When Mortality Is Not a Problem


Egon Schiele, “The Portrait of an Old Man (Johann Harms)”, 1916

For those who did overcome narcissistic overestimation of the importance of individual death and for whom human mortality is not a problem anymore Schiele’s painting will not seem straightforward – an old man as an old man. They will be able to feel in this painting grace – grace without any connotation of overcoming death we usually feel in grace even without being conscious about it.

In their imagination and thinking about their death people never address it with honest straightness – they make mental zigzags around it, they as if envelop death in the web of their sentimental and petty considerations like a female spider wraps its bridegroom into a sack to crown the adventure of sex with the pleasure of a meal. Schiele’s painting addresses death without hesitations and uneven heartbeat and gives us a lesson that we are barely ready to receive.

The position of the old man’s body is in contradiction with traditional hard, for all epochs, chair he is on – the chair is for sitting, but isn’t Johann Harms rather lying on the chair than sitting up? The chair in relation to the old man’s posture is Schiele’s metaphor of the transformation of chair into coffin – a kind of metaphoric hybrid between both while the old man is expecting the final interlocutor. In pantomimic terms the old man is as if slipping downward from the chair – he can no longer sustain the sitting position; he is too old, too spent and almost ready.

Johann Harms’ knees are bended, as if he is on his knees, in front of what or whom? – In front of his own death. For many people the image or the metaphor of being on ones knees suggests surrender (weakness, capitulation and exhaustion). It is because they don’t understand the possibility of being on the knees as welcoming the approaching death (as, for example, some characters at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” – 1957, do). Again, for people with anxiously fussy and emotionally fidgety relations with their mortality “to welcome death” means to suffer so much from life that death is perceived as liberation. They cannot imagine a simple intimacy with death without the negative connotation, a shadow of horror. But the protagonist of Schiele’s painting is on his knees without any tasteless dramatization – without any intense and contradictory feelings. Is it Johann Harms who helped the young painter-Schiele to overcome fear of death (overcoming that is irradiated by the portrait), or is it Schiele who made the old man wiser than he was in reality? We’ll never know, and to know this is, may be, much less important than to grasp the painter’s intuitive effort – to touch his interpretation of the very possibility of the existence of an alternative attitude towards our mortality in comparison to the one most people follow passively, habitually, credulously.

Johann Harms has big and strong arms. His right hand is still in a position of holding – an object, an instrument, life, light, the air, but it is already empty – free from any possession. The left hand – the hand of the heart, keeps his head from bending down, like his heart still keeps his life. And we cannot even be sure is the old man dozing off or thinking or trying to remember something. Is his eyes semi-open or closed? For a person of his age the difference is not so important. And, according to Schiele, it is absolutely all right. Like the old man is as if sliding down from the chair, his right hand is as if sliding down and out of the sleeve of his jacket.

The dark “abstract” background is of a deep brown color variegated by the light blotches – the deep earth of non-being mixed with human creative inspirations probing the dense matter in search for meaning. The brownness of the chair is lighter – closer to the surface of the earth. And the brownness of Johann Harms’ cloth is even lighter – he is still with us until the art of Egon Schiele is not forgotten by humans. If resurrection of mortality can exist it is this painting when we look at it.

The grayness of the old man’s hair and beard is echoed by the white spots and areas covering his suit, which are so different from the light spots on the dense brown backdrop. The latter symbolize the human (Schiele’s) creativity – they are yellowish like the touches of sun beams. But the whiteness of the old age is the sacredness of becoming closer to death when it is not an enemy nor a friend but just a fact, a truth. It is as if the closer we are to the earthly brown the whiter we become, and this is without any intervention of the sky‘s blueness and our belief in what is above it. The whiteness of the old age grayness is for Schiele as the creator of this painting a metaphor of a (metaphysical) transcendence (glorious immortality) inside the very human existence (glorious mortality).