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Expressionist Portraits

Expressionist portraits reveal more than just what people look like.


Portrait of a Man (Männerbildnis)

Erich Heckel
(German, 1883–1970)

1919. Woodcut, composition: 18 3/16 x 12 3/4" (46.2 x 32.4 cm); sheet (irreg.): 24 1/4 x 20" (61.6 x 50.8 cm)

In Portrait of a Man, Erich Heckel inscribes the traumas of the war years and the uncertainties of the postwar period onto his own troubled face. This gaunt self-portrait, made one year after the end of World War I, embodies a physical and spiritual weariness that was both personal and national.

Heckel was a founding member of Die Brücke (the bridge), an artistic movement formed in Dresden, Germany, in 1905. Artists in that movement rejected the prevalent traditional style in favor of a new artistic expression that would form a bridge (hence the name) between the past and the present. Woodcut printing has a long history in Germany, beginning in the 15th century; Heckel and his Die Brücke colleagues revived the technique, producing an enormous number of woodcut prints.

A printmaking technique that involves printing an image from a carved plank of wood. The image is cut into the wood using tools such as chisels, gouges, and knives. Raised areas of the image are inked and printed, while cut away or recessed areas do not receive ink and appear blank on the printed paper. Woodcuts can be printed on a press or by hand, using a spoon or similar tool to rub the back of the paper.

A representation of oneself made by oneself.

The artists’ group Die Brücke was established in 1905, a moment that is recognized as the birth of Expressionism. The affiliated artists often turned to simplified or distorted forms and unusually strong, unnatural colors to jolt the viewer and provoke an emotional response. Its leading members were Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. The name Brücke (“bridge”) reflects these artists’ youthful eagerness to cross into a new future. The Brücke artists worked together communally until 1913.