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From Vienna to Schoeller: The Revivals of Expressionism

The exquisite close-up technique of Martin Schoeller hearkens back to the thriving artistic times of Vienna circa 1900.

In the spring of 1910, Auguste Forel, the esteemed Swiss psychoanalyst and entomologist, was approached by Adolf Loos. A Moravian architect of equally high prestige, Loos had by 1910 dedicated a decade of his life to his passionate struggle to shift the landscape of Viennese visual arts away from the dominating conservative taste and towards modernism. On that day, Loos’ aim was to introduce Forel to one of the handful of young artists whose work reflected the same level of vehemence in detaching from the conservative taste.

This young and brilliant painter was Oscar Kokoschka. Loose had met Kokoshcka at the Vienna Workshop years prior to his meeting with Forel, and his admiration for Kokoshcka’s artistic expression had grown to the extent that Loos was effectively serving as Kokoshcka’s main promoter.

By Loos’s request, Forel was to have a portrait of him painted by Kokoschka, with all of that artist’s nuances and highly stylized methods, which were practically unknown to the Forel family at the time. Upon receiving Kokoschka’s work, the Forel family was absolutely shocked at the finished product. Kokoschka’s eccentric painting of Forel showed the 62-year-old psychologist in an uncomfortably contorted vision. In the painting, the right side of Forel’s body appears seemingly in the state of paralysis, his eyes asymmetric, and his right hand flexed in an awkward posture. Kokoschka’s painting clearly depicted the neurological signs preceding a stroke.

Forel’s family refused to purchase the painting. Kokoschka was vindicated twice: the painting was immediately sold to a museum, and, in a far more shocking turn of events, Forel suffered a heart attack shortly after.

What did Kokoschka know? The answer lies in the essence of Vienna circa 1900. At the time, the scientific foundation of psychology was undergoing a seismic shift. Sigmund Freud’s contributions to the understanding of human mind were infiltrating the lively artistic scene of Vienna. At the turn of the century, this vibrant city was known for its cultivated atmosphere, and the fertile ground it provided the artists and thinkers of that time.

Those artists were concerned with exploration of the mind and the soul. The lively collaboration between the artists and the scientific community made it so that the new wave of artistic revolution, which was brewing under the patronage of artists such as Loos and Kokoschka, was motivated by incorporating the new scientific understanding of human psyche into the visual arts.

For Kokoschka, the Expressionist Movement, as it would come to be known, was an attempt in obliging the artist’s desire to paint not what is merely at his sight, but what occupies his vision. Kokoschka makes the distinction thusly: “Vision” is a rendition of subject’s inner emotions, whereas “sight” is the picture available to the eyes without attention to what could be discerned about the inner nature of the subject. Painting the “vision” of the subject means painting the subject’s memory of the outside world. An Expressionist artist is occupied with discovering and ultimately depicting what he can deduce about the subject’s inner dialogue, subdued mental state, and unconscious.

Around the same time, in the realm of literature, the Viennese novelist Arthur Schnitzler became the first fiction writer to incorporate the now familiar style of stream-of-consciousness into his stories, another form of depicting an art subject’s inner mental state.

In Vienna of 1900s, this fascination with probing the inner states of human psyche found its voice in Expressionist art. An inevitable shift in the artistic taste followed the Expressionist Movement. Later movements, however, did not result in an outgrowing of this innate taste for artistic expressions that focus on an artistic subject’s inner state. The struggle to achieve this goal through reflective art, in fact, is increasingly prevalent today. Martin Schoeller’s signature close-ups represent a refined revival of this form.

Although for Kokoschka the fascination in Expressionist art arose out of celebrating and lending credence to the then-fresh field of psychoanalysis, the re-imagination of the form today has more to do with the formation of a collective consciousness for transparency, be it in politics or culture. Desire for transparency is a desire for discerning the inner nature of entities. In this sense, the desire behind the so-called era of transparency involves much the same human desire as the interest in psychoanalysis; thus, it is not surprising that some of the clearest artistic expressions of this era carry the same elements of early Expressionist Movement.

The so-called era of transparency, with its rather amorphous social roots, is palpably responsible for many innovative artistic achievements of the past decade. Certain historical incidents, such as the wave of backlash surrounding the PR catastrophe of the Iraq War, the financial crisis of 2008, and of the explosion of public discontent following Edward Snowden’s whisleblowing can undoubtedly be considered as ingredients for the spread of this public concern for more transparency.

In architecture, for example, this reemphasis in Expressionist form of art and the heightened desire for transparency arrived in a revival of a design that prominent architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in 1972 coined as “ducks”. Ducks are buildings with architectural designs that are wholly aimed at representing what the space inside the building is designed to be used for.

Another true revival of the form arrived in 2010 when the prominent urban architect Moshe Safdie finished the task of designing the United States Institute of Peace Building, which currently occupies the 254,000 Square Feet of space facing the National Mall on 23rd street NW, Washington D.C. In Safdie’s Expressionist style, the structure and the shape of the building is a symbol of the nature and purpose of the structure. First, the curved metal roofing of the building resembles dove’s wings, touching on the symbol of peace between the nations. Second, Safdie’s choice of covering the skin of the building in translucent windows of equal size tips the scale of the design away from privacy and towards transparency. Every conference room inside the building is clearly visible from the street. The design in its entirety represents the subject’s inner state.

Outside the realm of politics, our obsession with collective psychoanalysis is best reflected in the growing high demand for reality TV. The passing of influential public figures today is invariably followed by cycles of new coverage aimed at decoding of what must have been unknown to us about the character of the diseased. The desire for transparency is intricately linked with honesty of character, of not suppressing the unconscious.

This feature is what defines the allure of Martin Schoeller’s signature close-ups; this style is stripped of any blemishes, and its goal is to arrive at the most honest depiction of the subject reflecting on their memory of outside world. The question in every Schoeller close-up is, “What is behind the eyes to see?” The face will form the story of the soul and unconscious as soon as the penetrating kino flos flashes of florescent light illuminate the most intimate details of the subject’s face.

The true depth and poignancy attached to the languid portrait of Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2003 must have escaped even the artist. This is an incredibly honest confession handed from Hoffman to Schoeller; sadly, its contents released were released to the beholder after Hoffman’s tragic death at 46.

Schoeller’s most recent portrait of Chris Rock finds its resonance in the same subtle tone. The picture strips away the famously energetic and vivacious public persona of Rock, signaling instead a solemn gaze. Faint signs of grey hair on Rock’s face, although subtly displayed, undoubtedly encroach on the perception of Rock by his fandom, who still expect the youthful energy that defined his public career.

In Rock’s portrait, this defining element of the face captures the eye because of its subtlety. By contrast, the close-up shot of Mark Zuckerberg, featured on the 2010 “Person of the Year” issue for Time magazine, is marked by Schoeller’s decision to prodigiously highlight the Zuckerberg’s freckles and spots. For the beholder, the picture foregrounds those facial characteristics that make up Zuckerberg’s persona as a former isolated teenager turned billionaire entrepreneur. Whereas Rock’s close-up takes us to where he might be in the future, Zuckerberg’s is a glance at where he has previously been. Schoeller achieves this same end by using the exact opposite tool.

Schoeller has shown the same level of dexterity of vision in his portraits of political figures. Timothy Geithner’s New York Magazine portrait captures the former Secretary of Treasury’s dogged attempt at holding on to the last vestiges of the natural smile Schoeller’s subjects are bound to display when the photoshoot starts. It is often the case that the sooner the facade put on in perpetration for the photoshoot is abandoned, the sooner Schoeller can capture the moments that tell the stories that are worth telling about the subject. Fitting of Geithner’s character, the picture suggests that that moment seems to have never arrived. Andrew Ross Sorkin’s cover story of Geithner, which appears in the same issue of the magazine, was a reaffirmation of the rumor that Geithner was officiously labeled and marketed as the face of many unfavorable financial decisions made by the Obama Administration, many put in place regardless of Geithner’s opposition. The silent resilience reflected in Geithner’s determined face, and his ability to guard his innermost thoughts, is one of the most valuable and cherished assets he provided the Obama administration in his extensive tour of media and congressional scrutiny.

By comparison, Alan Greenspan’s oddly meek stare in his Schoeller portrait makes one wonder what would have happened in the regular meetings with New York City bankers, where they were sure to persistently lobby Greenspan to abandon his longheld attachments to a classical liberal understanding of free markets and enhance the powers of the Federal Reserve in pushing fiscal policies that favor large banks.

Schoeller’s remarkable portraits are as rich and refined an exegesis of his subject’s inner psyche as were the most honest paintings of Oscar Kokoshcka. What is lost in the furtive glances we give to these familiar faces that we have grown accustomed to and what is never captured in the swarm of paparazzi flashing lights is guaranteed to be revealed in the intimate moment shared between this masterful artist and his subjects. Schoeller’s vision has proven to be a true revival of an enduring art form, reflected through a new medium. Through his work, the Expressionist artist’s practice of generating empathy by presenting the beholder with the most honest depiction of the subject finds its place in the America of the 21st century.

Kia Rahnama is a student of international law at George Washington University. He frequently writes about politics and cinema and can be found on Twitter at @KRahnama.