Work of Art: Portrait of Emy
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
German
1884-1976
Portrait of Emy
1919
Oil on canvas
28 5/16 x 25 3/4 in. (71.9 x 65.4 cm)
Bequest of W. R. Valentiner
© 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

This portrait of the artist's young wife still has the power to startle. The strident colors and skull-like visage would seem grotesquely ill suited to the image of a loved one. But Karl Schmidt-Rottluff means no insult to Emy Frisch. Like other German modernists, he had little interest in copying the outward appearance of things: that job was better left to photographers. Art was too serious to merely imitate nature-or even to honor tradition. With all the passion of youth, the artist insisted he was moved only by "an inexplicable yearning to lay hold of what I see and feel and then to find the most direct expression possible for such experience."

In Portrait of Emy, the artist transforms his wife's pensive face into a stark yet strangely serene mask. However, serenity is upset by the fiery color. Writing soon after this portrait was painted, the German art historian (and founding director of this museum) W. R. Valentiner declared that the willfully unnatural colors of the portrait "express the struggle between vision and reality, between the here and now and the beyond." For Valentiner that struggle was hopeful: "the red flames surrounding the form promise the victory of the spiritual."

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