Artis’s Three Tasks of Painting Portraits – Sifting/Filtering Information From the Model, Meeting/Sustaining the Model’s Emanation, And Psychologically Stabilizing/Reinforcing Himself As the Receiver

dix1913_self portrait
Otto Dix, Self-portrait, 1913

The artist is looking at his model which in this case is the artist himself. In his self-portrait we are privileged to see him registering his reaction on his model – on the very presence of his model before him. But why is the painter’s face so mobilized, with such a tough expression, as if he is habitually involved in a fight, in a confrontation, in conflict with those who become his models? It is, as if, he must sustain himself under the very pressure of his model, which is, as if, confronting him. In this way a boxer looks at his rival before the fight. Why should a model be perceived with such psychological mobilization including a kind of resistance, as if, preparation for battle?

Perhaps, for the artist it doesn’t matter who is the model, someone else or he himself. Dix as a painter feels that it is necessary to defend himself against the model’s encroachment, pressure, power. Why making somebody’s portrait (including his own) demands this kind of self-mobilization? Is it because of the necessity to filter the signals from the model, which are partially intentional and partially unconscious? Does the personality of the model send its own information to the painter that must be incorporated, but simultaneously filtered – the usable information should be separated and isolated from the “noises” which can distort the painter’s perception and lead to a wrong interpretation of the model by the artist? The model is the otherness to the artist, as he himself is to himself as his own model. It is not too difficult to catch the psychological similarity, to see only the physical difference of the faces of different people, but how to grasp and register the uniqueness of the other face (or your own face confronting you as a painter)?

It looks that it’s not easy for the painter to stop distorting information emanating from the model (when, for example, the model intentionally or unintentionally wants to create a certain impression or when distortions appear because of casual factors, like the lighting, clothes or the temporary emotional condition of the model or because of the artist’s interpretative or stylistic mistakes in his reactions on the model. To sift/filter information coming to the painter by the visual or subliminal channels is a necessity, but this function of controlling the creative perception has to turn on the artist’s alertness – how not to impose itself on the creative process and not to stifle inspiration. Here the ability of the painter to meet valuable, productive information emanating from the model, even to catch, grasp, squeeze it out of the model become incredibly important.

Dix’s self-portrait gives us the chance to encounter the artist’s very difficult fight for genuineness and truthfulness of his reaction on the model, fight which many painters neglect because they are less interested in the truthful encounter with the world as an object of art, than in successful selling his artistic efforts when his attention is distracted on how to be liked by the people and how to keep the audience and buyers of his art satisfied.

For Dix as a painter the issue of his career-success is secondary – the truth which he expects to discover in the model and through the model, with all the seeming abstraction of such a task, is the main reason for him to paint at all, the focus of his sublime ambition. For him the matter of truth of his art is a spiritual dedication and responsibility. The truth of art and, therefore, art’s genuineness and authenticity, is Dix’s god felt without idolatry, god he knows inside his chest – with his emotions.

His “resistance” to the model is another side of his task to rip open the truth of the model’s humanity out of Heidegger’s “un-concealment“ and to immortalize it in the semantic-stylistic configuration of his painting. Dix-the painter is impenetrable to distortions and as a midwife receives the baby from the mother’s body he is helping the truthful information to appear out of reality. His whole body is in a strain to help him sustain his creative effort. Of course, in Dix’ self-portrait we don’t see his body, but his face has the particular feature that can be interpreted as a signifier of his body. It is strange, exaggerated and absent in Dix’s numerous other self-portraits “enlargements” under his eyes. They are, as if, nods of physical strain of his body, corresponding to and supporting his dedication. The horizontal wrinkles of his forehead is a sign of his inexhaustible but an attentive surprise by the human nature, a surprise from which dense fleshy eyebrows protect his gaze that has accepted the task of not spending itself on the “passive” emotions like being amazed or astonished but to be focused on the endless maneuvers of human intuitive and conscious mentality.