Art, Music, Books & Film

Painting for an Overcoat

“How could you not have a profile on Facebook?” Sotiris asked me. He made it sound as if I were some agoraphobic recluse without a mobile phone. I wanted to say that I couldn’t imagine myself part of a community where people could accumulate 1100 “friends”. The real stumbling block, though, was the profile. Writing up a description of yourself in 100 words seemed to me a particularly onerous game of Mr Potato Head: which of the dozens of properties that describe the object that is you—to borrow a programming term—do you include in your self-portrait? A quick combinatorial calculation yields a thousand possible self-representations. And even assuming you can settle on one that is more or less conducive to the purpose of the profile—because a profile after all is a kind of self-promotion that serves a particular aim, whether that’s to meet friends, get laid or find a job—you can’t really be sure that everyone understands the properties of your profile the way you intended it. You write, “I’m training for a triathlon.” Your readers read, “He goes to bed at 9:00”. Don’t kid yourself. The readers of your profile are (not without justification) a suspicious lot. As Montaigne said, “you never talk about yourself without loss: condemn yourself and you are always believed: praise yourself and you never are.”

For a while I collected profiles I ran across in various sites. From the product label (stats on height, weight, dick size and sexual predilections) and profiles that resembled the personals from the New York Review of Books (“Sensuous 40-something adventurer into Dvorak, micro-brewery beers, pre-Raphaelite painting, cross-country skiing and late afternoon trysts in a good hotel”) to the economical (“Email for details”). The more profiles I read, the more I thought how much they resembled the artist’s self-portrait. Not in terms of the overall aesthetic effect (the texts of some of the profiles were downright execrable) but because of the process of selecting details for self-representation that both profiler and artist engaged in. And I thought of Siegbert Feldber’s collection of self-portraits, some of which I had seen in the Berlinische Gallerie years ago (the collection was also exhibited at the Judisches Museum in Berlin and Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art as The Lost Generation).

Feldberg was born into a German-Jewish family in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland). By his late 20’s he was manager of his family’s men’s clothing firm, whose business often took him to Berlin, business which, together with the barter economy that flourished in the hyperinflation of the late Weimar Republic, allowed him to pursue his interest in collecting the work of the avant-garde artists working in the city, including Max Liebermann, Lesser Ury, Erich Heckel und Oskar Kokoschka. Almost half of the more than 150 paintings, drawings and pastels that formed the core of his collection were self-portraits. He paid for many of them with suits and overcoats.

Although a good number of the artists whose work he collected were or became renowned, some exist for posterity only through the self-portraits in Feldberg’s collection, in effect, thanks to an overcoat. Like Jan van Ripper, whom we know only through the single self-portrait in Feldberg’s collection. Many of the artists Feldberg collected were later branded by the Nazis as “degenerate”. Those who were Jewish (half of the artists in his collection) were deprived of their livelihood, a third were  forced to emigrate, others were arrested and sent to concentration camps where they were murdered. Feldberg himself was forced to emigrate to Bombay in 1934, leaving behind his family and his collection Five years later his wife left Germany with her two sons and the entire collection packed in crates. How she managed to leave with these works of art is subject to interpretation. Some maintain that she was able to persuade the Nazi bureaucrats that the drawings, as degenerate art, were worthless. Others claim she befriended a Nazi officer and thus managed to leave the country with the collection intact.

The artists in the collection painted themselves in various ways: the dandy, the bohème, the ascetic, but most of all the bourgeois gentleman, attired in the kind of suit that Feldberg might have given them in exchange for their art, an odd choice considering how poor most of them were. An imagined future self they yearned for, much as the content of many of the profiles one finds in Facebook? The comparison is unfair, I know. There is an element of teasing ambiguity, irony and challenge in these portraits that is missing from profiles. Conrad Felixmüller, for example, paints himself painting himself. The paint on his palette recapitulates the colors of his face—the sepia tones of his neck, the greenish accent on the left side of his throat, the startling reddened eyes. There is no white on his palette, but behind the artist is a window that reveals the snow-laden trees of an inhospitable Berlin winter of hunger and want. A fascinating painting. Perhaps we would write better profiles of ourselves if our lives depended on it.

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Image: Self-portraits from the Feldberg Collection

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