With his arresting gaze, Schiele stares out from the picture surface, an eager look on his face. Selbstbildnis, executed in 1914, is a joltingly engaging projection of the artist's own features, executed with a bold and very daring mise en page, the large part of the sheet left deliberately in reserve. Emphasising the drawn and painted areas, this use of the pure sheet heightens the impact of the self-portrait; the paper itself acts as medium as well as support, hinting at the influence that Japanese art had on Schiele. At the same time, it gives a fragmented impression: the artist is not whole, he is shown only partially. He is not entirely solid, not entirely here, not entirely of our realm, and this notion is heightened by the use of watercolour, varying in its texture, opacity and density, to capture some of his mass and form in the depicted areas.
The partial nature of Schiele's depiction of himself in this work reflects the intensely autobiographical aspect that fuelled so much of his self-portraiture. It was in part a result of his own anxieties about himself, his potential and his persecution. By the time Selbstbildnis was executed, Schiele had long been in the habit of capturing his own features in self-portraits. These were the results of an intense process of self-examination and self-inspection, a factor that is made apparent in Selbstbildnis both by the overt gauntness with which he has represented himself and the expressionistic sense of line that accentuates it. Self-portraiture, to Schiele, was a route that would lead towards self-understanding, to self-realisation and to self-revelation. A couple of years earlier, he had described the process in telling terms:
'When I see myself entire, I shall have to see myself and know what I want, not only what is happening within me but also to what extent I have the ability to look, what means are mine, what enigmatic substances I am made of and of how much of that greater part that I perceive and have hitherto perceived in myself' (Schiele, quoted in R. Steiner, Egon Schiele 1890-1918: The Midnight Soul of the Artist, Cologne, 1991, p. 12).
In the fragmentary appearance of Selbstbildnis, the emerging essence of the artist can be glimpsed. So, too, can some of his anxieties and some of his character be perceived: despite the fact that this portrait is extremely synthetic (a bust, with head, shoulders and the edge of one arm are illustrated), Schiele has managed to convey some manner of contortion, as though he had adopted an awkward and ungainly position before capturing his own image on paper before the mirror. Schiele's contrapposto positions in his pictures allowed him to convey angst through visible, physical contortions, and it is telling that he adopted similar positions in the photographs taken of him by Anton Josef Trcka. These positions recalled both the mentally ill, who in theory had no boundary between their emotions and insanity and the movements of their bodies, and Schiele's friend Erwin Osen, an artist who sometimes performed as a mime, contorting his body to an extreme extent and adopting strange, unnatural poses. The bodily movements of the mentally ill and of Osen alike informed Schiele's own use of physical features to convey a spiritual message, a factor that is evident in Selbstbildnis even in the facial expression.
After 1914, Schiele married, and self-portraiture, which had hitherto been one of the great cornerstones of his work, featured less frequently in his output. However, some of the self-portraits that he executed in 1914, either on paper or in oils, were amongst the most self-scrutinising of his entire life. His own personal sense of mythology and belief was evident in the double self-portrait Entschwebung (Die Blinden II) (Transfiguration (The Blind)), where he presented himself (twice) as a holy character (he himself also referred to the work as Heilige-- Saints). In Selbstbildnis too, there is the look of the martyr, of someone wary, someone set upon, reflecting Schiele's own conviction that he was being persecuted for his art and that, as his art was pure, this suffering was a form of purification and martyrdom. Schiele's self-examination is equally evident, though on a far more intimate and personal level, in Mann und Frai I, another painting which also features a self-portrait that clearly relates to Selbstbildnis. In that work, also called Liebespaar I (Lovers I), Schiele showed himself in bed with his then lover, Valerie 'Wally' Neuzil. He was bringing the most private part of his life into the public arena, a move that was all the more ironic and interesting because it was executed the year that he left Wally. Selbstbildnis, then, relates to the height, the climax, of his self-portraiture. The theme of sex, of the animality of human desires, was a constant in Schiele's works, and this is evident both in the oil to which Selbstbildnis relates and in the frenetic drawing of a reclining, partially clothed woman on the verso.