Schoenberg's "Gehendes Selbst-Portrait" / "Going Self-Portrait," 1911. All images courtesy of the Arnold Schönberg Centre, Vienna*

In a prior piece on Alban Berg (1885-1935) I pointed to a 1910 painting of the composer.  (You can click here to view it.)  The painter was Berg’s composition teacher, Arnold Schoenberg.  The idea there was that the portrait leaves us with a faint trace of life in pre-war Vienna – a period which, as Stefan Zweig idealized it in The World of Yesterday, was for the citizens of that city an “age of security.”

In later letters, Schoenberg would also recall the period as a time of peace and pause, before that age of war and unrest when twentieth century European history seesawed into darkness.  With a view to the composer’s creative life, the pre-war years find Schoenberg undertaking his earliest experiments with atonal composition – listen to the Six Little Piano Pieces of 1911, for instance – and in this respect mark his first soundings into the uncharted depths of the future.  But they were also the years in which he experimented most concentratedly with painting.

Enter Schoenberg the painter.

"Blue Self-Portrait" (February 1910)

From 1908-1912 Schoenberg produced paintings and sketches of distinctive style.  While he was hesitant to consider himself part of an established school of any kind, his work is generally recognized to orbit the Expressionist movement.  For a short time, Schoenberg even belonged to Wassily Kandinsky’s Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) group, a circle of friends who held that the ultimate aim of art was to seize and give expression to the spiritual dimensions of experience.

In a telling 1911 letter to Kandinsky, Schoenberg expresses his belief in the unconscious character of artistic perception:

"Hass" / "Hate" (October 1910)

“. . . I am sure that our work has much in common – and indeed in the most important respects: In what you call the ‘unlogical’ and I call the ‘elimination of the conscious will in art’. . . .  Every formal procedure which aspires to traditional effects is not completely free from conscious motivation.  But art belongs to the unconscious! One must express oneself!  Express oneself directly!  Not one’s taste, or one’s upbringing, or one’s intelligence, knowledge or skill.  Not all these acquired characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive. . . . But whoever is capable of listening to himself, recognizing his own instincts, and also engrossing himself reflectively in every problem, will not need such crutches.  One does not need to be a pioneer to create in this way, only a man who takes himself seriously – and thereby takes seriously that which is the true task of humanity in every intellectual or artistic field: to recognize, and to express what one has recognized!!!  This is my belief.”**

In this way, many of Schoenberg’s paintings aim less to represent the world in its outward semblance than to capture things as they “really” are on the subjective plane: the world refracted through the lens of the inner eye.

"Denken" / "Thinking" (October 1910)

Consider “Thinking,” the painting immediately above.  It’s just one expression of thinking in its most immediate or unconscious sense: the subjective experience of thinking in a manner that’s unmediated by the concepts that ordinarily order, the lines that frequently frame conscious thought.  It’s a glimpse of the mind’s eye, the artist’s experience freed from the terms of traditional perspective.

"Blauer Blick" / "Blue Gaze" (1910)

If the perspective in Schoenberg’s paintings feels askew, it’s because artistic expression in the expressionistic mode isn’t meant to capture the world as it outwardly appears to us through our sensory faculties.   This orientation, like art itself, is ultimately born of the unconscious.  Freed from both the mind-forged manacles of conscious thought and the shackles of sensory perception, the objects of the external world fade.

Schoenberg’s Gazes

What is experience without the tether of the senses?  Schoenberg’s mesmerizing set of visions and gazes gives us some feeling for his conception of it.  Nature abandoned, the artist inwardly encounters gazes rather than faces:

"Blick" / "Gaze" (May 1910)

“I painted gazes . . . .  That is something that only I could have done, for it is in my nature and is fully opposed to the nature of an actual painter.  I have never seen faces, but rather, where I have seen into others’ eyes, only their gazes.  From this is also happens that I can recreate the gaze of a man.  A painter, however, captures with a glance the entire human being – I only his soul.”***

According to Schoenberg’s view of artistic experience, at least, these gazes subsist on a plane of perception where everything is illuminated by the light of the unconscious.  They are visions – let’s call them innervisions – beyond the pale of the senses.  It isn’t important whether Schoenberg’s conception of artistic perception is wholly accurate; more crucial is the recognition that experience (both conscious and unconscious) is rich and layered, that there are many different ways of perceiving it – and that art is one very real part of it.

What’s ultimately important is Schoenberg’s belief that the vision of the creative artist isn’t veiled by custom.  Instead, one task of his imaginative work is to pierce the fabric of convention – a life of humdrum habit – and to tune in to a key of experience to which we customarily grow deaf.  In “listening to himself,” the artist’s aim is to probe the innermost reaches of the self and to translate that which he inwardly hears into a form that we, the onlookers, can outwardly witness.

Schoenberg’s paintings stand as glimpses into the creative depths of one of the twentieth century’s great composers: innervisions of a man who strove for art that was decidedly more than meets the eye.

"Christus" / "Christ" (October 1910)

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References and notes:

  • All images appear courtesy of the Arnold Schönberg Centre in Vienna.  You can visit them here for a “complete printed overview of Schönberg’s pictoral works.”
  • **  In a letter of January 24, 1911, A Schoenberg Reader, edited by Joseph Auner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 90-91.
  • ***  My translation.  The original German reads:

“Ich habe Blicke gemalt […] Das ist etwas, was nur ich getan haben konnte, denn es ist aus meiner Natur heraus und ist der Natur eines wirklichen Malers vollkommen entgegengesetzt.  Ich habe niemals Gesichter gesehen, sondern, da ich den Menshen ins Auge gesehen habe, nur ihre Blicke.  Daher kommt es auch, dass ich den Blick eines Menschen nachmachen kann.  Ein Maler aber erfasst mit einem Blick den ganzen Menschen – ich nur seine Seele.”

(Cited in Elmar Budde, “‘Ut musica pictura – ut pictura musica’: Musik und Bild. Ein Rückblick nach vorn zu Arnold Schönberg,” in Der Maler Arnold Schönberg: Bericht zum Symposium, 11-13 September 2003.  Published 2004 by Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Wien, Wissenschaftszentrum Arnold Schönberg.)

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