Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Watercolors and Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection is currently on view at the Galerie St. Etienne in New York, featuring 30 never before seen watercolors, prints, and drawings. The exhibit focuses on Kirchner’s development as a draftsman from the establishment of the German Expressionist group, Die Brücke (The Bridge) in 1905, to his personal and professional downfall with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, his subsequent exile to neutral Switzerland, and his eventual suicide in 1938 at the age of fifty-eight.
Kirchner once said, “Ecstatic drawing is the foundation of the new art.” Fittingly, many of the drawings presented in the exhibit are the result of quick, fifteen minute studies in which both the artist and the model were constantly in motion. In an essay that accompanies the exhibition, Kirchner is quoted as saying, “My painting is a painting of movement…I find the observation of movement especially inspirational. From this comes a heightened feeling for life, which is the origin of all artistic creation.”
Along with Kirchner, Die Brücke was founded by Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, who were later joined by Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. Neither Kirchner nor the other three founding members of the group had much formal training in art. They did, however, share a belief in the transformative power of art, as well as a contempt for bourgeois society. Artists working in Europe were drawn to the perceived innocence of so-called “primitive” arts of colonized and developing countries, a concept that has been analyzed more critically in recent decades. The Brücke artists, then, had a retrograde view of society in which people were uninhibited by the decorum of European society.
Kirchner has been called the “quintessential Expressionist,” a label the artist himself rejected. The term “Expressionism” is difficult to define, but came from an exhibition catalogue from around 1910 which featured works by painters such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and André Derain. The influence of these artists can be seen in much of Kirchner’s work, especially his woodcut printing, which he admired for its ability to imitate tribal arts in Africa. Expressionism, as opposed to Impressionism, refers to a kind of art that looks beyond surface appearances, resulting in a highly subjective, often distorted perception of the world. Although there are phases of extreme abstraction in the artist’s body of work, Kirchner never completely abandoned recognizable subject matter, believing that, “All art needs the visible world and will always need it…because, being accessible to all, it is the key to all other worlds.”
While Kirchner was inspired by his association with the other artists in Die Brücke, as well as other contemporary movements like Cubism in France and Futurism in Italy, Kirchner’s pervasive fear of modern civilization had a perceivable effect on his artwork, especially during his time in Berlin. One of the prints included in the exhibit, Gentleman with Lap Dog in Cafe (1911) represents the isolation he felt during his Berlin years. The titular man sits at a table with another figure who sits with his back to the viewer. The gentleman’s face is contorted into what looks like a grimace, while his companion’s head is almost completely cut off. A third figure, that of a woman, ambiguously lingers in the background, but her face is obscured by a black shadow. The stylization, sharp angles, and heavy contrast between light and dark are characteristic of German Expressionism, as is the feeling of uneasiness we are met with while observing them. Moreover, the print conveys Kirchner’s paranoia in a society increasingly occupied with social diversion and good taste.
The end of Die Brücke in May of 1913 only furthered the artist’s sense of alienation as he found himself alone in the crowded streets of the Berlin metropolis. Nevertheless, this was a productive time for the artist, as he was able to create a series of drawings and paintings that captured the frenetic spirit of modern life, but in a way that allowed him to remain distant from his bourgeois compatriots. The outbreak of World War I, however, left the artist feeling stifled, and eventually caused him to move to Switzerland after suffering a mental breakdown and a decline into alcoholism shortly after enlisting in the army. He found refuge in a Swiss sanatorium, and was inspired by the landscape outside of his window.
With Hitler’s election in 1932, Kirchner’s worst fears were realized, as he faced the critical rejection of his work, the moral downfall of modern civilization, and the threat of a catastrophic war. In 1937, the Nazis staged their Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich, which included Kirchner’s work, as well as that of his former Die Brücke colleagues. He died the following year, no longer feeling safe in his new country and disillusioned by the world around him. Although they were never officially married, his widow, Erna, was able to obtain the legal rights to the artist’s last name and kept his estate. The majority of the works on view in the exhibit were purchased in 1959, two decades after the artist’s death, on behalf of Robert Lehman from a gallery in Germany. Kirchner strove to capture what he often referred to as “the ecstasy of first sight,” or the feeling evoked by a first encounter, a feeling that is very well captured in this exhibit. “Sometimes,” he explained, “the great secret that lies beneath all the happenings and things in our environment becomes fleetingly perceptible…We can never express it concretely, but only give it symbolic form.” In other words, “make visible the invisible.”
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner will be on view at the Galerie St. Etienne until July 1, 2016. The gallery will also be participating in Art Basel in Switzerland June 16-19.
See also: Munch and Expressionism at the Neue Galerie in New York, closing soon.