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First steps

Art Academy

Old masters


His Sister Emma

His friend Marya



The artist faces his own unconscious

by Domenico Maria Ardizzone

Self-portrait with paintbrushes Oil on canvas 86 x 64 cm (Munich 1920)


Self-portrait - Pencil
25 x 13 cm (1921)

Self-portrait - Oil on canvas
80 x 64 cm (Munich 1924)

As far as we know there are around only a dozen self-portraits by Christian Hess produced during a period of some seventeen years; from when he opened his first studio at Theresienstrasse 75 in Munich in 1920 to when he left Sicily for the last time in 1937. Even when he was still a student Hess felt the need to face the special challenges posed by producing a self-portrait. In what was perhaps his first attempt at self-interrogation the result is stark, sober and severe. A dark, tightly-buttoned jacket with a collar and tie beneath a pale, unsmiling face. His hands hang tiredly, as if the paint brushes in his grasp are almost too heavy to hold. In the 1921 pencil drawing Hess seems thoughtful but serene; the gaze towards the future firm and clear. Another Munich self-portrait, from 1924, shows us Hess in waistcoat and tie and again at his most stern. The following year, in a pencil drawing made in Vienna, the artist is elegant and relaxed. Gradually the Hess which the artist chooses to reveal has abandoned his elegant formal attire and seems to have acquired greater self-confidence.


Self-portrait - Pencil on paper
22 x 17 cm (Vienna 1925)

Self-portrait with paintings
in the background - (Munich 1927)

In the 1927 self-portrait Hess wears a fisherman's sweater and a jaunty beret; in the background we can make out some of his paintings. It is a pity that the only record of this portrait is a poorly focused black and white photograph. Despite this, Hess' move towards a more self-conscious introspection is clear. In this period in a letter to his sister Emma Hess reveals he enjoys wearing a range of outlandish hats and scarves to see the reaction of stolid fellow citizens who take him for a foreigner.

Future self-portraits will all show Hess dressed casually and there's even one in a swimming costume. With increased maturity the artist also learns to harness - and reveal - existential anguish.


Self-portrait on his 33rd birthday - charcoal on straw paper 70 x 50 cm (Messina 1928)


Self-portrait "from hibernation"

Self-portrait - Oil on canvas 95 x 77 cm
(Munich 1929) - Recovered from the reverse side of the canvas "The Agave"

Having sought exile in Sicily and settling near his sister Emma's house on the Ionian coast in Messina Hess gives no more thought to his "renaissance" self-portrait and almost rejects it - to the point that in 1934 he uses the reverse side to paint a view of the Straits of Messina with a large agave plant in the foreground. In the 1970's, during preparations for the travelling exhibition dedicated to the rediscovery of Hess' work, the painting underwent restoration and the self-portrait was separated and placed on a new canvas. After a period of hibernation lasting 45 years the "renaissance" self-portrait once more saw the light of day - thus sealing the renaissance of Christian Hess' art.

The Agave - Oil on canvas 95 x 77 cm
(Messina 1934)

Perhaps the turning point is marked by the charcoal on straw paper self-portrait which Hess produced in Messina on 24 December 1928 - his 33rd birthday. Hess was to elaborate on a similar theme a year later in Munich with an oil painting which, due to the artist's lace collar, might be defined as a "Renaissance-style" self-portrait. There is the same introspection but there also is a sense of a more highly developed artistic flourish. In this period he has become an active and leading member of the Juryfreie movement. His works form a key part of the group's collective exhibitions and he is garnering increased critical attention. The prestigious Munich-based cultural magazine "Jugend" honours Hess by featuring his works on its cover twice in the space of a year. Unfortunately the 1929 self-portrait seemed destined for oblivion as the radical young artists of the Juryfreie faced growing ostracism from the authorities. First the criminal blaze at the Glaspalast where their exhibitions were held and then the banning of the group decreed by the Nazis who considered the Juryfreie a "Bolshevist Cultural Union".


Irony and influenza

Here Hess depicts himself during a bout of flu which keeps him confined indoors. The illness is ironically figured as beckoning death and in a witty nonsense-rhyme the artist lambasts his friends who refuse to visit him for fear of falling ill themselves - at the same time praising fine wine as the best cure.


Self-portrait with influenza
Indian ink on writing paper
28.5 x 18 cm
(Munich 28 January 1931)




   The "Fortune-teller" self-portrait of his exile

Studies on the work and thought of Christian Hess begun recently by young researchers working outside mainstream academic circles have led to some surprising discoveries, including the uncovering of the conceptual themes of some paintings that critics had previously failed to decipher. Without doubt the most important revelation is that made in March 2009 by the researcher and essayist Cristina Martinelli. After visiting the Hess retrospective at the Municipal Museum in the artist’s birthplace of Bolzano, Martinelli decided to look more deeply into certain aspects of Hess’ career. She investigated a large range of archive material – including that available on this website – and found enough evidence to lead her to believe that “The Fortune-teller” (1933) should be seen as an “autobiographical self-portrait”. In the painting the central figure, who closely resembles Hess, has his back turned to the sea, expressing all the sadness of his Sicilian exile; a sadness which is lightened, however, by the simple kindness of the local people surrrounding him. Dressed as the “fortune-teller”, he expresses his need to pose questions about the future. Another emblematic detail is that the central figure is wearing the red and white striped t-shirt habitually worn by the young artists of the Munich-based Juryfreie movement – a symbol of his isolation from the group. Many of the Juryfreie paintings were destroyed in a mysterious blaze at the Glaspalast in Munich and the group was later banned by the Nazi regime.

Identification with the people of Sicily

Self-portrait on boat - Oil on canvas 76 x 62 cm (Messina 1933)

Self-portrait holding smooth dogfish - Water colour on paper 58 x 41 cm (Messina 1933)

A happy moment from Hess' time in Sicily. In this self-portrait the artist convincingly shows his enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life on the meditterranean island: good wine, the fruits of the earth and the sea. The smooth dogfish (a member of the shark family found in large numbers in waters off Sicily) is held up for the viewer's inspection with evident delight - its dorsal fins spread wide as if it were sporting a bow tie for a gala occasion. In the background a picture of Mount Etna smoking in the distance - an image which recalls the colourfully painted carts used by Sicilian peasants. The table offers a rich spread of local products: a flask of cerasuolo, a jar of oil and a bottle of inzolia; abundant fresh fruit, lemons and the needle fish draped over the fruit dish. These are all recurring elements in many of his paintings including some of his abstract works. 

A nostalgic

Ink on paper (Messina 1935)

In the self-portrait on a boat (Messina 1933), in which Hess is rowing with an unidentified oarsman seated behind him, the artist expresses his sense of identification with the people of Sicily who have greeted him with such warm hospitality and friendship. In an essay published in the catalogue for the travelling exhibition of Rediscovery (Palermo 1974) the art critic Marcello Venturoli writes:

"Hess' sense of identification with the people of Sicily was a necessary counterpart to his solitary existence as a wandering exile in search of peace. In the 1933 painting 'Self-portrait on a boat' he dons a red beret and rows with such a determined expression he appears to be putting on a show for his nephews and nieces. His Cyclopean grip on the oar harks back to Scylla and Charybdis. As if this man from the North is saying: there is no country but the sun, that work and trust in life are without frontiers."

Cigarettes and wine in the battle against anxiety

Self-portrait with cigarette
and wine (1) Water colour on paper
(Messina 1936)

Self-portrait with cigarette and wine (2)
 Water colour on paper
(Messina 1936)

These two self-portraits, provide graphic evidence of how the artist sought to dull the pain caused by his wife Cecile's abrupt departure with tobacco and alcohol. She went back to Zurich unable to adapt to life in Sicily. Hess is deeply disappointed by the failure of his marriage; these last self-portraits  reveal all his disappointment and his need to escape that pain by befuddling his senses.


Dreaming of a kiss with Marya

Self-portrait of the kiss - Indian ink
on paper 49x60cm (Messina 1938)

Here Hess illustrates an unconscious desire. He dreams that his close and unforgettable friend Marya holds him and kisses him, forgiving him his marriage to Cecile, which had finished in divorce.

Autoritratto con carte da gioco
tra le mani - cm. 64 x 50
(Messina 1937) Sul retro:
Ritratto di Bernhard Neitzel,
lapis (Monaco 1933)


A few time later in the midst of a deep spiritual crisis Hess was to attempt suicide. With the comfort and support of his sister Emma he regains strength and decides to leave Sicily for Switzerland. When he sets out he takes just a travel bag and leaves everything else behind for Emma: his paintings and the possessions he had hoped would form the heart of a new home.

Before his death following an air-raid on Innsbruck Hess was to face eight years of hardship, sickness and poverty as he travels back and forth between Switzerland and Bavaria and then later the Tyrol.
There are also the periods of confinement in sanatoriums and the brief spells of compulsory work for the post office in Munich under the watchful eye of the military police.


Self-portraits of his own painful decline

Hess from Innsbruck to M. Neitzel in Munich
(autumn ’44)

Hess from Innsbruck to M. Neitzel in Munich (22 Oct. 1944)