Of the many Expressionists who frequently painted themselves - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann and Oskar Kokoschka - only Egon Schiele rivals Meidner in his compulsive need to venture into the depths of his psyche, but even Schiele’s art retains a mannered undertone compared to Meidner’s obsession with raw anguish that is compellingly real. When he painted Selbstporträt (Self Portrait), Meidner was thirty-six years old, standing semi-dressed at his easel. His gaunt, emaciated features are frozen in a trance-like state of feverish anxiety and his piercing bloodshot eyes, tight, craggy facial features and the moonlit dome of his forehead lay bare the existential core of Meidner’s being and artistic œuvre.
Meidner worked predominantly at night in the glow of his gaslight when he could be alone and undisturbed. An impoverished and malnourished man of ill-health, he furiously channeled his energy onto the canvas, sometimes discarding his brush for his bare-hands. Showcasing the artist’s mastery over watercolour, a rare medium for portraits, he wrought muted dark hues, Rembrandt-like in nature, to imbue the sinister mood of his inner conflicts. This work is of such extraordinary power - not only does it encapsulate his personal demons, but it also articulates his fears and concerns of the febrile age in which war and suffering was ubiquitous. He masochistically welcomed the notion of a cosmic or divine retribution against the sins of modern man. Selbstporträt (Self Portrait) is an unpredictable eruption of emotion yet provides a vital insight into the deep existential unease of the time. But, as with all explosions, this frenzied rush of creativity was short-lived; like so much else in Germany in the wake of the Great War, the Expressionism movement had entered a state of crisis. This spirited work is one of Meidner’s last self-portraits to be painted in this bold and potent style.
This work is testament to Meidner’s philosophical quest to understand the visage of man. While he considered the overarching countenance of humanity as a reflection of divine glory, he experienced first-hand - as this painting exemplifies - the pain and arduousness of endeavoring to simultaneously discern one’s inner self and the greater macrocosm of man. He viscerally stated: 'I, Ludwig Meidner, battered lump of clay, ostracised, apocalyptic, my skull swept by the winter wind… My last picture is bleeding on the easel. It resembles open, festering wounds. One can still see how the damp paint shines lushly. Oh, and there is the field of work, bloody, covered in sweat, and the paint rags screech around and it reeks of turpentine and my palette lies long like an open belly, and my hands tremble when I look at it all' (quoted in Im Nacken das Sternemeer, Leipzig, 1918, pp. 61-63).
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