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Kopf (Selbstbildnis)

Kopf (Selbstbildnis)
signed and dated 'Otto Freundlich. 1923' (lower left)
gouache on paper
28 5⁄8 x 23 1⁄8 in. (72.6 x 58.7 cm.)
Executed in 1923
Édouard Roditi, Paris & New York, by 1958.
Private collection, North Germany, by the late 1960s, and thence by descent to the present owners.
E. Roditi, 'The Art of Otto Freundlich', in Arts, vol. 7, New York, April 1958, pp. 26 & 28 (illustrated p. 26).
J. Heusinger von Waldegg, Otto Freundlich, 1878-1943: Monographie mit Dokumentation und Werkverzeichnis, Cologne, 1978, no. 131, p. 87 (illustrated fig. 57, p. 125).
J. Friedrich, ed., Otto Freundlich, Kosmischer Kommunismus, exh. cat., Museum Ludwig & Kunstmuseum Basel, Munich, 2017, p. 339 (illustrated pp. 133, 399).
Otto Freundlich, 1878-1943, La révélation de l'abstraction, exh. cat., Musée Montmartre, Paris, 2020, p. 18 (illustrated).
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Otto Freundlich, 1878-1943, Gemälde, Graphik, Skulpturen, May - July 1960, no. 9, n.p..

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Lot Essay

The German-born artist Otto Freundlich (1878-1943), has emerged from relative obscurity in recent years to achieve the kind of recognition he surely merits. Influenced early on by Cubism and having lived in 1908 in the infamous Montmartre Bateau-Lavoir building long-associated with Picasso, Braque, Modigliani and others, his work is acknowledged today as radical and iconoclastic and his reputation has been re-established – he is now seen rightly as a legitimate confederate of the modernist Avant-Garde as it journeyed towards abstraction in the first half of the twentieth century.

Freundlich was linked to many of Modernism’s key developmental moments. He exhibited at the Neue Sezession in Berlin, and then at the daring Sonderbund exhibition of 1912 which did so much to break with artistic tradition. This was followed by the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon in 1913, a show which also included Der Blaue Reiter artists Wassily Kandinsky, August Macke and Franz Marc. The politically and artistically progressive magazine Die Aktion even published a special edition devoted to his work in 1918. Shortly after this, he joined the Novembergruppe, a campaigning association of radical artists with broadly socialist views. After returning to Paris in 1925 he aligned himself with the Abstraction-Création group which favoured the ‘purity’ of abstraction against the super-reality of Surrealism. Meanwhile back in Germany, when the Nationalist Socialist Party came to power in 1933, Freundlich’s work, alongside that of many other Modernists, was condemned as ‘degenerate’ and many of his pieces in German museums were confiscated and destroyed. Fearing Jewish persecution as France was invaded, Freundlich fled south from Paris to the Pyrenees but was interned and then deported to the Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp.

Freundlich’s originality lies in his use of flat, vibrant colour, sharply defined into irregular shapes, deploying both straight lines and curves to form a kaleidoscopic patchwork where careful arrangement and controlled chromatic adjacency express a boldness seldom seen since Cezanne (an artist he much admired). It is no surprise therefore that as well as painting and sculpture, Freundlich also worked briefly in mosaic and stained glass, a medium which suited his eye for the harmonious interplay of colour fields and light. His art was audacious and experimental – even judged by the wider context of Modernism – yet its non-figurative radicalism maintained a strong sense of the spiritual. It was also ‘political’ in the sense that it sought to transcend the traditional boundaries ‘be­tween the world and the cos­mos,’ the artist explained, ‘be­tween hu­man be­ings, be­tween mine and yours, be­tween all things that we see’ (quoted in Otto Freundlich: Cosmic Communism, Museum Ludwig, 2017).

While much of Freundlich’s oeuvre is non-figurative, the present work is a rare self-portrait that retains the confidence of line and energy so characteristic of his best work. The gouache is laid on boldly within the flattened two-dimensional facial planes, with the head top-cropped and set against a dark background. The eyes are heavy lidded and brooding, the hair a swoosh across the forehead, the nose an incongruous yellow trapezoid while the mouth is rendered small, offset, and close-lipped. It is a mysteriously unsettling portrait, its near abstraction denying us any of the context of dress or props, but its concentrated focus on colour and shape challenge what Freundlich considered to be the dubious meaning and purpose of representationalism in art while never losing a strong sense of self-reflective pathos.

In 2017 Museum Ludwig mounted a retrospective – Otto Freundlich: Cosmic Communism – and in 2020 The Museum of Montmartre in Paris devoted a major exhibition to the artist – Otto Freundlich, la révélation de l’abstraction – where 80 of his works were assembled to critical acclaim. Today, many of the artist’s pieces are held in major museums including the Musée d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, The Kunstmuseum, Basel and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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