Narcissism and ‘Genius’: Masculine Representations of the Self in Secessionist Vienna

The great man contains the whole universe within himself; genius is the living microcosm.
— Otto Weininger

By Lucia Hawkes


Otto Weininger (b. 1880 – 1903) in his book Sex and Character of 1903, captures an age occupied by the ‘hero-worship of man’ and a masculine exclusivity of both the artist ‘genius’ and the notion of human ‘consciousness’.  Weininger’s philosophical writings express a profound preoccupation with male self-hood and interiority; a subjectivity which entails ‘absolute’ and ‘whole’ creative power. Weininger himself became a figure of mythic proportion – the melancholic, depressive, and tragic ‘genius’ whose suicide in 1903 earned him a throng of admirers.  His theorising about the ‘higher power’ of human subjectivity is found manifest within the wealth of portraiture produced in Secessionist era Vienna, implicative of an almost obsessive fascination with concepts of the ‘self’, the ego, erotic drive, and as the ultimate destruction of self-hood, death. Fuelled by the expanding fields of psychoanalysis, neurology, sexology and psychiatry, the human condition – in its conscious, unconscious and physical form – thence became a subject of intense scrutiny. The self-portrait thus provided artists with the freedom to adapt and rework character tropes, to challenge or reinforce gender roles and examine themes of sexual fantasy.

Departing from the decorative style of Gustav Klimt (b. 1862 – 1918) – and his aversion from self-representation – Egon Schiele (b. 1890 – 1918) and Oskar Kokoschka (b. 1886 – 1980) transformed the production of self-portraiture into a compulsive, almost divinely ordained, mission.  Subscribing to a vogue for Bohemianism and a fashioning of the artist as the alienated ‘other’, self-portraiture became a way to express this ‘romantic ideal’.  Debatably, the relentless and rapacious self-examination has its origins in both the development of a self-determined artist figure – implored by Schiele in the manifesto for the ‘Neukunstgruppe’ (New Art Group) of 1909 – and a heightened interest in the ‘existential reality’ of humankind.  The Neukunstgruppe – partly founded by Schiele – outlined its conception of the 'new artist’ as a powerful ‘creator’ and visionary.

Oscar Kokoschka,  Knight Errant  (1915) Oil on canvas, 35 1/4 x 70 7/8 inches (89.5 x 180 cm) Image source: ‘Knight Errant’, Guggenheim,

Oscar Kokoschka, Knight Errant (1915) Oil on canvas, 35 1/4 x 70 7/8 inches (89.5 x 180 cm)
Image source: ‘Knight Errant’, Guggenheim,

Kokoschka’s Self-Portrait (Knight Errant) of 1914-15 presents a personal allegory of loneliness and fate, depicting the artist’s struggle in the wake of war and a threatening modernity.  Figuring himself as the wayfaring knight, Kokoschka floats through an imaginative landscape. Shells, trees, rocks and tempestuous seas combine to create a disorientating and mythical setting, also occupied by bizarre, hybrid creatures. Kokoschka’s armoured body appears stiff and twisted; his hands clutch outwards, as if grappling for stability within a turbulent and unsettled world. Furthermore, the elemental forces of nature – blustery winds, rolling seas and undulating mountains – transport Kokoschka’s helpless body, mimicking the twisted movement of his misshapen hands. Kokoschka’s expression also conveys a sense of deathly despondency, rendered with a pallid green complexion and black, staring eyes, infusing the image with a sense of liminality – teetering on the boundary between dream and consciousness.

At the time Kokoschka started this self-portrait, the Great War had broken out; Kokoschka’s decision to depict himself as a knightly figure thus, conceivably, relates to the Viennese ‘Wehrmann im Eisen’ – a symbolic iron soldier located in the Schwarzenbergplatz, near the Ringstrasse.  The iron soldier became a ‘site of ritual’, a motif of fortification and resilience.  For the exchange of a donation, Viennese citizens were able to ‘hammer’ the knight with nails – a cathartic act of defiance which enabled the anguished Viennese public to purge themselves of frustration.  Kokoschka’s knightly-self, however, conveys weakness and vulnerability; he is pulled by the forces of nature – debatably a metaphorical representation of his emotional trauma – and thus exhibits a total lack of control and direction. The sense of emotional disturbance found in Kokoschka’s image, contestably, relates to his troublesome affair with Alma Mahler; the small winged figure found directly above Kokoschka’s body has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of his unborn child – aborted or miscarried by Alma in 1914.  Furthermore, an affinity exists between Kokoschka’s reclining body and the reclining body of Christ; his upward gaze thus appears to resemble the forsaken Son of God.  With this in mind, his suspended and vanquished body becomes an emblem of misery and physical suffering. He thus epitomises the self-sacrificing artist; a protector of the creative realm, indulging in his own trauma and lost in the perplexing landscape of his vivid imagination.

Egon Schiele,  Prophets , (1911) Oil on canvas

Egon Schiele, Prophets, (1911) Oil on canvas

Schiele’s The Prophets (Double-Self Portrait), completed in 1911, is a similarly allegorical portrayal. The ‘prophet’, often depicted in Christian iconography as an ‘entranced’ and ‘angelic’ figure, becomes in Schiele’s image a projection of the artist’s own internal torment.  Defined as an ‘inspired teacher’ or ‘visionary’ and clairvoyant, the ‘prophet’, enables Schiele to construct an image of the artist as mystical soothsayer.  Typically, Schiele’s self-portraits are brazen in their nudity, with grimacing expressions and contorted, knotted limbs. Yet, within The Prophets, Schiele’s own sinewy naked body is reminiscent of Christ’s sacrificed flesh; his tilted, falling head also references the crucified Christ. Significantly, Schiele’s double self-portrait was produced a year prior to his arrest in 1912 for disseminating obscene drawings, although he had been initially charged with the more damning offence of seducing a minor.  Speculation surrounding Schiele’s paedophilic tendencies and his apparent fixation with the sexual, almost pornographic, human body, thus infuses his self-portrait with a sense of intense personal concern. Whilst one eye is closed, the other remains half-open, as if Schiele peers over his shoulder at the hollowed phantasmal self-reflection which, arguably, represents an externalised, nightmarish vision of his own psyche.

An erotic tension is suggested by Schiele’s scorching, red pouted lips and raw nipples, yet, much like the imagery of Christ, his genitalia are obscured; there is only a hint of pubic hair suggested by the brown tendrils of paint, which creep up towards Schiele’s genital region. Castrating and amputating his own body, therefore, Schiele becomes the ultimate tormented artist – devoid of pleasure and persecuted for a creative cause. Aligning himself with a messianic, prophetic figure, Schiele also conveys a sense of his own narcissistic desire; he is transfigured as the divinely ordained spokesman for a ‘new’, radical and redemptive art. Moreover, the dualism within Schiele’s self-image is, conceivably, related to the supposed dualism of Christ – being God incarnate. This notion of ‘duality’ intrigued Schiele, who also utilised the medium of photography to explore ideas surrounding split or ruptured psychological states – such as those found in certain cases of schizophrenic patients.  Schiele also developed his own visual language from the photographic journals of Klaus Albrecht Schroder, who documented the physical symptoms of patients’ mental neuroses. This neurotic sensibility is found within Schiele’s scratched and erratic oil paint technique – his angular, stumped limbs and dark, engulfing background. Schiele’s self-portrait thus pulsates and convulses with primal angst, which, in turn, contributes to his portrayal of an abnormal, pathological and yet, highly egocentric conception of ‘self’. 

The inescapably narcissistic genre of self-portraiture offers a projection of the artist as a “special” individual, deemed highly worthy of representation. With self-portraiture also comes the exertion of control; the artist is empowered to deconstruct his or her own body, to exaggerate or understate, elevate or condemn. Self-portraiture was operative in both challenging and reinforcing issues of gender, and also facilitated a form of public self-endorsement. Adapting recognisable Christomorphic tropes, Schiele and Kokoschka conceived of themselves as artistic martyrs; their suffering thus became an ‘essential prerequisite’ and ‘source’ of creative energy.  This turn ‘inwards’ towards the self – the psyche, dreams, nightmares and desires – was generated by contemporary methods of psychoanalysis, which, arguably, encouraged the narcissistic tendencies which prevailed within Viennese society. Assuming the guise of courageous male character tropes – the knight, prophet, Christ or Saint – male artists also used self-portraiture to re-assert a superior masculine identity.


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