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 …