The portrait was a subject much followed by Expressionist artists. Drawing on the great tradition of Van Gogh, artists such as Kokoschka, Schiele, Dix, Beckmann and Meidner took up this theme, creating some of the most haunting and intense images of the period. The present work brings to mind the quintessential images of the tormented, isolated artist, as epitomised in the portraits by Van Gogh, which certainly played an influential role in Meidner's artistic development. In the present work, the sharply lit planes of the sitter's face bulge in the foreground against a muted background of nocturnal darkness, and his deep, sunken eyes stare with a tormented look at the viewer. This suggestion of struggle and self-torment is further underlined by the furious, kinetic brushstrokes that seem to suggest the sitter is about to explode from the effort of containing the turmoil within his own soul. The images of destruction and violence of Meidner's urban scenes are thus brought into the portrait and presented in a more direct and intimate manner.
Meidner's tragic art stems from a millenarian vision of society's progress, typical of the pre-war climate of central Europe. Influential thinkers like Rudolf Steiner prophesied a second coming, and saw the titanic struggle between technological and natural forces as the engine for an apocalypse which would engulf society, bringing in a new era of spiritual and aesthetic rebirth. These ideas were refined during the summer of 1912, when members of Berlin's literary elite gathered around 'Die Panetiker', Meidner's artistic circle in Berlin-Friedenau, and the apocalyptic city poetry of Jakob von Hoddis and Georg Heym helped shape Meidner's artistic vision. This bleak, austere vision reveals the strong religious dimension to German Expressionism, and along with Van Gogh, Meidner's work also looks back to the apocalyptic spirituality of El Greco. His focus on suffering in his art reflects a belief that this was the only source of redemption, and his search for the spiritual in art was intended as an aesthetic and ideological template for a better future for mankind.
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