S aturated acidic colors, surreally exaggerated images, gestural slashes of paint: these are the features that largely define the resurgence in figurative painting that has gripped the artistic narrative of recent decades. Because much discussion of “modern art” in the twentieth century focused almost entirely on abstraction, it was not until the 1980s that artists began to rebel against the supremacy of Clement Greenberg and formalism. The slick, highly polished modes of Pop Art and Photorealism reintroduced familiar images to the artistic canon, but it wasn’t until Neo-Expressionists like Georg Baselitz and Jean-Michel Basquiat embraced the expressive ability of paint in their depictions of the human form that figuration came roaring back to life.
Though stylistically and geographically diverse, contemporary painters largely share a personal, emotive approach to image-making that highlights experimental methods of depiction and investigations of identity. Examples include the psychologically expressive portraits of Alice Neel; Peter Doig’s enigmatic personal dreamscapes; gestural, emotionally charged narrative scenes by Dana Schutz; or the intimate, imagined fantasies of Salman Toor. Despite their wide-ranging approaches to form, composition, and subject, each of these artists can trace their conceptual origins to the early Modern artists from the turn of the century – most notably Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Kirchner’s perspectival experimentation and advancement, exuberantly expressive handling of paint, and emotive rather than literal palette are remarkably prophetic of the painterly style that has come to dominate contemporary representational painting. All these qualities can be seen in his striking portrait from 1923, Grosses Schererportrait (Der Maler; Zeichnender Maler; Grünes Selbstbildnis vor Landschaft). As with other canvases the artist completed during this period, while he was convalescing from mental illness in Davos, the present work was painted not from life from memory and Kirchner’s own emotional response. "I long so much to produce works from pure imagination," he wrote during his first months in Davos, "but the impression created by reality is so rich here that depicting it consumes all of one's energies" (quoted in Exh. Cat., Basel, Kunstmuseum, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Mountain Life, The Early Years in Davos, 1917-1926, 2003, p. 15). Here, Kirchner’s imagination has inspired the vivid, saturated palette and angular, exaggerated lines of his figures, evincing the self-reflection and psychological examination he was experiencing at the time.
Grosses Schererportrait (Der Maler; Zeichnender Maler; Grünes Selbstbildnis vor Landschaft) thus masterfully demonstrates the uniquely innovative and prescient approach to figurative representation that characterizes Kirchner’s groundbreaking oeuvre. In its acid-bright colors, jumbled imagery, condensed planar perspective, and forceful brushstrokes – remarkably prescient of works dated almost a century later – it can be seen as a seminal critical development in modern figuration. A conceptual precursor to today’s painters examining contemporary identity in a reinvented traditional framework, Kirchner’s canvas is both an aesthetic and theoretical masterwork of the art historical canon.