What is Expressionist Portraiture?

Leo Tolstoy in his essay “What is art?” redefines art. Beauty does not give value to art, and it is not its essence, which is instead the capacity of transmitting emotions to the viewer. In the capacity of deliberately transmitting certain emotions the value of the artist is then also measured.

Rachmaninoff in Blue | By KSH
The portrait of musical genius Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff by KSH, entitled “Rachmaninoff in Blue” is given here as an example of expressionist portraiture.

This new vision of art is perfectly adapted to the Expressionist revolution, started independently by Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch at the end of the 19th century, and continued through several European artistic movements including Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), to whom KSH dedicates a homonymous artwork.

Expressionistic portraits bring a fourth element to this anesthetic vision of art, which adds to the first element, the artist, the second, the artwork itself, and the third one, the viewer. The fourth element is clearly the protagonist, acting as subject of the artwork. An expressionist portrait is then an alchemy of three emotions, those of the artist, of the subject of the portrait, and of the viewer.

Such an alchemy exists even in the case the subject is deceased and must be portrayed after an accurate study of their life, their works, and their photographic documentation… in absence of which producing a true expressionistic portrait would be impossible.

The task of the artist is then reconstructing, at the best possible level, the emotions that the subject would have wanted to transmit, not just at the instant the photo selected as visual reference was shot, but in that particular period of their life.

It is a difficult operation, involving choices and a certain dose of arbitrariness, anyway if done with the necessary artfulness it can really bring back to life the emotions of our artistic ancestors, by whom living artists and writers cannot avoid being inspired, seeing in their troubles themselves and their own difficulties, artistic and existential.