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Desire in Berlin

Kirchner and the Berlin Street

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, August 3–November 10, 2008.
Catalog of the exhibition by Deborah Wye
Museum of Modern Art, 138 pp., $35.00

1.

When Ernst Ludwig Kirchner put a pistol to his head in Davos, Switzerland, on June 15, 1938, he left more than a thousand oil paintings, several thousand pastels, drawings, and prints, as well as many wood carvings and textiles. Only a fraction of his work was shown at an extraordinary exhibition held recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But this fraction probably comprises the very best of his oeuvre. A handful of paintings, executed just before and during World War I, of Berlin streets filled with elegant whores, some in black war-widow garb, are accompanied by a number of exquisite drawings and woodcuts, some on the same subject matter, some of nudes, and some of a variety of urban scenes. Those who missed the show can see them beautifully reproduced in the MoMA catalog.

The most famous painting is simply entitled Berlin Street Scene (1913). The long and sordid story of its provenance—originally acquired by a Jewish shoe manufacturer named Hess, then passed on in a series of murky transactions after the Hess family had to flee from the Nazis, only to emerge in German museum collections after the war before being returned to the original owner’s heirs, who sold it to Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York for $38 million—is the subject of an entire book recently published in Germany.1 Painted in feverish blue, red, and yellow streaks, the picture shows two prostitutes (cocottes in the Berlin jargon of the time), dressed to the nines, casting lizard-eyed looks at the blurred crowd of men around them, one of whom looks away, a cigarette dangling from his crimson lips. It has been suggested that this man might be the artist himself, alone, aloof, cut off from the crowd.

Kirchner’s paintings, drawings, and prints of Berlin streets with cocottes on the prowl have become icons of the twentieth-century metropolis, fast, mechanical, dense, anonymous, and full of erotic possibilities. The artist created with his brush or chisel what his friend the expressionist writer Alfred Döblin did with his pen, most notably in his great novel Berlin Alexanderplatz : fragmented images of buildings and streetcars, the jazzy syncopation of masses of people rushing hither and thither, their pale city faces turned yellow and green by flickering headlights, street lamps, and neon signs. An element of danger is suggested by the jagged edges of sidewalks and the sharp toes of the prostitutes’ boots.

In her informative and clearly written catalog essay, Deborah Wye says that Kirchner “made the unusual choice of the prostitute as his primary symbol” of metropolitan life. In fact, it wasn’t so unusual. The prostitute has been a symbol of urban decadence ever since the Whore of Babylon, and Wye herself, quoting from a German source, explains why this has been especially true in modern times: “What holds for them also holds for the mass-produced goods of the time: they ‘flaunt, entice, provoke desire.’” The thing about big cities, from Babylon to Berlin, is that every desire can be satisfied with the right amount of cash, except, perhaps, true love.

The Berlin street paintings have come to define Kirchner’s work. The later paintings of Swiss Alpine landscapes are of less interest, and his earlier portraits and nudes, though of considerable interest, are not quite so well known.2 It is interesting to compare Kirchner’s reputation with Emil Nolde’s. Both were part of the same artistic circles, and marked by similar enthusiasms. Nolde, too, depicted typical Berlin scenes of cabarets, night clubs, and dancers, but is now much better known for his brooding, almost abstract land- and seascapes.

There seem to have been at least two great breaks in Kirchner’s career. The first occurred when he moved to Berlin in 1911, leaving behind the cosy bohemia of expressionist Dresden. The second was when he left Germany in 1917 to settle in Switzerland. So the great Berlin period lasted only six years. How to reconcile those years of frenzied urban activity with the periods before and after? Or was there more continuity than meets the eye? Therein lies one of the fascinations of Kirchner’s art and life.

2.

Born in 1880 in Lower Franconia, Kirchner was the son of well-to-do bourgeois parents; his father, Ernst, was an engineer and a professor. Like many young men from well-to-do bourgeois families, Kirchner rebelled against his comfortable background and tried to find a more authentic, more natural, more artistic way of living in bohemian circles that liked to “go back to nature” by walking around in the nude, whether in artists’ studios or in idyllic rural settings, such as the Moritzburg lakes around Dresden. Some of the bohemians also enjoyed roughing it a little by living among “real” people in poor urban areas.

Kirchner founded Die Brücke (The Bridge) in Dresden with fellow expressionists, such as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein, and Otto Müller. Following Van Gogh and the French Fauvists, especially Matisse, the German expressionists celebrated emotional spontaneity and “naturalness” by experimenting with wild brushstrokes and bold primary colors. The call of the “primitive”—African masks, American “negro music,” tropical islands, and so on—was also part of the quest for authenticity. And here, too, they took the cue from Paris: Gauguin, Picasso, and, of course, Matisse.

Photographs of Kirchner’s Dresden and Berlin studios, reproduced in the catalog, show how this quest spilled into the artist’s life as well: drapery decorated with couples having sex, objects from Africa and Oceania, the artist and various models dancing in the nude. The Brücke artists worked together, lived together, made trips together, and made love together, freely exchanging partners and models. They were, in Kirchner’s phrase, “one big family.” The aim was “free drawing of free individuals in free naturalness.”

The French were clearly an inspiration. Yet perhaps as a form of self-defense, Kirchner in particular stressed how German his art was, and denied, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, the influence of his contemporaries in France. When he was living in Davos in 1923, to recuperate from his many nervous breakdowns (made worse by bouts of excessive drinking), Kirchner mused in his diary that he was “Germanic like no other artist.” This was true, up to a point. Kirchner often mentioned Dürer as an inspiration. The name Die Brücke came from Nietzsche’s dictum that man was a bridge, not an endpoint. The cult of natural behavior was part of a larger movement in early-twentieth-century Germany: Wandervögel hiking through mountain and dale, nudists frolicking on Baltic beaches. And then there was the German tendency to spiritual brooding.

Kirchner, unlike, say, Emil Nolde, was not attracted to National Socialism, despite his naive and short-lived hope in the early 1930s that the Führer might be good for Germany. But in his spiritual moods he came close to falling into the clichés of Romantic German chauvinism. Germanic art, he said, including his own, “is religion in the widest sense of the word.” It is the “expression of [my] dreams,” transcendental, profound, art as suffering and redemption, and never art for art’s sake, as practiced in France. The French, rationalistic, civilized, urbane, cynical, could only reproduce, describe, or depict nature, and never express it directly. Thus, in Kirchner’s view, “we can say that we [Germans] form the soul of humanity….”

Much of this is poppycock. But then Kirchner was known to be a bit of a mythomaniac whose words should never be taken at face value. In any case, the Berlin street scenes are hardly typical expressions of German soulfulness; on the contrary, they are a direct response to the cynical here and now. And the here and now of Berlin in the early 1910s was not easy for Kirchner. Largely through his own fault, Die Brücke was disbanded in 1913, leaving Kirchner feeling cast adrift and sorry for himself. His career did not flourish. A large international show of modern art held in Berlin did not include his work. And fretting about becoming too bourgeois in his habits, he fell into depression, took too much Veronal, and drank a liter of absinthe a day.

Yet he produced the amazing paintings, drawings, and prints that were on show at MoMA. It is tempting to ascribe their genius to the artist’s unhappiness, a temptation encouraged by the artist’s own words:

They [the paintings] originated in the years 1911–14, in one of the loneliest times of my life, during which an agonizing restlessness drove me out onto the streets day and night, which were filled with people and cars.

He often compared his lonely state to that of the cocottes whom he painted, women who provoked desire but remained unloved.

Certainly, the pictures of hard-bitten women trawling in the nighttime city, painted or etched in splintery, distorted shapes, or sketched quickly as “hieroglyphs,” in the artist’s word, appear to convey the shock of a dreamer confronted with the coldness of metropolitan life. They seem a far cry from the idyllic studio settings or nudes-dancing-in-nature pictures of the Dresden period. The colors are more artificial. Even the nudes looks different. The Berlin girls, Kirchner remarked, with their “architectonically constructed, severely formed bodies,” were different from the “soft Saxon physique” of his earlier models.

But they are still beautiful. Unlike pictures of similar scenes by Kirchner’s contemporaries, such as Otto Dix or George Grosz, Kirchner’s work is never marked by physical revulsion. The pastel drawings of his girlfriend, a cabaret dancer named Erna Schilling, posing nude in his Berlin studio, are positively loving. But even the two cocottes in Two Women on the Street (1914), described by Deborah Wye as “ugly and threatening in their anonymity,” have an elegance usually absent in the pictures of disgust by Dix or Grosz. The black hats and black war-widow’s veil, typical of wartime hookers, give their elegance a sinister frisson.3 Kirchner’s Berlin streets may be full of loneliness, bad skin, and cynical intentions, but they are never full of hatred, least of all for women.

This is true of the street scenes, whether in oil, pastel, or ink, of the nudes, and also of the more openly erotic pictures done in Berlin. Page 42 of the MoMa catalog shows two paintings by Kirchner, one of a fully clothed man in a black suit standing in a room with a nude woman contemplating her own bottom in a mirror, Nude from the Back with Mirror and Man (1912), and the other, called Couple in a Room (1912), of a man fondling a nude woman, who is smoking a cigarette, dressed in a black see-through shift. The colors are muted, the painting is nervy, the atmosphere lewd. The third illustration on that page shows Grosz’s Circe (1927), a watercolor and ink picture of a man with the snout of a pig sticking his tongue into the lipsticked mouth of an equally porcine naked hooker in high heels. The Kirchner paintings, in spite of their loucheness, show his love of the female form and his pleasure in sexual display. Grosz, brilliant as always, shows little but loathing.

Where is the continuity in Kirchner’s work? Wye points out that “there are clear allusions” in Two Women on the Street “to the tribal masks that for Brücke artists inspired radical new forms while also referencing basic instincts.” I think this is right. She goes on to say that these women “seem utterly dehumanized by their profession.” Perhaps so. But Kirchner takes such delight in the basic instincts that he can’t help celebrating them even in heartless Berlin. After all, the jungle of the Potsdamerplatz or the Leipzigerstrasse can be seen as nature too, not as innocent as the rural lakes of Saxony perhaps, but hardly less lively; if anything, more so. The cocottes may be beasts of prey, who make money out of basic instincts, but their erotic performance is as fascinating to the artist, and as vital, as the sexual games in bohemian Dresden.

3.

Kirchner was not cut out to be a soldier. Nonetheless, in a fit of patriotism he signed up for military service in 1915. Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915), his face a mask of anguish, his right arm a bloody, handless stump, incapable of ever making another picture, shows Kirchner’s terror of going to war. A series of colored woodcuts, made in that same year, on the theme of Peter Schlehmil, the man who sold his shadow, are brilliant and quite terrifying. Panicked and depressed, Kirchner was in such a poor mental state that he was discharged after two months in the artillery, and ordered to get psychiatric treatment.

After sojourns in various German institutions, Kirchner ended up in that great Alpine sanatorium, the little town of Davos, where he lived out his years. The Nazis had paid him the tribute of classifying much of his work as “degenerate,” including, astonishingly, some of his Swiss work. Perhaps to a Nazi philistine, Kirchner’s style —the bold colors, the distorted figures—might have looked unwholesome, but the pictures of country folk and mountain vistas are a world away from the streets of Berlin. Still, his 1920 painting of Swiss farmers having dinner (Bauernmahlzeit) was displayed in 1937 to the official ridicule of Nazi officials at the Degenerate Art show in Munich, along with Berlin Street Scene and other masterpieces.4

Even paintings done during the Weimar period in Berlin, which he visited from time to time, had lost much of the old fervor. One in particular, shown at the MoMA exhibition, called Street Scene at Night (1926–1927), looks more like a well-designed advertising poster for a visit to the big city.

To be sure, these late paintings are not as bad as Otto Dix’s picture postcard landscapes, painted during his time of “inner emigration,” after the Nazis took over and declared him a degenerate artist too. But like Grosz and Dix, Kirchner seems to have needed a constant ingestion of bracing Berlin air to bring out the best in him. The Alpine life calmed him down, and weakened his art. His best work was done many years before. To be cast out of the German art world as a degenerate, because of that very work, hurt him deeply. Drugs did the rest. “Now,” he wrote some time before his violent death, “one is just like the cocottes I used to paint. Blurred, then gone the next moment….”

  1. 1

    Gunnar Schnabel and Monika Tatzkow, The Story of Street Scene: Restitution of Nazi Looted Art, translated by Casey Butterfield (Berlin: Proprietas, 2008).

  2. 2

    The large Kirchner exhibition in 2003 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington was the first Kirchner show in the US in thirty years.

  3. 3

    There are different accounts of why these clothes were worn. Deborah Wye writes that streetwalkers “took up this disguise either to shield themselves from the police or to elicit sympathy.” Norbert Wolf says the police insisted that the hookers look “ladylike.” On the other hand, the carnage of war produced genuine war widows who had to sell themselves to survive.

  4. 4

    Grotesquely, the Swiss painting was described at the Munich exhibition as “German farmers—Yiddish perspective.”

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