esthetic, whether or not the Rembrandt cult would have approved. There are more or less obvious echoes of specific paintings by Van Gogh in Kirchner, like the plunging trestle in Kirchner’s 1907 Railway Bridge at Lobtau, which seems to carry over from Van Gogh’s Railway Viaduct to Tarascon, Arles, of 1888—a painting, by the way, from the collection of Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929).

Likewise a northern enthusiasm for the Gothic, the “antiquity” of Northern Europe, evident in Kirchner’s work before World War I, was to acquire by the war’s end a nationalist edge. We have only to compare the 13th-century Gothic figures in their setting in the “Adam’s Portal” (c. 1230–40) of the Bamberg Cathedral with Kirchner’s Two Women in Street Dress, 1911–22. An energetic zig-zagging pattern of angles bordering Kirchner’s Berlin sophisticates reiterates an ornamental zig-zagging between the figures of St. Stephen, Henry II and the Empress Kunigunde at Bamberg. Certainly there are differences, such as the serene poise of the Bamberg figures, and the fact that they are canonized saints, whereas the moderns who enliven Kirchner’s street will if anything have to achieve some more exotic, Baudelairean sainthood; still, the affinity remains.

Even Germanic Gothicism was tempered before World War I by a cultural cosmopolitanism that did not survive the war. Before, Wilhelm Worringer allows, in Form Problems of the Gothic (1910), out of sportsmanship, that the French have “the most beautiful, most living Gothic buildings,” if not “the purest.” Worringer’s estimate of the national Gothic styles is generous:

In spite of the indisputable fact that the Gothic was most firmly anchored among Germanically tinged populations and lasted longest there, one may well agree with Dehio when he says that the Gothic knew no exact national bounds but was a super-national and a temporal phenomenon which is exactly characteristic of the late Middle Ages when the national differences melted away under the glow of a consciousness of religious and ecclesiastical unity comprising all Europe.

How different to turn, at the end of the war, to Max Dvořák’s Idealism and Naturalism in Gothic Art (1918), where the same pacific condition is seen as a calm after turbulence—the collapse of imperial Rome (in analogy with imperial Vienna?): “A new mankind, emerging from the most violent spiritual revolutions, began to disclose nature artistically anew when viewed from their newly acquired points of view and spiritual interests.” By 1928, these very sculptures of Bamberg had been cited by Paul Schultze-Naumberg, in his Kunst and Rasse (Art and Race), a book viciously hostile to modern art, whose comparisons of German Expressionist artworks with photographs of pathological deformities were eventually of use to the Nazis (reprinted 1938). For Schultze-Naumberg in the 1920s the beauty of such figures indicated an ideal German noble type, a kind of national classic model, that had been severely cut back by the deaths of many aristocratic officers in World War I.

Like Gothic enthusiasms, the pseudo-chivalric mystique of the soldier came into its own in the Romantic period, as though to restore feudal glamor to the military, after the modern soldier—literally, one paid to fight, like a hired hand—took over with the rise of modern armies. (Any man in complete, regular uniform is in a sense in livery, that is, visibly not his own man.) So, glory had to be laid on, and the dashing figure of the military man, dressed handsomely to kill, emerged as an enthusiasm in the Napoleonic period. Nevertheless an old aristocratic resentment against the anonymity of uniforms survived as an undercurrent even into the First World War.

If Géricault’s Mounted Officer of the Imperial Guard, 1812, set a Romantic standard for military dash, Géricault also produced that most affective image of military suffering, the great lithograph The Return from Russia, 1818, a print which Robert Schumann could have known when he wrote (to Heine’s lyric) the stirring lied Die beiden Grenadiere, of 1840 (Opus 49, no. 1). In Victorian England one finds an interesting attempt to invest civilian “chevaliers” with a comparable quasi-military attractiveness, in the spirit of Ruskin’s, and later, Morris’, notions of constructive valor. Such is the handsome, trusty fireman in John Everett Millais’ The Rescue, of 1855, although even Millais gave in to the military mystique with The Black Brunswicker, 1860, whose appeal competes with a print represented in the painting of David’s ultimate incarnation of Napoleonic swagger, Napoleon Crossing the Saint Bernard Pass, 1800. Likewise, Van Gogh had it both ways. He shows his friend The Postman Roulin, 1888, as one of the few convincing “civilian chevaliers”: a modest but vital officer in the state machinery displays just the right honest pride and humble dignity. On the other hand, in Van Gogh’s Zouave, of the same year, the military uniform is, as Meyer Schapiro says, “a means of forgetting death and attracting the eyes of the unenrolled.” Max Beckmann appears as an Expressionist “civilian chevalier” in his Self-Portrait as a Medical Corpsman, 1915, where the red cross of his medic’s badge is centered with measured pride.

The army man stands halfway between the knight and the mercenary. Alfred de Vigny’s Servitude et grandeur militaires (The Military Condition), 1835, offers poignant testimony to the experience of the new military dilemma in Romantic times. Vigny felt the degradation of a glory derived from personal honor. Now the soldier might even be turned cold-bloodedly against striking countrymen. In the Napoleonic Wars Vigny had the experience, stressed later in the eyewitness accounts of World War I, of being shocked to discover limbs severed by gunfire from their bodies. He saw a foot that “had been severed two inches above the ankle, like the casts of feet for study one sees in artists’ studios.” The foot was his quartermaster’s, and, on finding his, also armless, torso, Vigny sketched it, “partly from a sense of bravado common to all officers.” Of the sang-froid which this brought out in himself, Vigny was ashamed, reflecting that military life kills off sensitivity and compassion. Through it all, Vigny retained the childhood memory of having been kissed by Napoleon (Freud, for whom devotion to the Austrian kaiser had a distinct paternal aspect, would have understood): “My head spun, I felt he was stealing my heart from my father . . . whom in any case I scarcely knew, since he was always away with the army.”

Under Napoleon the uniform must have become more fetishized than ever before, and more paradoxical. The effects are evident when, in “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), Baudelaire wonders about “military coquetry and the moral significance of those glittering costumes in which every government is pleased to dress its troops.” An absolute watershed of idealized Napoleonic military splendor is reached with Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865–69), especially in those early scenes in which Rostov, the youthful officer, has the supreme honor of beholding his emperor, the dashing Czar Alexander, on the battlefield; he is filled with adoration for the commanding presence and striking looks of his sovereign, in a way that for Tolstoy must have amounted to practically neo-feudal puppy-love.Yet the real climax of devotion occurs when Rostov sees the czar order a man to be gentle in lifting a wounded soldier.

Tolstoy knew the ambiguity of the post-chivalric military mystique. Maxim Gorky, in his “Literary Portrait” of Tolstoy, recounts a telling incident: Tolstoy, walking with a friend named Suler, spotted

two cuirassiers in the distance. Their brass breastplates scintillating in the sunlight, their spurs jingling, they strode along in step as if they had grown together, and their faces shone, too, with the complacency of youth and strength. Tolstoy began abusing them. “What majestic stupidity! Nothing but animals trained under the lash. . . .” But when the cuirassiers had passed by he stood still, and following them with an affectionate glance, said admiringly: “Aren’t they beautiful, though! Ancient Romans, eh, Lyovushka? Strength, beauty—oh my God!”

How such sentiment partakes of Tolstoy’s pursuit of primitive heartiness—a kind of Christianizing Nietzscheism of virtuous folk-strength and unsophisticated simplicity—might prove interesting to consider. Possibly influential was Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death (1849), that thorough review of despair: “Despairing narrowness consists in the lack of primitiveness, or of the fact that one has deprived oneself of one’s primitiveness; it consists in having emasculated oneself, in a spiritual sense.” (Kierkegaard might later have appealed to Kirchner too, if, as an escapee from a Prussian clerical family, he would have turned to him.)

At any rate, the Tolstoyan contradiction between an attraction to the chivalric military ideal and a moral antipathy toward militarism persisted. It probably did not help matters when in 1874 Darwin added to his new edition of The Descent of Man (1871) the example of military conscription as an instance of the sacrifice of the strong to the weak. In the same period, military affection appears in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, not only in the obvious enthusiasms of “The Bugler’s First Communion” (1879), but also, I think, in the well-known poem “The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord” (1877), which can be read not only as about a falcon, but also as about a member of the household cavalry seen riding in the morning.

Remy de Gourmont took on the military mystique in his classic essay “The Dissociation of Ideas” (1899). Gourmont is pertinent to the military dilemma from Vigny to Kirchner, for he locates the crux of the matter in the dissociation of the idea of military glory from the idea of honor. By the time T. S. Eliot had disseminated Gourmont’s influence in the immediate postwar period, D.H. Lawrence had treated in “The Prussian Officer” (1914) that specific brutality toward enlisted men which was a studied aspect of German military morale, notably in Prussia (where Kirchner served), but for which the imperial British also had a soft spot. Lawrence’s officer mistreats a handsome orderly whose instinctual vitality contrasts with his superior’s urbane repression. When the orderly can bear the inhumanity no longer, he breaks the officer’s neck, and “the tension of his wrists” is “exquisite with relief.” A brutal officer’s bearing was self-conscious in Germany around the turn of the century, when old aristocratic values were caricaturally exaggerated in response to a wave of new bourgeois money and influence, even in the sanctum sanctorum of the army. An officer was supposed to cultivate a schneidig (“dashing”) manner, treating working-class soldiers with contempt and insulting them at will. This was pervasive: even Max Weber, after loathing the discipline of the army during recruit days, swelled with pride once he qualified as a reserve officer. The attractiveness of, especially, the officer’s uniform was calculated, “Klimbim” being the slang for its over-elaborated ornamentation.

Uniform details are lovingly collected in Marsden Hartley’s Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, in which we now know the initials “K. v. F.” refer to a young lieutenant to whom Hartley was closely attached in Berlin, and who was killed in action in 1914. Hartley’s emblematically indirect portrayal of his friend’s military splendor is significant. The intrinsic flatness of emblems, and the native abstraction of all such devices, was already vital to Gauguin and his Symbolist generation. Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833–34) had served as a prime text, in which symbolic imagery is invested with near sanctity:

Have I not myself known five hundred living soldiers sabred into crows’-meat for a piece of glazed cotton, which they called their Flag; which, had you sold it at any market-cross would not have brought three groschen? Did not the whole Hungarian nation rise, like some tumultuous, moon-stirred Atlantic, when Kaiser Joseph pocketed their Iron Crown; an implement, as was sagaciously observed, in size and commercial value little differing from a horse-shoe? It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognize symbolical worth, and prize it the highest.

Interestingly, Freud commented quite differently on just this emblem, in a letter to his colleague and friend Sandor Ferenczi (November 3, 1918): “That Hungary has decided not to regard the mystic glamor of St. Stephen’s Crown as the highest thing in the life of a nation has especially pleased me. Once more a bit of romanticism less; mankind is much too full of such stuff.” Freud’s bitter iconoclasm here overtakes his usually temperate skepticism, due to disappointed patriotism.

In World War I the uniform mystique even influenced the moderns. Siegfried Sassoon thought the steel helmets introduced by the British in 1915 gave the troops a sort of “Chinese look,” and Herbert Read later recalled that they “were the only poetic thing in the British Army, for they are primeval in design and effect, like iron mushrooms.” It was Léger who remarked in his “Correspondence” of 1922, “I consider that a machine gun or the breach of a 75 is more worth painting than four apples on a table or a Saint Cloud landscape, and I’m not a futurist either.” Count Baudissin, combined museum director and S. A. officer in the ’30s, is more ominous: “The most perfect shape, the sublimest image that has recently been created in Germany, has not come out of any artist’s studio. It is the steel helmet.”

Apropos of the uniform mystique in World War I, Jaroslav Hašek’s farcical The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War (1920–23), illustrated by Josef Lada, tells of one of the resented “one-year volunteers” (educated men could volunteer for one year instead of being drafted) who shows up for review in top hat because his uniform is still at the tailor’s. Hašek’s volunteer encounters outrage from his drillmaster, but the vignette points back to a much older military gentility. Beau Brummell once appeared at review in a simplified uniform, having found the official one too gaudy. In the same period, Allan Braham has shown that Goya felt free in his Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, 1812, to simplify the duke’s regalia. Perhaps Goya sensed that the modern fetishization of the uniform could go too far. Of course, some like it hot, and T. E. Lawrence’s The Mint, a daybook of his R.A.F. training in 1922, testifies to a rapt infatuation with the uniform, not excepting the inhumane lifestyle associated with it. After the war, Lawrence seems to have sought out the very martial terrors which were unbearable to Kirchner in 1915.

At the start of World War I, even Freud had felt a burst of patriotic feeling reawaken his boyhood military enthusiasms. “All my libido,” as he put it, “is given to Austria-Hungary.” As a medical student Freud was proud of his reservist’s uniform and thought of military service as a healthy antidote to the neurasthenia of the over-civilized. But his all too sobering experiences in the treatment of the “war neuroses” were to change all that. Having two sons in the Austrian army, as well as dealing constantly with combat-induced mental illnesses—cases which the authorities considered malingering and which were being treated with electric shock—revised his attitude, as did the poor performance of the Austrian army. At the same time, Freud’s psychoanalytic theories underwent profound transformation. Now he came to reverse the primacy at first attached to aggression, seeing even sadism as ultimately masochistic (a view which Karl Menninger later developed into a whole theory of modern war).

Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk makes much of this apparent malingering, though the rowdy humor makes it hard to tell whether Hasek is being sentimental or cynical. The chapter “Švejk the Malingerer” has a motif that compares with the vivid arm mutilation in Kirchner’s painting. Pretending to have been bitten by a mad dog, a soldier, unable to foam at the mouth, bit himself and was put under observation for attempting to bite off his arm to escape being sent to the front. More profoundly, hostile treatment by army doctors suspicious of malingering is a theme in Alban Berg’s 1925 opera Wozzeck (based on Georg Büchner’s play of 1850). A captain describes Wozzeck as running like an open razor to shave “a castrated regiment”; later Wozzeck wonders whether he will have to cut off his arm, and reflects on the violence of man toward “his own kind.”

World War I affected Kirchner’s entire generation. The Duino castle, where Rilke had begun his cycle of elegies, was destroyed by bombs in 1915. That, and the war in general, immobilized the poet. He had doubts about the power of art to help humanity at all. In a passionate letter of October 1915 Rilke begged to know why no one could at least scream all night against the war in the “flag-bedecked” streets. Rilke did serve in the army, but after three weeks’ basic training he was sent to the War Archives in Vienna, where his job was to draw graph or ledger paper by hand for hours—which he did with extreme accuracy. Similarly, Max Beckmann, returning a wreck from the front, found himself in Strasbourg, doing rote graphic work for the medical corps, “drawing bacteria,” he wrote, “for the fatherland.” There was a veritable Expressionist contingent. Munch had a finger shot off, which has not escaped psychoanalytic scrutiny. Kokoschka—who portrayed himself in chivalric armor, devastated by Alma Mahler’s abortion of their child, in his Knight Errant, 1915, with an abbreviated reference to “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” from Psalm 22 (recalled by Christ at the Crucifixion in Mark’s account 15:13)—was badly wounded. Macke was killed in action. So was Marc, in 1916, after going through a soul-searching that included theological study and a visit to Mount Athos. Kirchner’s discharge was arranged by his commanding officer, Hans Fehr, who himself had been a lay member of “Die Brücke” and a friend of Nolde. Klee, too, managed to run into a few sympathetic souls in the army.

Kirchner’s helplessness is pathetically vivid in the Self-Portrait as a Soldier, where he appears in the blue recruit’s uniform of the mounted artillery, which he entered as an “involuntary volunteer” in 1915. One can imagine how his horrible imagined amputation has to do with anxieties over his duty, the war, death, and no doubt sexuality. The handless arm of the artist mimes his hysterical, specifically manual, incapacity, whether to paint, to kill, or to defend the ego at all (like the opposite of Dr. Strangelove’s itchy arm of military might). Kirchner suffered a breakdown, apparently with paralytic symptoms. Between that and a tubercular relapse, he was in and out of sanatoriums for years, sometimes in Davos—in the valley below the sanatorium described in Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924). In between, he was hit by a car in 1917: his right arm was skinned and his arms and legs paralyzed.

It should not be overlooked that, like many modern self-portraits, this is a mirror image, if with significant adjustments. The figure’s seeming left hand claws at the edge of the canvas: in fact, that is the mirror image of Kirchner’s right hand, the one which is actually rendering. But the regimental numerals on Kirchner’s epaulettes have been corrected from the mirror image, for obvious reasons, and the tunic buttons as it should. If it seems unimportant whether in self-portraiture the mirror reflection is compensated for, consider the modern self-consciousness implied in choosing to represent, specifically, how one appears to oneself. Capitalizing on our sense of the traumatic imagined amputation as affecting his painting arm, Kirchner followed a decidedly modern tradition of not re-reversing the image that would seem to begin with David’s great 1794 Self-Portrait in the Louvre, painted, significantly, in the enforced privacy of his detention chamber after the fall of Robespierre.

Over his right shoulder Kirchner represents the corner of one of his paintings, and over his left, a nude female model—surely Erna, his mistress (about whose image more will come). The canvas is articulated in a highly abstract way: its corner forms an acute angle, more, it seems, in order to provide a tense, jagged note than to indicate a plane calculatedly rotated in space. This area of the canvas is interesting as highly schematic Expressionist rendering of an already existing Expressionist painting. It compares with the upper-lefthand corner of such a previous work as Kirchner’s Street, 1913, where there are general correspondences—like an area that might belong to a leggy figure. However, the whole texture of the represented painting suggests the freest and least descriptive passages in Kirchner’s otherwise “representational” paintings. Even if the painting whose corner appears could be found, it has been granted an expressive liberty of handling as great, for instance, as the ornamental motifs of a carpet in Kirchner’s The Drinker: Self-Portrait, also of 1915.

Within the Self-Portrait, the represented painting is fragmentary; indeed, only the nude figure of Erna, as buoyant with life as a bather, is whole. The general issue of truncation has already been hinted at in Vigny’s account of drawing a dismembered corpse on the battlefield. It was, after all, in the context of the Romantic Classicism of the later 18th century that an esthetic appreciation of fragmentation arose. A principal document in this regard is Fuseli’s drawing of The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins, 1778–79, showing a figure mourning the ruined fragments (especially the foot) of the colossal Constantine. By the late 1790s, Schlegel was writing his Fragments; later Hermann Diels produced the first edition of the ancient, pre-Socratic philosophical Fragments. At the other extreme of scale from Fuseli’s giant-Constantine-in-pieces are those plaster casts and reductions which constituted part of the technical equipment of the academic artist, as Vigny knew, and which appear, for example, in Géricault’s Portrait of an Artist in his Studio, c. 1818–19, equated there with a skull. In a lecture on “Culture” (1868–69), Burckhardt, the great historian, considered the ability to appreciate fragments “fortunate” as well as modern, “For art is still art, even in the excerpt, the outline, the mere allusion; indeed, it is particularly poignant in the fragment. . .” Peter Fuller’s recent book, Art and Psychoanalysis (1980), offers insights into such fragmentary body forms—which, from the viewpoint of Melanie Klein’s psychology, release fears of bodily destruction—particularly with respect to the everlasting appeal of the Venus de Milo.

In modern art it was obviously Rodin who revealed the potential of truncated, or seemingly amputated, bodily form. In a simple sense this all began with the Man with a Broken Nose, of 1863–64, always likened to Michelangelo—whose nose was actually broken (by a fist). The ever-problematic non-finito aspect of Michelangelo’s work is important, but the development of Rodin’s St. John the Baptist, 1870, from incomplete body forms (Torso, Walking Man) is even more so. No longer are Rodin’s body truncations as problematic as they appear to have been in 1915, when Robert Minor, an American cartoonist, used a giant, headless, Rodinesque figure in an antimilitary cartoon called At Last a Perfect Soldier (New York Public Library). Nowadays it takes an Edgar Wind (Art and Anarchy, 1960), to think that the following is an insight: “Acephalous art is the logical consequence of the mind’s absorption in the sub-rational.” In a present-day work, Mark Saltz’s Back, 1980, the form of a limbless and headless torso emerged out of an undefined mass in the course of painting, an instance of such imagery carrying unusual expressive conviction.

Freud had already published his famous Dora case in 1905 as the “Fragment [Bruchstück] of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” Freud had his own stylistic affinities with the fragmentary aspect of Rodin’s radical, heroic-humanistic esthetic. In his 1924 Autobiographical Study, whose German title suggests self-portraiture (Selbstdarstellung: self-representation), Freud looked back to 1915, the year of Kirchner’s Self-Portrait. At the time he had been concerned with formulating a “metapsychology.” However, he says, “Der Versuch blieb ein Torso, ich brach nach wenigen Abhandlungen” (The attempt remained a torso; after writing a few papers I broke off). This is all the more interesting in light of Wittgenstein’s later remark, made in the “Conversations on Freud,” (as reported by Rush Rhees):

Freud seems to have certain prejudices about when an interpretation could be regarded as complete—and so, about when it still requires completion, when further interpretation is needed. Suppose someone were ignorant of the tradition among sculptors of making busts. If then he came upon the finished bust of some man, he might say that obviously this is a fragment and that there must have been other parts belonging to it, making it a whole body.

This is probably approaching a threshold of “over-determination,” but at the risk of transgressing it: there is not only a connection between Rodin and Rilke, but one between Rilke and Freud as well. Rilke had written the poem “Archaïscher Torso Apollos” (Archaic Torso of Apollo), between 1900 and 1908, during which time he was Rodin’s secretary; then, in 1915, Rilke, who was in Vienna for his military training, spent a happy evening with the Freuds. In Rilke’s beautiful poem about a Greek male torso (identified by C. F. MacIntyre with a 5th-century piece in the Louvre) a smile of erotic arousal passes over the torso fragment: “Otherwise the curve of the chest could not have blinded you, and in [taking in] the turning of the loins a smile could not have passed to that center point which carries on procreation.” The male eroticism evoked here may even suggest a further factor in Kirchner’s terror of military life. In Kirchner’s Artillerymen, 1915, naked soldiers packed together like cattle in an army shower are overseen sternly, if not sadistically, by an officer in uniform. Now, in at least the British literature of the war, the motif of soldiers bathing together, particularly under the protective eye of an officer, often set out-of-doors, took on an idyllic aspect. Rupert Brooke, whose own blond good looks were mobilized for British war propaganda, wrote, for his part, of fears of erotic arousal. Even the Bible relates at least solitary sexual guilt in army life, with bathing, for purification (Deuteronomy 23:10-11) and the same chapter—think of Kirchner’s “castrated” hand—condemns eunuchs to ostracism, if not doom (a position later softened toward eunuchs of faith by Isaiah [56:4-5] and recalled in Philip’s baptism of a eunuch [Acts 8:27-39]).

The abrupt relation between Kirchner’s image in the Self-Portrait and the figure of the female nude to the immediate right remains to be considered, the outright collision between his face and her body. There are, first, precedents in modern German art for the artist’s juxtaposition of his image with, especially, a fearful motif, as well as antecedents in Kirchner’s work. Arnold Böcklin’s The Artist with Death Playing the Violin, 1872, is an example that may even bring to mind, in Kirchner’s time, the role of the devil in Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat (1918)—conning a soldier out of the simple fiddle that makes for his joie de vivre. Lovis Corinth’s more immediately pre-Expressionist Self-Portrait with Skeleton, 1896, offers a cold-blooded vanitas equation of the living artist with someone’s skeletal remains, a radicalized use of studio props that makes for an almost Surrealist effect.

But Kirchner’s brutally abrupt juxtaposition between face and body, in the plane, also compares with his earlier The Artist and His Model, 1907. There, in a more obvious mirror arrangement, the confident, if not cocky, artist stands in a brilliantly striped, partly open, robe, smoking and, at the same time, wielding a brush with a glaring red tip, the brush held in the area of his groin; behind, the female model cringes, not professionally nude, but in bloomers, as an intimate of the artist. In light of a later German Expressionist work, a woodcut Self-Portrait by Max Pechstein from 1922, matters become clearer still. There the strident, elegantly raw Expressionist form of a female nude is paired with the aggressive forms and exotic overtones of a primitive idol, both together set smack against the side of the artist’s face—in an image that, like the idol, is very much hacked, aggressively, out of wood.

Kirchner’s face and the body of the nude model are so violently, desperately intimate, that an outright identification of his face and her body prevails. The upward-curving lines of her breast answer the downward-curving lines of his eyebrows; his chin matches her hips; and the cusplike curves of the collar of his tunic are closely identified, as forms, with the lines where her legs join her abdomen. Now, too, the cigarette is seen to shy away, as a phallic form, from the corresponding private parts of the model.

Freud was concerned with the identification of female torso and face. He had published his “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” in Imago, the cultural journal of the psychoanalytic movement, early in 1915, but in the more technical Internationale Zeitschrift für ärtzliche Psychoanalyse, in 1916, he produced, as though for comic relief, a brief essay that bears on the torso/face equation in Kirchner’s Self-Portrait. “A Mythological Parallel to a Visual [plastischen: actually, plastic, or sculptural] Obsession” deals, basically, with a patient who kept making the verbal connection “father-arse” a variant on the word “patriarch.” This, which Freud calls, amusingly enough, an “unusually crazy symptom formation,” reminds him of certain ancient terra-cotta sculptures of the mythic Baubo, who overcame the intractable mourning of Demeter. Baubo revived her by lifting up her skirt and exposing her sex, which made Demeter laugh.

Here, however, occurs Freud’s own unnoticed parapraxis, in the form of a visual, non-verbal, literal slip-of-the pen. His discussion of Baubo, and his borrowed illustration, depend on Cultes, mythes et religions (1912), then a recent work of the great antiquarian Salomon Reinach. But in Reinach’s line drawing of a terra-cotta from Asia Minor, the identification of face and female torso takes a slightly yet interestingly different form from the way Freud gives it, four years later, in the Zeitschrift. In Reinach’s illustration Baubo’s abdomen clearly shows two pairs of horizontal lines indicating eyes and eyelids, toward the top of Baubo’s truncated abdomen, with a pair of smaller marks in the navel area indicating a sort of button nose and a mouth, leaving the vulva in the position of a dimpled chin. In Freud’s version, however, the very slightest difference in the treatment of the navel, reducing Reinach’s pair of marks to hardly more than a dot, means that the groin is now the only area where the mouth can be read, and it appears there as a kind of puckered smile consisting of the folds between legs and abdomen that are also prominent in Kirchner’s female nude.

Freud’s slip-of-the-pen involves mouth and vagina, but it amounts, if anything, to a bodily displacement downward, from the oral to the genital zone, which is to say that it follows the normal course, or that it is, as it were, a “symptom” of “normalcy.” The philosopher Arthur Danto has observed in an essay on “Freudian Explanations and the Language of the Unconscious” that only those characteristics are significant as symptoms that appear in some way to be markedly out of order. Given the nature of German Expressionism and its commitment to the more exacerbated and extreme states of mind, this has its counterpart in the question of whether there could be any such thing as an expressionism of the pleasant, such as might encompass Matisse’s “expression.” Perhaps there can no more be a distinct, serene expression than there can be a “symptom” of health: health is whole, like what Matisse meant about painting. Thus emphasis was placed by Claude Bernard on the difference between physiology, as concerned with the complete state of health, and pathology, as concerned with specific disorders necessitating close attention to the untoward detail, in his classic Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865), which influenced Zola.

Baubo’s happy role in breaking Demeter’s morbid melancholy by means of a perhaps impertinent, but humane, ribaldry, is like another theme in Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat. The libretto for the Histoire is by someone else (C.F. Ramuz), but, considering the importance it places on bringing back to sentient life the emotions of a depressed princess, Stravinsky might have had a shaping hand: there is an old Russian folktale called “The Princess Who Never Smiled,” which makes the same Tolstoyan point—surrender the Faustian pursuit of power and wealth and embrace generosity of heart. Either way, the Bauboesque identification between a face and a female torso was extended by Surrealist artists. Man Ray’s photograph Violin d’Ingres, 1924, a take-off on Ingres’ 1808 Valpinçon Bather, is well known. So are Magritte’s several versions of the idea, such as Le Viol, 1934. There are also versions of the Baubo motif in the early Gothic novel and in the American popular literature of the time of World War II — Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943). And today the French conceptual artist Annette Messager has produced several exercises in what is called “body art,” in which she paints her torso with facial forms, retaining, or reviving, Baubo’s Surrealist propensities: her La Femme et le Monsieur Serieux, 1975, is an example.2

As for Kirchner, his art was notorious for its erotic sophistication during World War I and through the 1920s. Guy Chapman, in A Passionate Prodigality: Fragments of Autobiography (1933) recalls an experience in France in 1915: “The men moved on, and someone guided me to a clean and pleasant summerhouse with boarded walls, decorated with Kirchner drawings and portraits of English beauties torn from the Tatler.” Chapman might even have taken one along for company, since he later reports the comment of another soldier on a Kirchner drawing: “ ‘I don’t like yer thin gals.’ ” Kirchner was included with reproductions in the Bilder-Lexicon published by the Institut für Sexual-Forschung in Vienna (1929). In 1937 the Nazi confiscations of thousands of works of art from the German museums and the mounting of the humiliating exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) effectively marked the end of the Expressionist movement in Germany. When Marc’s works were subjected to this official eradication, even a plea by members of his regiment who had served with him as a volunteer in World War I was no help. Beckmann, who had over 500 works confiscated, remarked, “I just don’t fit into the new world of the barracks.” But for Kirchner, who had hardly been able to handle the First World War to begin with, having 639 works confiscated, including the Self-Portrait as a Soldier, was too much to bear. The sculptor Willi Baumeister reminisced in 1950: “An especially dangerous man was Count Baudissin, appointed by Hitler to the directorship of the Folkwang Museum in Essen. He demanded that ‘degenerate’ paintings be removed from the private collections as well. That was about the worst thing that could happen to the painters and it was most depressing. Soon after that [on June 15, 1938] Kirchner shot himself at Davos.” Schlemmer told Baumeister that Kirchner’s suicide was directly connected with this directive. What could not be sold at auction in Switzerland was destroyed by the Berlin fire department.

Nazi policy maintained a total antipathy toward anything like the free, especially Expressionist, pursuit of artistic form. Ironically, this reaction, discounting form-in-itself, deflected esthetic attention from the work of art as an independent configuration for which the artist takes responsibility and played it onto the depicted body, especially the male nude, as the object of concern. Thus, for example, in Arno Breckner’s The Victor, 1940, only the look of the ultra-Nordic “sitter” can account for any appeal: not the oddly balletic twist of the right wrist, and certainly not the possible dependence of the pose upon such much more original, but by then condemned, Expressionist works as a Schiele Self-Portrait Kneeling of 1910 (now lost), or Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s cast stone Standing Youth of 1913.

Kirchner had suffered deeply, but the anxieties conveyed in his image of himself as a soldier in 1915 hardly amount to self-pity. Here is an image of the mortal terror of war felt from deep within the self, yet one which manifests itself in a brutal, almost Brechtian objectification that makes pressing moral demands on the spectator. The Self-Portrait as a Soldier also transcends individual pathology by virtue of its ultimately elegant, Expressionist articulateness. Art is not a separate matter from moral life. Even such visual issues as the abrupt juxtaposition of the artist’s face with the body of his model and/or lover correspond exactly with broader fields of human reference: in this case, the pathetic, Dietrichian closeness of any soldier and his lover before their enforced separation by duty. This is close, for instance, to the theme of one of Beethoven’s Irish Songs, “The Soldier in a Foreign Land” (1813), which enshrines in Romantic art-song the personal anxieties of military life. A soldier turns over in his mind sweet memories of the music, and the loved ones, of home. “And who know I now,” he sings, standing night watch, “in this foreign land, but the stiff-collared sergeant, the trim-coated band?” Military music, hardly a compensation, only makes him long all the more for the folk music of home. Such sentiment is, after all, hardly confined to the German Volk. Brecht would have understood, and he might even have noticed that the song is practically a paraphrase of one of the greatest psalms, the one beginning “By the waters of Babylon” (Psalm 137). Like Van Gogh, Kirchner had personally distanced himself from a religious background, but not from the human plight. Like the aristocratic Chateaubriand, recalling a parallel motif from Psalm 22 (v.15) while watching in fear the occupation of Paris, Kirchner must have felt that a world had ended. Perhaps the verses of Psalm 137 reverberated: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. . . . For there our captors required of us songs, And our tormentors mirth, saying ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!”

Joseph Masheck teaches art history at Barnard College.


1. This is a condensation of a study undertaken over several years, and delivered as a lecture in different forms at various times. Since it must omit a long and complex bibliography, I apologize to any authors and translators who may seem slighted, and will be pleased to provide the appropriate apparatus when my larger researches on French and Germanic “expressionisms” are complete.

2. It may be worthwhile to note that another ancient terra-cotta representing Baubo (location unknown) is a possible source for one of Rodin’s most seemingly inventive poses, that of his Iris. Messenger of the Gods (known for a time as The Eternal Tunnel), of 1890-91, with its blatant genital exposure. The ancient piece, which has Baubo riding on the sacred pig of Demeter, in the posture of the Iris, was first published in the Annales de l’Institut Archéologique in 1843 and then in more than one handbook on classical culture.