Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as Soldier (1915)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Self-portrait as a Soldier is a striking image of a German artist who, in his imagination, has lost his hand in the Great War. Painted in 1915 it is widely interpreted as an anti-war statement. The facts, though, are ambiguous. Kirchner had enlisted in the army of his own accord but distressed at a soldier's loss of individuality soon arranged his own dismissal. Nevertheless, his letters show that he continued to support the German cause. He never saw any fighting. Nor, in any event, is this a war wound because the cut is clean. War wounds were far more ghastly.1 Politics, as usual, makes art into a contemporary story, adds meaning to a certain extent but is, in the end, limiting and misleading. This picture, like so many others, depicts the creative process.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Kirchner, Self-portrait as a Soldier (1915) Oil on canvas. Oberlin College, Ohio.

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At least two specialists have observed that just as the focus is on Kirchner's missing hand so the nude behind lacks hands as well. The model becomes an extension of the artist.2 Unseen, though, is that the nude is simultaneously a model in the studio and a "painting" on a black canvas. Like the artist himself, she straddles both realities.3 Besides, all male artists identify with their female figures because androgyny is a cardinal principle of the poetic mind. 

Separately, a figure smoking in true art, as Kirchner does here, almost always conveys that the artist is thinking because the changing shapes of smoke have long been a symbol for a metamorphic imagination while tobacco itself intoxicates the mind.4

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Kirchner's Self-portrait as a Soldier (1915)

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Peter Springer has discovered Allied propaganda accusing Germans of cutting off the hands of innocents (near left) and concluded that "Kirchner the soldier identified with his enemies..".5 Yet war is common in art and so many artists identify with the enemy that the implications confuse a literal reading.6 War is always a metaphor for the war inside the artist. Of course they identify with both sides.

Springer concludes that the missing right hand, Kirchner's brush-arm, symbolizes modern man's "loss of control" and "the annulment of a tradition that identifies the artist with his creative tool [the hand]." What loss of control? Why break that tradition?  What few but artists are likely to notice is that both sleeve-openings are far too bright to be accurate and are, besides, eye-shaped. The stump of Kirchner's arm protrudes from a white form which, rotated, is similar in shape to his "real" eye above, as is the red wound itself, inverted. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

L:Detail of Kirchner's Self-portrait as a Soldier (1915)
Top R: Anon., Little Girl with Severed Hands (1915)
Bottom R: Gusso(?), La Baïonnette (c.1915)

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That brings us to his other hand or, rather, his only hand. Some say it rests on the red back of an upholstered chair7. It is instead much closer, floating above it. As I show so often, the artist is in front of a mirror (the surface we see) which means that his right hand, his brush-hand, is not missing after all. It is where it ought to be, at the edge of the frame "painting" the self-portrait on a canvas just out of view.8 That's why the fingers are pressed together as though they formed the brush itself, the hand and tool united9. Thus, the two sleeve-openings contain a still-unexplained stump in one and the symbol of the artist's craft in the other. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Kirchner, Self-portrait as a Soldier (1915)

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The "real" eyes are dark, the others white. And each pair has one eye larger than the other, those on the left. They contrast and correspond. The stump also recalls how our optic nerve links to the back of the eye, hinting that we see it from inside his head.10 Through the lower eyes, it is light outside; through the others, dark inside. The nerve raw, Kirchner's visual perception is as sensitive as his wound. Tradition maintained, the stump is vision, the hand craft, the two united. 

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Kirchner's Self-portrait as a Soldier with an inset of a second detail of the arm stump, rotated.

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Now a word on war, an age-old metaphor for the artist's struggle to create. The victor is usually the artist, the dead victim "the finished painting". Yet, since every painter paints himself, the artist is both. Giorgione, Cranach, Savoldo, Rembrandt, Bernini and Kirchner are just a few of the artists who painted their self-portraits in military costume, whether or not they were ever a soldier.11 Now that we also know how artists have long represented themselves in the likeness of others, self-representation in armor, battle-ready, can be seen as one of art's longest-running traditions.12 There is then, as so often, very little really modern about Kirchner's self-portrait except the literal scene and his expressionist style. Originality, though important, is wildly over-rated. It is not the be-all and end-all of creativity. Tradition is its real bed-rock and wisdom, the kind continuously conveyed by the artist, is probably one of man's most ancient memories and perhaps even part of our essence.

More Works by Kirchner

Notes:

1. Peter Springer, Hand and Head: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Self-portrait as Soldier" (Berkeley: University of California Press) 2002, pp. 22-42, 57-62, 83.

2. Springer, pp. 92 & 147, n.16.

3. Less than two years later Picasso did something very similar in Parade (1917). His model sits in front of a canvas with a foot overlapping the edge. Like Kirchner's nude she is simulatneously a model in the studio and a painted figure on canvas. See Simon Abrahams, Picasso's Parade (1917) and His Mysterious Name (publ. on EPPH, 27th May 2011).

4. See the theme Smoking Art.

5. Springer, p. 92

6. Perry Chapman has noted that in allegories and treatises on painting "armor and battle are frequently associated with the artist and the Art of Painting." Vasari likewise used terms with military connotations to describe Michelangelo’s approach to painting the Sistine chapel and eventually announced that the sculptor  had "vanquished" the medium. Though different traditions, the conceptual parallels between Chinese and Western painting are often quite close with some well-known sayings matching almost word for word those about Western art. As just one example, the brush was often compared to a battlefield weapon and in a colophon attached to Lady Wei’s 17th century  treatise, Battle Array of the Brush,  “the paper is the battlefield, the brush is sword and lance.” Chapman, The Image of the Artist: Roles and Guises in Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits, PhD diss. (Princeton University), 1983, p. 115; Paul Barolsky, Michelangelo’s Nose: A Myth and its Maker (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press) 1990, pp. 128-9; Images of the Mind: Selections from the Edward L. Elliott Family and John B. Elliott Collections of Chinese Calligraphy and Painting at The Art Museum, Princeton University (Princeton University Press) 1984, p. 183.

7. Springer, p. 8

8. See Simon Abrahams, "Pointing at the Edge" (publ. on EPPH, 1st Dec. 2012). More recent entries of artist-figures with their hands at the edge include John Sloan's Portrait of George Sotter (1902), Titian's Portrait of Ippolito de' Medici (1533) and Andrea del Sarto's John the Baptist (c.1523).

9. This hand has been described as "particularly pointed" (Springer, p. 8). Social scientists investigating the relationship between a performer and his musical instrument in concert have recently determined that they lose consciousness of their instrument as an object and think of it instead as part of their own body. Great painters who generally consider the painting process a performance in front of the easel are no less likely to imagine their own tools as extensions of their body. See Luc Nijs, Micheline Lesaffre and Marc Leman, “The Musical Instrument as a Natural Extension of the Musician” in M. Castellengo & H. Genevois, Music and its instruments (Sampzon, France: Editions Delatour) in press, as of 2013.

10. Other paintings discussed on EPPH in which the optic nerve appears range from the 15th to the 21st centuries. They include Botticelli's Virgin and Child with Saints..(1484-5), Heironymous Bosch's St. John in the Wilderness (1504-5) Michelangelo's Jonah (1508) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Pieter Aertsen's Cook in front of a Stove (1559), Van Gogh's The Zouave (1888), Picasso's Harlequin (1901) and his Portrait of Jaime Sabartes (1901) and Anish Kapoor's Memory (2008).

11. See Simon Abrahams, Rembrandt’s Man in Armour (1655) and Minerva (c.1655) (publ. on EPPH, 21st July 2013). 

12. All 500+ entries on EPPH demonstrate how the artist identified with the figures no matter whom they are supposed to represent. Several battle-oriented examples can be found under the theme Violence and Art.

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