Leonhard Frank As The Personification Of A Humanistic Thinker

E.L. Kirchner, “Portrait of a Poet Leonhard Frank”, 1917E.L. Kirchner, “Portrait of a Poet Leonhard Frank”, 1917

Leonhard Frank’s face is multifaceted and neat as handwriting can be, and pale as a sheet of paper. His eyes don’t look around; his gaze goes through walls, through everyday life. But his eyelashes, as if, frame his gaze, make it sky-less, make it focused, make it limited. What could limit Frank’s perception? – Mortality? No, his face is too intelligent – for him to be afraid of death: to yearn for immortality or forgetfulness would be too easy. – Fatal limitations of human nature? – Of historical opportunities? – Of human social nature with its predatory-ness and hierarchism? His gaze, as if, stopped inside some kind of a thick wall – before an obstacle that human hope cannot breach.

Lucky are astronomers, astrophysicists, quantum physicists or theologians – they look beyond humanity, they galaxy-tize their perceptions, they dig themselves into elementary particles, travel inside super-colliders or crawl through death. But what should a poet and a novelist do? They live and die with life.

Frank’s left hand is like prosthesis – it’s not supporting his head. His palm touching his head is a purely “poetic” gesture of rather pointing at the head; it makes the head Frank’s destiny, not the surrounding him world with all its encircling circumstances. According to Kirchner, Frank as a writer is not a “realist”, he is a creative introvert who transforms the world into its meanings.

The poet is holding a fruit in his right hand – it’s not an apple with its over-Biblical connotations but a symbol of our naïve consumption of nature – an instinctual determination the poet shares with everybody else. It looks that Frank contemplates about the basic function of human living – using external world to survive in the midst of it. Oh, these omnipresent axiomatic relations between life and the world (forced upon us from our childhood), between existence and its environment, when we try the world on taste. Creation holds us by the throat. We are doomed to be mollusks sucking our environment. We are this little whitish creature – a sketch or a ghost, we can discern to the right from the fruit in Frank’s right hand. Is it the metaphor of the essence of our primordial habit of using nature as a mother’s breast?

Human being is philosophically located between three positions vis-à-vis the world: physical interaction with the world that envelops our existence as the body, withdrawal from this physical interaction for the sake of its alternative – “spiritual” identification with the world in its wholeness, and withdrawal from the both in order to observe them in freedom and trying to find a combination of the two where the traditional antagonism between them can be overcame. In terms of Kirchner’s painting of Frank, human existential intelligence as a disinterested function (capable of objective assessment of what we are really doing while surviving or, on the other hand, identifying with the universe in its whole), is represented as a Frank’s gaze – as a mediation between Frank’s left hand and human holistic cognition, and his right hand and human practical interaction with the world.

The poet Frank contemplates simultaneously on the human physical relations with the world and on the human ability to feel the world independently of our survival, and try to find a solution to the contradiction between the two. He is able to be critical of the forms our “survival” can take, and at the same time – of our holistic intelligence which asserts itself only by the price of spiritual disrespect towards the world of physical survival. For Frank and Kirchner, human being is capable of keeping the fruit in hand, not only eating it (capable of uniting the function of survival and holistic intelligence).

The difficulties in survival make us afraid of a violent death, and this fear makes us at the same time believe in a sentimental individual immortality and develop technical-scientific knowledge that‘s not touched by the grace of a combined effort of the human left hand – hand of the heart and mind, a disinterested gaze into human destiny, and the human right hand sometimes liberated from hammer and axe, – to unify life and spirituality.

Around the poet we see bizarre chimerical creatures – semi-articulate drives from his unconscious. To the upper right from Frank’s head there is a configuration that can remind us a combination of a gun and a finger ready to pull the trigger. It may be reference to the suicidal thoughts of the poet pushed to the brink of despair by the condition of the humankind (by its inability to balance “survival” with disinterestedness). The configuration on the lower right from Frank’s head can hint at the poet’s violent revolutionary impulse against injustices typical for this “fallen“ world (a gun can be seen here also: turned to the opposite direction than the one above). The figures to the lower left from Frank’s head can suggest a crude sexual scene between a man and a woman when the man prepares for penetration without taking off his clothes while the woman gives herself to masochistic passion. Finally, above we can see the little angel-like figure on the same level as the suicidal gun (to the upper right from Frank’s head) – childishly naïve soul of the poet despairing over the destiny of human species.

Suicidal gun, sexual passion and violent impulses, probably, are meant as three demons tormenting Frank, but the liveliness of his eyes and the sublime power of his gaze tell us that he will prevail over his demons, keep his melancholy under control and productively channelize his anguished disappointment in humanity.

*Leonhard Frank (1882 – 1961) successfully survived Nazism and WWII and lived culturally active and politically engaged to his last days, while Kirchner (1880 – 1930) died prematurely, during the times of Nazis’ war against German culture, stripped of his positions in the art world and named “degenerate artist”.

E. L. Kirchner, “Portrait of a Poet Leonhard Frank” in melancholic tonality
E. L. Kirchner, “Portrait of a Poet Leonhard Frank” in melancholic tonality

Leonhard Frank in one of his late photographs
Leonhard Frank in one of his late photographs