Among the modern artists my students resonate with most are the German Expressionists who worked mainly in the years just preceding and including the First World War. Something about their frank, garish and often gruesome work feels honest. With its jagged lines and dark narratives, it doesn’t sugar-coat or lie. It’s jarringly autobiographical, shamelessly confessional. In short, it looks evil in the face and says, “Here am I.” In the work of Expressionist leader Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the protagonists are often devilish, with green skin and cold sneers. Their eyes are inky-black voids of blasé confrontation. And their implied deeds – hinted at by nude children or cowering women in the background – are despicable.
Kirchner’s self-portrait of 1915, now at Oberlin, has all these qualities. The artist himself, holding up the stump of an arm wounded in war, glares soullessly outward, in full army dress. A naked woman—probably a prostitute—waits behind, her head submissively turned.1 There is a kind of reveling in perversion here, but also a refreshing transparency about the human condition. The young Kirchner has been exploited, and now he, in turn, exploits. It can’t be helped. And no one is happy about it.
Many of the early paintings by the German Expressionists (including the more religiously-inclined Emil Nolde), proclaim the harsh artificiality of most human interactions. In Kirchner’s self-portrait above, his face is as rigid as carved wood. One feels almost as if he’s wearing a mask—a mask of macho nonchalance, of callous sophistication. He assumes an expression that signals power, but it’s only that—an expression. Beneath the wooden edges, and behind the inky voids, something more fragile might pulse and tremble. Something that doesn’t want to be seen—something childish and ashamed.
Our culture today, relative to Kirchner’s freshly post-Victorian milieu, claims to value vulnerability, exuberance, and truth-to-self. It doesn’t celebrate (usually) postures of blank and brutish power. But what it has achieved, in spite of itself, is a populace that adroitly fakes “authenticity.” Hook-up culture, therapy culture, and now social media, have taught us to perform vulnerability expertly—so expertly that we ourselves no longer know where the performance ends. We claw inward, through layers of history, memory, flesh and trauma, to find a “true” self to present in the social marketplace. When we find it, we polish it, paint it, veneer it. Then we parade it defiantly—until we realize that it, too, was a “role,” and we’re just as self-blind as we were before. So many masks in such rapid succession, sometimes only subtly different from one other. So much existential desperation.
Kirchner’s colleague Emil Nolde prophesied this situation in his paintings about St. Mary of Egypt—a prostitute-turned-recluse from the 4th century. In a first image, Mary dances, half-nude, face plastered with rouge and lipstick.2Nearby are leering men who are equally “masked” —and equally prostituted in their scramble for unearned intimacy. (Truly these artificial selves are among the “resounding gongs and clanging symbols” the Bible warns about—loud and passionate signals without informing love.3) In a second image Mary is clothed, gesturing theatrically in repentance, but she has not yet found herself, or found peace. Then, in a final image—the most profound—Mary is naked again, lying dead in the desert. She had fled to this desert that her life might culminate—fully exposed—in the eyes of God alone. Her death, therefore, is not sorrowful, but rather serene and triumphant. Finally removed from demands toward falsehood and performance, she has achieved authenticity on an implied spiritual plane.
In twenty-first-century America, the demands of performance are perhaps most acutely felt by young people on the dating scene, public figures (even and especially minor ones), all kinds of culture workers, job hunters, entrepreneurs, and itinerant professionals climbing the social strata of new cities. We might not consider, therefore, the intrinsic theatricality of the settled academic life. Most of us rose through the ranks by “performing,” after all—by being what teachers and advisers wanted. We have long been experts at following the rules and being “good students,” even when the rules themselves weren’t good. We also perform, perhaps daily, for student audiences; we assume airs of authority to meet their challenging gazes. In today’s social media environment, we also might rush to concoct personal brands, in a race to become public figures ourselves.
But who are we, really? How well do we see ourselves reflected in heaven’s limpid, unromantic eyes?
It sometimes helps me to imagine that I’m dead, like Mary of Egypt in Nolde’s third painting. The dead do not care what people think. They’re not vain, with caked lipstick and rouge. The dead don’t lunge after brass rings, or preen for authorities, or strut before their “lessers.” The dead don’t care if they’re insulted or ignored. The dead don’t feel resentfully competitive. The dead don’t obsessively track social media mentions or anxiously cultivate personal brands. The dead don’t put on masks to perform. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me,” the apostle Paul said.4 And what a relief that must have been! No wonder he had the courage, in his letters, to ramble on, pivoting, zigzagging, relishing sublime non sequiturs, channeling a white-hot spirit that smoldered within, come from without.
Caution to the wind, running heedless to the end.
This Fall, may all of us die.