Self Portrait With Arm Twisting Above Head is a painting by the Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Shiele. Painted in 1910 when the artist was twenty years old, Shiele uses gouache, watercolor, charcoal and pencil on paper to create the dark outlines, soft hues and protracted angles that emphasize the potent image and feeling of the work.
In the piece the model’s hand is wrenched behind his head pulling his face back at an awkward angle so that the standing figure is almost grotesquely turned towards the viewer. The lower portion of his mouth and chin is hidden behind his left shoulder. His entire left arm functions as an entry into the painting leading directly to the intense stare of the artist at the slightly skewed left but relatively central peak of the painting. The waist to head figure extends vertically from the top to bottom edges of the painting set upon a warm background paper of a subtle flesh-like color.
This painting can be viewed in the Neue Galerie in New York City. The Neue is devoted to the art of German and Austrian artists from the early twentieth century. Schiele’s work is found on the second floor in a room full of drawings and sketches of primarily his and Gustav Klimt’s work. Shiele was a sort of protégé of Klimt and their work complements each other well.
As is the museum’s tendency, the paintings and drawings are under glass in many rows and columns. Some of the pieces are lost under the glare of the light’s reflection, or the sheer height of their placement on the wall, but seeing them all together is quite impressive.
Shiele was recognized early on in his life as a very talented artist. The Expressionist movement began in Germany at the end of the 1800’s and beginning of the 1900’s and is exemplified and enhanced by artists such as: Munch, Klimt, Kadinsky and Klee. They are all recognized as using a more subjective focus to evoke feelings and ideas in their work, which is the hallmark of expressionism.
While still a young man in his twenties, Schiele entered World War I and, just a few days after his pregnant wife of three years died of Spanish influenza, he himself succumbed to this same illness that took so many lives at the end of that war. His racy work got him into some trouble with the law regarding morality, but given his youth, one is left to wonder what direction this extremely gifted artist would have gone in had he had a longer life.
Shiele painted many self-portraits in his short career as well as a plethora of female (some of uncomfortable youth) studies. Most art is made with the intent of being seen and appreciated someday by someone, but Shiele’s interest in female genitalia and sex as subject matter explore his attempts at working through his own youthful, yet human, concerns, angst and sexual preoccupations. Certainly the graphic nature of some of his subject matter limited the intended audience of his art; he took an audacious philosophical stance regarding what some considered the pornographic nature of his work by standing by what he considered the “sacred” aspect of erotic art. Even in this self-portrait, the dark intensity is startling- the sexual power is evident.
All art is expressionistic by nature, but Shiele’s use of the ideas and techniques of this movement are magnificent. The force and power of Self Portrait With Arm Twisting Above Head is extraordinary and a testament to the ability of art to give perfect expression to all that we as human beings feel. By drawing on the anxiety, love, malaise, and inspiration that we all feel, a work of art has the ability to mirror and give a kind of solace of communion to the viewer. In this piece, one feels an understanding of a certain fierce self-loathing enmeshed in self-fascination.
At the time that Self Portrait With Arm Twisting Above Head was painted it may have been received with some hostility, especially coming out of an age of more realistic interpretations of painting. The artists of any “modern movement” always have to contend with the public’s resistance to change and new ideas. However, Sheile was producing his work in a place and time when new ideas were received with more enthusiasm than at most “movement’s” incipient moments. He did not lack for contemporaries pushing the boundaries in all areas: art, architecture, design, politics, and economics: the world was a busy place in the early 1900’s. Never the less, details like the inclusion of pubic hair at the bottom of the painting and the overt physicality of the painting likely disturbed some viewers at that time.
He remains a very popular artist and although his subject matter still presses the confines of polite societal norms, people today are a much more jaded bunch and can look upon most of his paintings with only the occasional blush.
Self Portrait With Arm Twisting is fresh enough today that it would not be out of place on any gallery wall in the Lower East Side of New York. It is alive and energetic, still speaking to modern existential disquietude.
Although the gaunt figure could be seen to signify the cliché of the starving artist or the personal demons of Egon Shiele, it is really more evocative of the all too common emotional starvation and isolation that all people experience at one time or another throughout life. There is something so tender and delicate about the lines within the curved back balanced by the knobby elbows and ribs; but it is the strong outline of his back creating the sensual and feminine negative space, which lends to the fragility of feeling and heartbreaking empathy this painting arouses.
He is a sensitive madman, and isn’t this, after all, the only possible reaction to the world and bodies we find ourselves in? One sees oneself, as well as all that is loved and feared about humanity, in this painting.