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Hand and Head

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Self-Portrait as Soldier

Peter Springer (Author), Susan Ray (Translator)


Hardcover, 186 pages
ISBN: 9780520216266
May 2002
$63.00, £43.95
Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Self-Portrait as Soldier (1915) is one of the best-known self-portraits of the modern classical period. With its sharp foreground focus on the uniformed artist's bloody amputated hand, the painting has long been interpreted as a vehement protest against war, specifically World War I and Kirchner's participation in it. Peter Springer's innovative study presents a convincing alternative reading of Kirchner's epochal work. Springer sees in it, not a harsh condemnation of militarism, but a marked ambivalence in the artist's attitude toward war. This new reading of the painting grows out of Springer's assessment of its imagery in relation to patronage, gender relations, and national identity--and particularly to propaganda and satire.

Using Kirchner's letters and other documentation, much of it only recently available, Springer reconstructs the years of Kirchner's military service. He juxtaposes a range of visual contexts that include traditions of self-portraiture, depictions of prosthetic devices, and propaganda accounts of German soldiers hacking off the hands of Belgian and French children. He then considers Kirchner in relation to Albrecht Dürer and to theoretical arguments on the relative dominance of hand and mind in the pictorial arts that invoke the image of "Raphael without hands." Nearly 100 illustrations superbly complement the text.
A Look at One’s Self
Self-Portrait as Soldier: Description and History
Critical Interpretations of the Painting
The Context: Kirchner’s Time as a Soldier
Other Works, 1915–1917
War Enthusiasm versus a Desire to Dodge
"The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer"
The Motif of the Mutilated Hand—Beyond Surgery
The Propaganda Iconography of the Severed Hand
The Artist’s Missing Hand
Kirchner as a Follower of Dürer
Raphael without Hands
Selected Bibliography
Illustration Credits
Peter Springer is Professor of Art History at Carl von Ossietzky University, Oldenburg, Germany. Susan Ray is Associate Professor of German at Fordham University.
"Springer's study is the first to recognize the deep-seated ambivalence of Kirchner's attitudes toward the war and the military. This exemplary scholarly work uses diverse evidence, from propaganda images of German wartime atrocities to the popularized Enlightenment topos of a Raphael without hands, to situate the painting in the history of self-portraiture. The book greatly enriches our understanding of both Kirchner's work and German Expressionist aims and sensibilities. It will be a fundamental resource for further studies of Expressionism, self-portraiture, and art's responses to World War I."—Reinhold Heller, author of Art in Germany 1909-1936: From Expressionism to Resistance

"This is a most timely and significant intervention in the neglected field of Kirchner studies. Springer rigorously deconstructs the mythology surrounding Kirchner's wartime painting Self-Portrait as Soldier. The narrative is riveting, benefiting from sedulous primary research as well as revealing the unexpected interaction of modernism and nationalism. Springer's reading of the dialectic between the motifs of severed hand and masklike head is a compelling reminder of Benjamin's observation, ‘Signs have a time. Their movement exceeds the control of the avant-garde.’"—Shulamith Behr, author of Expressionism

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