This gaunt self-portrait, made one year after the end of World War I, manifests a physical and spiritual weariness that was both personal and national.
Gallery label from German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, March 27–July 11, 2011.
A former architecture student, Erich Heckel founded the artists' group Brücke (Bridge) in Dresden in 1905, together with Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The bold coloring and sharp angularity of his portraits, nudes, bathers, and cabaret performers helped define the German Expressionist aesthetic in painting and printmaking. During his lifetime, Heckel completed more than one thousand prints, the vast majority between 1905 and 1923. He made hundreds of etchings and lithographs, but is most acclaimed for his woodcuts, which display a radical flatness and simplification of form. He created Fränzi Reclining by sawing the woodblock into pieces, inking each part separately, and then reassembling them for printing, a jigsaw-puzzle technique derived from Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter whose highly experimental approach to printmaking was emulated by Brücke artists. Heckel's model, twelve-year-old Fränzi, was a favorite of the Brücke members; they responded to her awkward poses, so typical of adolescence and so unlike those of conventional models. The exaggerated masklike features of her face were inspired in part by the artist's study of African sculptures at the Dresden Ethnological Museum. After moving from Dresden to Berlin in 1911, along with other Brücke artists, Heckel turned increasingly to themes of melancholy and isolation. By 1913 the Brücke group had disbanded, and in 1915 Heckel went off to war. Portrait of a Man, a gaunt self-portrait created in the difficult months just after the war ended, manifests a psychic weariness that may be interpreted as broadly symbolic of the German people at that time. Technically, it demonstrates Heckel's ongoing eagerness to experiment with printmaking processes. The colored areas were applied to the wood with a brush rather than with the more common ink roller. The thick brushstrokes create a painterly surface that contrasts with the deliberate flatness in his earlier work.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Starr Figura, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 56.