Throughout Kirchner’s career, self-portraiture was something he returned to constantly. He created vulnerable woodcuts in which the gashes in the wood emphasized the bags under his eyes or the sharpness of his features. He painted himself with various models, his long-time partner Erna, and even his cat
, Boby. He took photographs of himself working in his studio or dressed as a solider, a cigarette casually dangling from his lips. Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Soldier
is one of his most candid, and provides insights into his relationships with war and self-portraiture.
In Kirchner’s myriad self-portraits, Staggs says you can see his “shifting understanding of who he was as a man and an artist.” Kirchner’s aesthetic trajectory can be traced through his experimentation with different materials, colors, and settings. Self-Portrait as a Soldier comes out of an emotionally turbulent moment in the artist’s life, painted just as he began treatment in sanatoriums across Germany and Switzerland trying to recover from the trauma inflicted by war.
In the spring of 1915, Kirchner volunteered to serve in the 75th Field Artillery Regiment to avoid being drafted into combat. In the fall of that year, he suffered from mental and physical breakdowns and received a provisional discharge to regain strength. Kirchner was so terrified at the prospect of returning to war that he exacerbated his physical ailments by starving himself. He would hide uneaten food from his nurses in a pocket he sewed to the inside of his coat. During this time, he was diagnosed with alcoholism and became addicted to Veronal and morphine.
Self-Portrait as a Soldier is a psychologically fraught work. Kirchner presents himself wearing a uniform, but not on a battlefield: He is in his studio with a nude model posing behind him. His right hand, in central focus, has been severed, and he stares off into the distance emptily. Of the portrait, Lloyd says that “there’s a huge amount of theater in Kirchner’s work.” Kirchner did not lose his hand at war, but the mangled arm alludes to the inevitable losses of becoming a soldier: the loss of his identity as an artist, the loss of his sanity, and the loss of certainty on his opinions toward the war and of Germany.
This portrait would go on to be exhibited in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition organized by the National Socialists party in 1937. It was one of 32 works by Kirchner in the exhibition, which was organized to steer the German public away from what they saw as “art of decay” and provide examples of the realist, academic work preferred by the new regime. Works by other German Expressionists such as
were also included as examples of moral decline.