The Instinct Artist

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880–1938

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Jill Lloyd and Magdalena M. Moeller
an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.,March 2–June 1, 2003, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, June 28–September 21, 2003
National Gallery of Art, 254 pp., $39.95 (paper)

The German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is an immensely likable figure whose work has running all through it a powerful idea at its core. Like other artists and writers born in the last decades of the nineteenth century, he believed that art could be a moral and political tool. He saw the making of pictures as a way to strike out at, and overturn, what were perceived to be the deadening values of a materialistic and sexually repressive society, and Kirchner’s chief way of representing the unfettered and instinctive existence he sought was in the form of raw, seemingly impulsive and unfinished sketches—works we now can savor as some of the most virtuosic and elegant drawings produced in the twentieth century, but which originally had to have struck viewers as the brazen scratchings of a supreme con artist. Kirchner’s drawings, and his related prints of all types, aren’t necessarily his deepest work, but they are the objects that most bear out what Norman Rosenthal, in his introduction to the catalog of the Kirchner retrospective now at the National Gallery in Washington, means when he justly writes that the painter deserves a “place in the pantheon of artists who changed the way the world was perceived.”

Kirchner, whom Rosenthal also rightly calls the “archetypal” artist of “figurative Expressionism,” came to maturity in the years between 1905 and 1909 with a group of fellow students in architectural school in Dresden, including Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, who called themselves Die Brücke, meaning “the bridge.” They painted city life and views of figures in interiors, but some of their more charged and personal pictures were of naked men and women moving about in a state of complete naturalness in woodland settings or by water. Built up with emphatically bright and deeply saturated colors and a brusque, either flickering or slab-like brushwork, their paintings could be taken as emblems of a quest for liberation in art and life.

The young artists, who had little training as painters and worked together as a kind of brotherhood, followed, by only a year or so, the coming together of a number of painters in France, including Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck, who were labeled Fauves and had related goals. The French painters were innately more accomplished than the Dresden architecture students-turned-painters, and, more crucially, they were inspired by the practices of many recent generations of inventive painting in Paris. Kirchner, Heckel, and their friends had little in the way of recent national traditions to nurture them, and their respective careers, after a few years of lively painting, took so many nosedives.

Called the “spiritual leader” of Die Brücke, and its most forceful, worldly, and ambitious member, Kirchner took perhaps the most dramatic personal nosedive. After using up the resources of Dresden, and perhaps being chiefly responsible for establishing Die Brücke as a recognized avant-garde movement in Germany, Kirchner moved with his band to Berlin in 1911 where his work, chiefly city scenes, became even more searching and robust—only to crash with the First World War. Signing on, in 1915, as an artillery driver in order not to be drafted into the infantry, he soon suffered a mental breakdown from which he never fully recovered. Wearing a uniform, even for a few months, seems to have undermined the idea of personal freedom his existence was based on.

Kirchner’s health seesawed precariously, and by 1917, after stays in sanatoriums and periods of illness aggravated by drug and alcohol dependencies, he began living in the relatively stress-free environment of rural Switzerland. Settled near Davos, he valiantly attempted a complete overhaul of his life and work, but the Nazi attack, in 1937, on “degenerate art,” which claimed Kirchner as a prime culprit, and Hitler’s annexation of Austria the following year, were too much for the artist to bear. He began to imagine Nazis arriving at his doorstep, and after first destroying some of his own work, he took his life, at age fifty-eight, in June 1938.

No matter what his health, Kirchner drove himself at all times with a messianic fervor. The number of paintings, drawings, and prints that he produced in a working career of some thirty-five years is staggeringly high. Donald Gordon’s catalog of Kirchner’s paintings lists over a thousand works,* while over two thousand prints, including woodcuts, lithographs, drypoints, and etchings, have been listed. There are similarly high numbers of drawings. Yet all this is only an aspect of Kirchner’s output. Throughout his career he made photographs of real quality, some of the most memorable being of the artist’s dark, ultra-bohemian studios, populated by models, lovers, and artist friends. Kirchner’s photographs are seemingly slapdash shots that, with their scratches, blurry zones, lustrous shininess, and, most significantly, the sense that we see the chaotic, steaming evidence of a life lived honestly, without any social or sexual inhibitions, come to feel like a genuine contribution to the art of the camera.

Kirchner was a considerable sculptor, too, making primarily wood carvings that, while little known outside Germany, are possibly the most moving and beautiful work he did. A passionate reader (in English, too) and writer, he illustrated and designed numerous books, kept a diary, and published a considerable number of essays about his work. He also managed to get out what an art historian has called “one of the most voluminous correspondences known to art history.” He seems to have identified more with Whitman, whose poetry he would urge people to read, than any other writer.

Taken simply as a display, the Kirchner exhibition now in Washington is fairly successful. The works have been sensitively hung in a number of connecting, intimate galleries on two levels, and the organizers have astutely mixed together Kirchner’s paintings and sculpture with his drawings and prints. It’s stimulating in itself to see an artist’s works on paper hung alongside his paintings, a rare occurrence in museums, where drawings and prints generally cannot be exposed to the same high degree of light that paintings need. Given, though, that this is Kirchner’s first major exposure in the United States in thirty-five years, and undoubtedly will be the last for many decades to come, the show could have been a weightier affair. It shortchanges an admittedly very uneven artist.

The Kirchner who in actuality was a restless and volatile creator has been made over into a well-behaved lad. There certainly aren’t enough powerful paintings here from his years in Dresden, when he was first hitting his stride. As the exhibition presents it, Kirchner, from roughly 1908 until he moved to Berlin in 1911, was primarily a painter of the female nude and of female models, including young girls, in the studio, and while getting naked, in effect, was for years a tenet of his progressive thinking, there was more to him at the time. The mere addition of, say, Street, Dresden, a brilliantly colored view of a crowd of pedestrians, and Dodo and Her Brother, an imposing full-length double portrait that has a fresh, caricatural simplicity in the way these siblings stand before us, would have made a huge difference in the way we see Kirchner during these years. Street and Dodo, both of which are in American museum collections, are some six feet on a side. They’re larger than the works from this time that are in the show, and they indicate a scope and an ambition that are lacking in it. Their absence is probably due to the difficulty of arranging loans, yet couldn’t they have been illustrated or even mentioned in the catalog?

But then Kirchner as a painter is an issue in itself. Although his oils have a certain brilliance when they are seen in reproduction, the actual works, at least in this show, which primarily covers the years 1908 to 1917, his heyday, can be bodiless and unengaging. Kirchner’s sense of color isn’t the issue. He had a wonderful taste for harsh, acidy tones, whether of greens and blues, orangy reds, greenish yellows. He is a rare instance, though, of a sometimes distinctive colorist who saw painting as a heroic endeavor and yet could be indifferent to constructing a painting so that it has a life of its own. That the surfaces of Kirchner’s paintings are often dry isn’t the problem. The dryness seems to have been sought after, and to counter this with varnishing, which has happened to some of his pictures, doesn’t really help.

Varnishing doesn’t get around the fundamental issue that painting for Kirchner seems to have been largely drawing with other means. Paintings from his heroic pre-war years of, say, acrobats on stage, or of women in a brothel, often fail to hold our attention because all the forms have been brushed on with equal impatient force and the colors all have the same weight—one result of which is that little or no air or light comes through. Next to his drawings and prints, Kirchner’s paintings tend to feel illustrational, perhaps because in the works on paper his racing, violent lines suggest forms rather than fully presenting them, and the otherwise empty white sheet becomes a partner in the making of the whole image. It’s noteworthy that the best paintings in the first half of the National Gallery’s exhibition, a portrait of a black model named Milli and A Street with Flags, which shows huge banners hanging off buildings and people walking by (and is remarkably similar to contemporaneous street scenes with flags by Dufy), both have, unlike many of the other paintings here, significant areas of white paint. And the white zones make all the other colors breathe.

A Street with Flags happens to be painted on one side of a canvas, the other being of a nude in a studio, an image that is all too similar to others shown at the National Gallery and is far from his best. Given the unity-seeking nature of the exhibition, the nude, however, is the side that has been featured. The powerful street scene faces inward, toward a wall, and once you have walked between it and the wall to see it, there is no way to get any distance on it. You are right on top of the picture. It might as well not be in the show.

The tension and excitement in Kirchner’s work derives mostly from his jabbing, inflexible line, an idea that came from, or at least was nurtured by, his looking at Oceanic and African tribal art, which he saw in Dresden’s ethnographic museum. But the detail that gives many of Kirchner’s works their real flavor is his emphasis on the sharpest angles, his way of drawing dancers, say, with their knees held stiffly up, or his turning human arms and hands into stiffly held zigzag shapes, so that his people hold themselves like praying mantises or bob about like puppets on strings. Best of all of Kirchner’s

angular exaggerations is the slitty way he makes eyes. The elongated and razor-sharp eyes of his figures suggest that the face we see is coolly, even harshly or wickedly, appraising us.

Sometimes Kirchner blackens out eyes entirely, an even more distinctive touch. In Dodo and Her Brother, for instance, both figures have essentially black slashes for eyes, the chilling and funny effect of which is that these two might be wearing sunglasses. Picasso and Matisse, among others, were also excited by the blacked-out eye in the same pre-war and wartime years, and some of Matisse’s best pictures, large portraits from around 1914 of Mme. Matisse, Auguste Pellerin, and others—pictures that happily are in the current Matisse Picasso show at the Museum of Modern Art—owe much of their ambiguous power to the way the eyes of these figures are completely blackened sockets.

Kirchner’s best pictures, which he made at the same moment that Matisse was making the portraits of Pellerin and Mme. Matisse, are actually elaborations on the theme of people detachedly appraising one another. Kirchner’s generally acknowledged high point is the art he made in Berlin. There he continued to fashion images of women in studios and views of people by the sea, but his real achievement was pictures, dating mostly from 1913 and 1914, of women and men walking in the streets. Little in Kirchner’s work beforehand gives sufficient warning that paintings, drawings, and prints such as these, which revolve around images of haughty women accompanied by drone-like yet also somewhat gangsterish men, most of whom are dressed in black, with black hats, and are seen standing at corners, or walking toward us, or striding by in processional formation, were to come.

For, unlike anything he had done before, the street pictures are organized as decorative wholes. These aren’t merely images of individuals walking about in a metropolis. In Berlin, Kirchner was working with an abstract idea of space and the placement of figures. Seemingly everything in these pictures is made up of so many short, quick, parallel strokes, whether the figures, who are as stiffly upright as trees, their clothes, their hatchet-sharp faces, their high hats, the way they stride or bunch together in groups, the pointy, up-tilting streets and pavements, or the angled, forest-like organization of the scenes themselves. The pictures remind us that Kirchner studied to be an architect, because the very structure of these works is architectural. The elongated shapes of the figures and the way they can project forward like an army on the march, or dwindle back in space, bring to mind fences, folding screens, stockade walls.

Utterly original in their effect, the Berlin scenes seem to represent, growing solely out of Kirchner’s idea of form, balance, and composition, a vision of people and society. Yet exactly what his position was in relation to his walking women, who are assumed to be prostitutes out at night looking for customers (who are in ample supply), is, to the artist’s credit, hard to determine. Frightening, glamorous, a bit macabre, the pictures are at the very least emblems of modern life at a thrillingly dangerous time.

The Berlin works are also a tribute to a city that, in effect, was giving birth at the same time to another series of major paintings by an artist who had also just moved there: Marsden Hartley’s pictures based on the military insignia of a German officer. Hartley’s paintings, which are like Cubist bouquets of flags, tassels, and medals thrust toward us, are literally more abstract than Kirchner’s; but in spirit both painters were shaking up distinctions between abstraction and representation, and it is debatable whether Hartley’s kaleidoscopic odes to a spankingly handsome uniform are more abstract than Kirchner’s conception of people as puppets being moved about in formations that resemble a preview of Busby Berkeley. Both men, surely, were making pictures of parades.

Yet an even deeper achievement than the Berlin street pictures may be Kirchner’s sculpture. I say “may be” because this work is given only a token representation at the exhibition (seven pieces are listed in the catalog but only four are in Washington), and Kirchner’s sculpture has mysteriously remained very little known. His wood carvings have rarely been mentioned in surveys of twentieth-century sculpture or of German twentieth-century art, and they are scarce even in most of the publications on Kirchner. This situation is clearly about to change. The first show devoted exclusively to Kirchner’s sculpture was held last year in Germany, accompanied by the publication of the first catalog of the pieces; and while Norman Rosenthal, in his introduction to the present catalog, bases his sense of Kirchner’s importance exclusively on the pictures, he does let slip that the artist “was an equally successful printmaker and carver, and was arguably at his most original in these disciplines.”

The few carvings on display at the National Gallery—along with reproductions of others which can be found in Stephanie Barron’s invaluable German Expressionist Sculpture, the catalog for her groundbreaking 1983 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—certainly indicate that a true evaluation of Kirchner’s art demands a fuller display of his wood pieces. Kirchner made sculpture on and off for his entire working life. He took it seriously, and wrote about it, as he wrote about other aspects of his art, under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle (presumably a French doctor based in Algiers). There are some eighty of these works in public and private collections, but the original number was higher, since it is known that some pieces were confiscated by the Nazis in their 1937 assault on modernist art and that Kirchner destroyed many examples himself when, in a panic, he saw his very household in imminent danger.

Kirchner’s sculptures were as indebted to tribal art as were his pictures, and his chief sculptural subject, even more than in his pictures, was a kind of springy female nude, with a flat belly, high, firm breasts, and shortish, dark hair—a dancer’s body. All the pieces at the National Gallery deserve to be looked at from as many sides as possible; each piece has a different silhouette from every angle it is seen from. Erna, however, a little carving of the head and top of the chest of Erna Schilling (who became Kirchner’s lifelong companion), and Standing Nude are more than lovely formal achievements. At once sultry and demure, they are the highlights of the exhibition. The pieces, which have the color of tanned bodies, with painted black hair and facial features, are clearly beholden to African art in their angularity and feeling for rounded body parts, but the faces and certain details, such as the way the standing figure touches her breast, make a viewer quickly forget the artist’s sources. Not that we miss some form of tenderness in Kirchner, but there is such a sense of warmth and gravity, and of a particular person’s consciousness at work, in these sculptures that they make the various kinds of pictures surrounding them feel like accompaniments.

Sculpture for Kirchner was little different from drawing in that it grew out of, and was about, his daily life. He seems to have been as comfortable making stools out of wood or, in his house in Davos, making utensils or a frame for a mirror as he was creating free-standing pieces for public consumption such as Erna and Standing Nude. In Stephanie Barron’s catalog and elsewhere, there are photographs of Kirchner carvings one would love to see of a mother and young child, a boy with an ax, and an almost life-size work called Two Friends, which is of two young artists who, in Switzerland in the 1920s, looked to Kirchner for guidance. It’s impossible to judge this piece from a photograph, of course, but one feels that the large work, with its sweet yet sexually charged image of two young men holding each other tightly, combined with the somewhat cartoonish nature of their limbs and faces, would have blown open the current show had it been included. This piece, which is in the Kunstmuseum Basel, may be a little too close to animation for comfort, but surely it had an impact on Georg Baselitz’s widely admired carvings, and in the current art world, with its openness to all sorts of representation, Two Friends might seem like a remarkably prescient work.

Kirchner’s later art, of which Two Friends may be a high point, is not, in any event, of concern to the curators of the present exhibition. When the show travels to the Royal Academy, in London, it will bear the title “Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Dresden and Berlin Years,” which is essentially what we are given at the National Gallery. And this is not surprising. The work the artist did in the roughly two decades after he left Berlin for Davos, in 1917, has always been considered anticlimactic, and the Royal Academy’s title for this show is a more honest one than the National Gallery’s “Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880–1938,” which leads us to believe this is a full retrospective, which it is not. The display of Kirchner’s art from about 1917 onward is at best halfhearted. It would have been better to cut the proceedings off with Standing Nude than to encounter the few and uninspired choices of the later work that have been assembled at the National Gallery.

Of course, not every historically significant artist needs to be seen in a full career retrospective. Marsden Hartley’s painting, for example, cries out more for a selective presentation than it is usually given. Hartley made some of the most beautiful paintings of any twentieth-century American artist, but he also made some of the emptiest, and it’s surely time to think critically about him and do justice to those periods when he was truly engaged. With Kirchner, though, the case is a little different in that even in Dresden and Berlin his painting could be wildly uneven. Unevenness was built into his determination to work off his instincts.

By the same token, a longstanding article of faith with the artist holds that his woodcuts and other prints are consistently inventive and prepossessing. Yet as examples at the National Gallery from his later years affirm, when it came to printmaking processes Kirchner’s always high energy couldn’t surmount weak images. Graphics from every phase of his career, actually, can have, to my eye, a generic “German Expressionist” bluster, a display of twisted, spidery lines or rough-and-tumble execution that amounts to the work of no one in particular.

My point isn’t that Kirchner’s art from his years in Switzerland, contrary to what is generally said, is underrated. A lot of it really is lame. When he attempted, in Davos, to paint portraits or still lifes or figures in interiors, he too often worked with an anonymous, all-purpose representational style which he covered with a veneer of artful mannerisms. And he had his artistic bearings there only intermittently. Zealously following the state of current art even from his hinterland retreat (he rarely ventured back to Germany), he thrashed about in the late Twenties and early Thirties in unsuccessful attempts to make his own versions of both Picasso and Klee. As Norman Rosenthal notes and as the artist’s eventual suicide might indicate, Kirchner’s mental health after his breakdown was always precarious. Paranoia was always lurking.

Yet he put a lot more thought and muscle into the work he did in Davos than the National Gallery’s selection indicates. Two Friends suggests that Kirchner’s sculpture kept developing, and in painting, in both his early Swiss years and then again in the later Thirties, he attempted a new and appealing tapestry-like pictorial language. Taking off from local Alpine traditions, he occasionally made pictures, both of interiors of rooms seen from great distances and of the forest paths, pine huts, and towering slopes of the terrain, that had a panoramic hugeness, and were drawn in with the blocky shapes of a children’s book illustrator. Kirchner painted with thicker, more oily and sensuous surfaces than he had used in Dresden or Berlin, and his color, with its violets and pinks, skin tones, oranges, reds, and blues, took on a heat and a crazy-quilt variousness.

Kirchner’s finest painting from Davos may not have quite the solidity of Hartley’s late Maine scenes, or Lovis Corinth’s sensuous and flickering Bavarian views, or Soutine’s oozing visions, but Kirchner asks to be compared with them. His best later pictures and sculptures form a kind of counterpart to his earlier work in that he was still drawing strength from, and reanimating, tribal or “primitive” traditions, except, in this case, it was the folk art of the mountains. As an attempt to wrest a wholly new second act in one’s career, twentieth-century art presents surprisingly few stronger efforts.

  1. *

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Harvard University Press, 1968).