New York

Wilhelm Lehmbruck

Perhaps erroneously and unfairly, one expects to find signs of Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s suicide in his sculptures. His figures, their eyes closed in introspection, seem depressed. In the early female figures (ca. 1910–12) this depressiveness “compromises” the fullness, indeed plenitude, of their bodies, producing a subliminally unbearable contrast. By 1913 the introspection had attenuated the female body, as though melancholy were slowly consuming it, transforming it into pure spirit.

In three sculptures each entitled Head of Pensive Large Female Figure (all 1913–14), meditation and pain seem to converge at an ineffable depth. In some cases the eyes are hollowed, as though the figure had completely withdrawn into itself. The neck becomes an abstract pedestal for the head, which in turn has been elongated into an abstract oval with a pointed chin; the features stand in ritual relationship to one another. Above a weak mouth the nose remains strong: there is no need to talk, only to be. The intensity of its mental suffering and self-absorption has completely spiritualized it. Woman grows large enough to blur the boundary, if not quite bridge the distance, between mortal and goddess. Can a case be made for conceiving Lehmbruck’s almost giant “new woman,” emerging from the old Eve like an otherworldly butterfly, as just another kind of—more “intellectual”—femme fatale or idol?

The process of moving the female body and head toward abstraction demythologizes it, if remythologizing it as pure spirit. The body’s ripeness has been replaced by a spiritual aura. In Paolo and Francesca, 1913, The Female Slave, 1914, and Temptation of Man, 1914, Lehmbruck draws various versions of woman (and man) as slaves of love. There is a residue of this nostalgic mythologization of the human passions in the sculptures of the storming male figures of 1914–15 and in Mother and Child, 1917–18. (They split the power and tenderness fused in the large female figures and heads.) Similarly, Three Women, 1915, represents graces or muses in all but name, though Lehmbruck tends toward an increasingly dispassionate presentation of an increasingly dispassionate female figure. This involves a desexualization of woman that makes her emotionally safe but also turns her into a man, as in Bust of Sally Falk, 1916, and Head of Sally Falk, 1915–17.

In general, Lehmbruck seems to fall into the cliché of female sensitivity, however much he tries to break out of it. But the representation of woman is probably a projection of his own femininity: his sculptures speak of aborted and intensified desire simultaneously, suggesting an ambivalent relationship to both woman and himself. On another level his elongation and abstraction of the female body allegorize it, but also carry its supposedly inherent refinement toward an esthetic extreme.

Lehmbruck could not bring the human figure to formal perfection nor use it as a springboard to abstraction. He tries to do both in Female Torso (Fragment), 1917–18—a magnificent deadend. It is, for all its brilliance, a developmental failure, for the figure remains essentialized and intact. He could make neither the geometrical nor gestural leap away from the figure, abandoning it altogether as beside the artistic point. His art had stopped in its figural tracks. He seemed to know that he had exhausted the possibilities his own abstraction opened. He could not really envision where they would lead. He had nowhere to go artistically, so he made a full stop in life, which was his personal tragedy as well as the tragedy embodied in his work. He was an artist who understood spiritual futility, and perhaps even the futility of art, art that could change nothing in the depressing world.