Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was born in 1880 in Bavaria, in Aschaffenburg, a town known for its paper mills and where his father worked as a chemical engineer. Deferring to the will of his parents, the young man started at the Königliche Technische Hochschule (royal technical university) in Dresden in 1901, but escaped to Munich for six months, encouraged by his fellow student Fritz Bleyl, to go to an applied arts workshop. He got his degree in architectural engineering in 1905, the year in which the two original friends, plus two other students who had joined them – Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff – founded a group called Die Brücke ('The Bridge') in Dresden, using Nietzsche's phrase to mean man as the bridge that links past and present.
They claimed the legacy of old German masters such as Cranach and Dürer – who was actually at the root of Kirchner's artistic vocation – whilst advocating a violent rupture with academic artistic traditions linked to the hypocrisy of a society distorted by formalism.
Although they were displaying the same formal audacity as Fauvism – heightened colours and simplified design – in 1906 the group published a manifesto written by Kirchner that revealed a determination to break with social codes: 'We want to create a freedom of life and of movement in relation to deeply rooted ancient forces', '...attract all revolutionary forces' [and give to the artist] 'freedom in his work and in his life.' It was a question of giving free reign to the immediacy of sensations and emotions. This subjectivity that was signalled by a feeling of rebellion and suffering could only be expressed with intensity on a plastic level by means of stylisation that went as far as distortion and deformation, even ugliness: the first German Expressionism was born, concerned with radically reforming the national art, for which Kirchner proved to be the theoretician and the most radically engaged representative throughout his life.
In search of raw expression and a minimal line, the artist became interested in woodcut prints, the technique used to write his manifesto and which he would develop further through his contact with the primitive arts of Africa and Oceania, thanks to the reopening of the Museum of Ethnology in Dresden in 1912. But he was also electrified by the art of Van Gogh which he discovered at an exhibition in Dresden, and which undoubtedly continued to pervade him. All the more so because Kirchner, like the older man, was affected by great nervous fragility and difficulty in living, indeed by profound anguish that would drive him too to suicide. And in the same way as the Dutchman, Kirchner worked with frenzy and invested his whole being into his art that he described as an 'ardent confession'. But the German sought solitude, never even having visiting the Parisian avant-garde – although he did read all the art journals – and liked to think he was 'a mad genius'. Driven by excessive pride, from 1919 he went as far as giving his canvases earlier dates in order to be thought of as a forerunner.
However the first years, those of the Die Brücke movement between 1905 and 1911, were marked by community life that practised free love, particularly during the summers spent on the edge of the Moritzburg lakes near Dresden, or on the island of Fehmarn on the Baltic Sea from 1908. In Kirchner's work, the theme of the nude in nature is almost obsessive during this period (Bathers at Moritzburg), fed by his meeting Doris Grosse who became his favoured model and lover, and by the procession of pretty young girls through the Dresden workshop that had become 'the temple of pleasure' (eg Dodo with Large Fan, 1910). A strong sensuality permeates his painting, from the very simplified forms with thick outlines, to the pure colours that are strongly contrasted and flatly applied. Seeking spontaneity and simplicity, he opted for a 'rapid' line and the women who crossed his path were not made to pose for long. And he produced at that time a great many drawings, canvases and engravings, whilst at the same time getting started in photography and sculpture in wood.
Having settled in Berlin in 1911, the following year Kirchner met Erna Schilling, a cabaret dancer who became his model and would remain his companion until his death. Observing the lives of Berlin's inhabitants by day and by night – always at a distance – Kirchner started painting views of the town in which he distorted or reduced perspectives (eg The Brandenburg Gate, 1915), and also close-ups of street-scenes showing elegant women and men of the world that were stylised with a dark irony: the 'ugly' thus became the means for a ferocious social criticism (eg Street, Berlin, 1913). This series was started in 1913, the year in which Kirchner wrote a 'Chronik der Brücke' (Die Brücke Chronicle) which provoked the break-up of the group for having falsified the history of the movement in his favour.
Until 1914 Kirchner often felt the need to escape the artificial hustle and bustle of urban life by returning to the island of Fehmarn, a small paradise on earth: his canvases show nude bathers frolicking without restraint in the natural setting that envelops them – sea, vegetation, clouds – in such a way as to be a compelling part of the cosmic order. The subdued line and colours reveal a certain appeasement at this time (eg Bathers on the Beach (Fehmarn), 1913).
However the artist's anguish quickly caught up with him: having joined the army in 1914, 'involuntarily' according to him, he was discharged in 1915 at the end of two months of military service, owing to pulmonary disease but above all to a depressive state linked to the abuse of alcohol and drugs that was particularly down to his inability to cope with military discipline. Stays in a psychiatric hospital and sanatorium ensued, until the point where he entered the sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, in 1918.
His time there was a fundamental turning point in his life and his art. The numerous self-portraits of 1915 that were like attempts to exorcise his psychic suffering, such as Selfportrait as a soldier with a cut hand that denounced the horror of war as much as his lack of mental equilibrium, gave way at Davos to hitherto unseen themes associated with a new style. Immersed in nature, Kirchner started to paint mountain landscapes and scenes of rural life in great numbers. The treatment is almost childlike, with the violent character giving way to a calmer sentiment, rendered by an increasingly simplified line and large flat areas of pure, juxtaposed colours (eg Davos under the snow, 1923).
In 1923 he settled in a farmhouse in Frauenkirch-Wilboden, near Davos. Mentor for a group of Swiss painters, he nonetheless did not break his ties with the rest of the world. He received a certain amount of recognition from his native Germany, where he went in 1925-26: a monograph was published at that time; he took part in the Venice Biennale in 1928 and became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1931. Always informed about international artistic developments, he became particularly interested in Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger, not to mention his encounter with Swiss artist Paul Klee in 1934: so many influences that can be discerned here and there in his often dancing human figures with faces treated like masks, and flat shapes, stylised to the extreme (eg Great Lovers (Mr and Miss Hembus), 1930), where colour can come from the line on a decorative form (Nude in orange et yellow, 1929-1930).
But in 1937 Hitler's regime accused his work of being 'degenerate': more than 600 pieces spread across Germany's public galleries were confiscated, then sold or destroyed (Kirchner, incidentally was one of the rare artists to be represented from the 1920s). The profoundly German soul of an artist far from his country thought at first that it was an error, but he was soon traumatised by this insult to modern art and overwhelmed with fear. When the annexation of Austria brought the Nazis to within a few kilometres of his home in the Grisons, Kirchner shot himself twice in the heart on 15 July 1938.
The town of Davos has housed the Kirchner Museum since 1992.
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