Erich Heckel created this iconic self-portrait, Männerbildnis (Portrait of a Man), in the months after the end of the First World War. One of the foremost images of German Expressionism, Männerbildnis emblematises the movement in that it puts to potent ends the expressive capacities of the woodcut; a medium revitalised by Heckel and his contemporaries.
In this work one finds a seamless convergence of technique and subject matter. The face in the image has been delineated by the artist’s cutting into a piece of wood. Typically, and like his fellow German Expressionists, Heckel has left apparent the basic characteristics of the material in the work’s sharp and rugged lines; cuttings that have been largely pre-determined by the natural grain of the wood block. As this process of gouging or hacking away has been employed here to portray the artist’s state of fatigued reflection, it is as if Heckel has chiselled into his own face the physical ravages of time and experience.
The colouring of the print augments the affective power that has been generated by the vaguely aggressive connotations of its production. The sickly green that makes up the portrait appears as another physical manifestation of the artist’s emotional temperament. Moreover, the ink has been applied – rather unconventionally – with a brush rather than a roller, leaving the covering of the colours less than comprehensive. Such partial application makes Heckel’s face appear all the more pallid and worn.
Of course, the sense of disturbed contemplation that Heckel conveys in Männerbildnis has implications beyond the artist’s personal state of mind. Coming out of such a cataclysmic moment, the work is now held up as an image that captures an historically specific atmosphere and collective mood. As Deborah Wye puts it: ‘Portrait of a Man, a gaunt self-portrait created in the difficult months just after the war ended, manifests a psychic weariness that may be interpreted as broadly symbolic of the German people at that time.’ (Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p.56)
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