In addition to reviving German Expressionism, a movement that sought to challenge society, and instead privilege the individual’s feelings and psychological interiority, Lichtenstein pays homage with Dr. Waldmann to a significant touchstone of modern European culture: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Although an English author, Mary Shelley sets a large part of her story in Germany, an environment that serves as the fountainhead for the titular character’s creativity. While studying in Germany, Dr. Frankenstein spends time with and becomes inspired by his professor Dr. Waldman, a name carefully chosen for its etymology; ‘Wald’ means forest or wood, and juxtaposed with man, evokes an individual tethered to nature. Themes of nature and creation permeate the story, just as they permeate the movement of German Expressionism, and are nodded to here in the subject matter and title, Dr. Waldmann.
Articulated in a minimal palette of yellow, blue, black, and red, Lichtenstein brings together his iconic Benday dots and Pop sensibility with the technique and geometric angularity of the German Expressionist woodblocks. The head of Dr. Waldmann dominates the composition, unfurling in a collision of facets that reveals Lichtenstein’s foray into Cubism by suggesting multiple flattened points of view. Lichtenstein articulates his subject's face with his signature use of graphic black lines, here employed to delineate between the various planes that crash together to build up his subject. Diagonal lines of an Yves Klein-esque blue and rich red angle downward in sharply rendered striations, recalling the grain of wood inherent to the original German Expressionist prints. The passages of unmodulated color and slants of woodblock-like orthogonals bring to life the doctor’s craggy countenance of strong jaw, furrowed brow, and deep-set eyes; however, Lichtenstein denies any true perspective or depth by bringing his subject right to the fore. Aside from a hint of a window overlooking a calm seascape, the hermetic doctor’s surroundings are entirely illegible. Fundamental to portraiture of past centuries are the accoutrements and symbols that bring to life the sitter’s status or position; here, Lichtenstein adorns Dr. Waldmann with the head mirror so prototypical of an early twentieth-century audience’s understanding of the medical profession. The white band affixed to the mirror slants across Dr. Waldmann’s head, creating a sharp line that contrasts with the rounded form of the mirror itself, which recalls Lichtenstein’s earlier series of Mirror paintings. The abstracted mirror, which is the only passage featuring Lichtentein’s iconic Benday dots, refers to the canonical use of mirrors throughout art history as well as the artist’s own frequent inclusion of mirrors as compositional elements in his earlier paintings. Offering an updated articulation of the roles of vision and perception within art, here, Lichtenstein’s mirror serves as a signifier of the sitter’s profession, while simultaneously emphasizing the artist’s own backward glance at artistic precedent.
German Expressionism exploded onto the scene of European Modernism early in the twentieth century; spearheaded by such masters as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, and Emil Nolde, the movement initially represented a call to return to nature, with many of the movement’s best-known images featuring a reinterpretation of pastoral scenes and animal life. Following the atrocities of World War I, however, the bent of the movement shifted to a new, more psychologically charged artistic language that comprised distorted forms, harsh, jagged lines, and a bold use of color. As Lichtenstein looked to reinvigorate the past, so too the German Expressionists sought to bring life to the timeless subjects of portraiture and landscape through the use of the woodblock. Within this fascinating tableau of reimagined Modernism, however, Dr. Waldmann pays unique and reverential tribute to the celebrated oeuvre of Otto Dix, in particular the artist’s masterpiece from 1926, Dr. Mayer-Hermann, which resides in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Dix’s painting similarly offers an intense psychological portrait of a doctor lost in thought; Dr. Mayer-Hermann slouches forward, his environment slightly more descriptive, but ultimately dislocated in a room of unidentifiable machinery. His head mirror features prominently, signaling his profession and echoing the rounded orbs of machinery and the sitter’s rotund body. In stark contrast to the paunchy and softened expression of Dr. Mayer Hermann, Dr. Waldmann thrusts outward, forcing himself to the surface of the picture plane, and confronts the viewer with a violent collision of line, color, and jagged angles reminiscent of the German Expressionists woodblocks. Lichtenstein himself, however, denied any direct correspondences between his German Expressionist paintings and singular sources of inspiration; in his own words: “I began to work on a series of paintings inspired by German Expressionism. I didn’t quote specific pieces as I had done with earlier works derived from Monet and Picasso; but I did keep in mind such artists as Karl Schmidt-Rotluf and Erich Heckel. In a certain sense, I have always tried to eliminate the meaning of the original. If I had actually kept in mind German Expressionism in my latest series of paintings, then my work would have seemed to be expressionist. But for my own subjects I make use of a style rather than a specific painting.” (The artist quoted in an interview with Philip Jodido in Connaissance des Arts 349, March 1981, n.p.)
With Dr. Waldmann and his German Expressionist works, Lichtenstein engages art history as his subject matter with striking prowess, systematically reimagining this critical twentieth-century movement to compose his own, utterly original masterwork. Diane Waldman writes: “…it is German Expressionism that connects most directly with Lichtenstein’s interest in issues of painting and style. German Expressionist pictorial innovations led him to expand his ideas into sculpture and into a series of landscapes and figurative paintings that are arguably his answer to Abstract Expressionism, which was indebted in no small way to the pioneering movement in early twentieth-century Germany.” (Diane Waldman in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and travelling), Roy Lichtenstein, 1993, p. 253)
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