Tag Archives: Georg Scholz

“The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckmann” at The Neue Galerie

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Georg Scholz, Self-Portrait in Front of an Advertising Column (1926), oil on canvas, 23-5/8 x 30-5/8″; Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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Every cultural institution takes on the role of being its own cheerleader. Rooting for the home team is an integral factor in keeping on the up and up, both PR-wise and financially. It’s understandable, then, that the Neue Galerie is touting “The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckmann” as “groundbreaking.” Who doesn’t want to be seen at the forefront of culture? The truth, however, is quite the opposite. “From Schiele to Beckmann” is, for the Neue Galerie, standard fare. Given the pivotal role self-portraiture held for the Expressionists—German Expressionism not being the sole purview of the Neue Galerie, but a significant component of it—claims to being “unprecedented” come off as hollow and somewhat defensive. If anything, “From Schiele to Beckmann” finds the Neue Galerie cruising on autopilot, promoting mainstays of the collection—among them Self-Portrait in the Camp (1940) by Felix Nussbaum and Self-Portrait with Horn (1938), in which the greatest of German modernists, Max Beckmann, is pictured at his most formidable—while nestling them within a host of like minds. There is little that is surprising about “From Schiele to Beckmann.” Old Home Week is more like it.

Don’t get me wrong: “From Schiele to Beckmann” is a worthy exhibition; considerable legwork was invested in its shaping. Organized by Tobias G. Natter, a specialist in Viennese modernism, the show is dutiful in setting up the parameters of self-portraiture. Rembrandt, the sole non-Germanic artist featured here, is roped in along with other pre- nineteenth-century precursors like Hans von Aachen, Anton Raphael Mengs, and, in spirit if not in actuality, Albrecht Dürer. (The last can be gleaned, Where’s Waldo–style, among the myriad figures pictured in the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand Christians, 1653, by Johann Christian Ruprecht.) Once “the long tradition” has been established (albeit in a more attenuated form than one might hope), “From Schiele to Beckmann” makes the requisite pit stops at Expressionism and Die Neue Sachlichkeit. Breathing room is provided by a smattering of works-on-paper in the small room just off the main galleries. Gems among the latter include a prismatic Self-Portrait as a Gardener (1935–40) by Emil Nolde and Paul Klee’s Self-Portrait, Full Face, Hand Supporting Head (1909), a black-and-white watercolor as terse and determined as its title.

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Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait (c. 1917), patinated bronze, 11″ high; courtesy of The Neue Galerie

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The headlining artists are amply represented. If Beckmann is a painter whose imagistic density and narrative complexities are infinitely plumbable, then Schiele remains Schiele: the doomed hero of adolescents the globe over and, as such, off-putting in his self-involvement. Of course, Schiele wouldn’t grate if his talent weren’t formidable. The barbed-wire concision of his line is irresistible when Schiele is at his most straightforward, and tolerable even when capitulating to a signature schtick—witness the torturous preening in Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted Above Head and Self-Portrait in Brown Coat (both 1910). There is a Schiele surprise, however: a sculpture—that’s right, a sculpture—circa 1917, a cast of which was made fifty years after the fact. Self-Portrait is, if not as distinct in style as the paintings or drawings, then a convincing work all the same, particularly in its planar analysis of the human head. How many people will take note of this atypical Schiele? If my afternoon at the Neue Galerie is an indication, most viewers will pass by the sculpture unaware of its author.

Fans of Expressionism will find much to relish in “From Schiele to Beckmann.” The exhibition is dotted with major players of the movement, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Lyonel Feininger, Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, and Oskar Kokoschka, each of whom is represented by a top-drawer work or two. Of the pair of canvases by the earnest but overrated Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary (1906) is the more striking, not least because the artist is pictured topless and pregnant. An odd and vaguely dogmatic fillip is provided by two paintings from the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler: the same image painted the same year, 1916, but in different sizes. Lovis Corinth, a painter whose aesthetic straddles the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is a figure American audiences don’t have much opportunity to see. A drawing done in graphite from 1921 finds him treading a perilous line between portraiture and cartoon, but the flurried brushwork and silty colors of Last Self-Portrait (1925) make one hanker for more. The same can’t be said for Otto Dix’s Self-Portrait with Easel (1926), in which introspection is indistinguishable from self-aggrandizement.

The most diverting works are by artists who have been lost or obscured by history. Herbert Boeckl, Anton Räderscheidt, Ludwig Meidner, Herbert Ploberger, and Niklaus Stoeklin bring a welcome novelty to a standard accounting of usual suspects. How well their oeuvres hold up under sustained scrutiny is another matter; every genre, after all, has its share of journeymen. One does have to wonder what else Karl Hubbuch might have had up his sleeve. His Self-Portrait with Marianne (1933) provides the sole moment of comedy to the proceedings—Marianne being a ghostly presence who doesn’t haunt Hubbuch so much as call him out on his pretensions. Along the same wall is Self-Portrait in front of an Advertising Column (1926) by Georg Scholz. In its meticulous execution and crystalline attention to detail, the Scholz painting could serve as a textbook example of The New Objectivity. Granted, it lacks the bitterness typical of the style, but what is gained is a razor-sharp clarity that sneaks up on the surreal. The Neue Galerie could do for Scholz what it did for Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and Richard Gerstl: mount a retrospective that shines light on an unheralded and, perhaps, very real achievement. If that’s the upshot of “From Schiele to Beckmann,” then its relative humdrumness will have been worth it.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the June 2019 edition of The New Criterion.