What is it called—that legendary period of German art in the early part of the twentieth century? Some people think of it as Weimar, but the Weimar Republic only covers the second half of it. Others use the word Expressionism, but that term is best confined to certain artists of the time—such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde—or to certain periods of their work. One standard account of German Expressionism ends with the outbreak of World War I. And while the artists of the New Objectivity, the Neue Sachlichkeit of the 1920s—among them Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and Georg Grosz—are associated closely in our minds with the Expressionists, their work is produced in conscious distinction from them.

We can agree, perhaps, that the age (whatever it is called) comes to an end with the Nazi crackdown on political opposition and on Degenerate Art. Whoever survived that had to remain true to his talent in an exile of one kind or another. Emil Nolde, a Nazi Party member himself, working under a Malverbot (a personal ban on his painting activities) to produce his beautiful water- colors of flowers, was an internal exile. Max Beckmann was one of the few painters whose gift survived displacement abroad. The work of George Grosz, on the other hand, falls to pieces in America—it seems to lose its vital context and stimulus. And if a talent like that of Grosz could not survive, what are we to expect of the innumerable lesser artists who seem to have been carried along by the general impetus?

The age comes to an end in 1933, or thereabouts. It begins somewhere around 1905, when Kirchner was twenty-five, and it has its roots in Jugendstil, or what we call Art Nouveau. It does not overthrow this earlier style. It does not chuck all its values. It bears the same relationship to Jugendstil as the erotic drawings of Schiele bear to those of Klimt. The sensibility is different; the radical feeling for design is the same. There are woodcuts by Kirchner that you could mistake for those of Félix Vallotton, drawings which emulate Klimt, and there are moments when Nolde, forgetting to be savage, turns decorative.

Decoration was certainly a part of the program. When Kirchner sets up his first studios in Dresden he cheers them up with wall paintings, parasols, fabrics, and sculpture of his own devising—the idiom has changed, the impulse to create a total decorative scheme remains familiar. Fine magazines, like Jugend itself, had disseminated the earlier style. Magazines, portfolios of prints, and illustrated books were the beloved purveyors of the Expressionist art. Books especially: Buchschmuck is one of the terms for it, book decoration—although the spirit in which the decoration was executed might be one of anguish. Kirchner’s woodcuts of 1915–1916 for Adalbert von Chamisso’s short story “Peter Schlemihl,” but not at the time printed as a book, are the preeminent masterpieces in the genre, along with works produced by Kandinsky around 1912–1913. But Lothar Lang, in his 1975 bibliography, lists nearly four hundred such books, mostly by artists little known outside Germany.1

The point is that the artists of this period were keen to reach a broad public—at least in theory, even if the editions of their works were perforce not large. For a year or so, in the late 1970s, I would spend most of my time mooning around the bookshops and galleries of West Germany, looking for this kind of work. Much of it of course was destroyed during the Third Reich, either deliberately or by the war, and what survives would have been kept discreetly locked away in what was sometimes known as the Giftschrank, or poison cupboard. It was clear that a great deal had survived somehow. And if so much survived, how much more must there once have been.

The artists reached out to the society in which they lived by their rallying calls (the call to youth, the plea for spiritual regeneration, and later their exhortations to political commitment) and by their choice of subject matter. One can document their era through their works (their era which gave rise to the documentary as art form): the world of the cafés and the brothels, the fairgrounds, the bicycle races, the hunger, the strikes, the war, the trenches, unemployment, sexual murder, the innumerable interiors, the characteristic street scenes. When one approaches the whole body of work in a spirit of sociological or historical inquiry, it rewards the inquirer generously.

By contrast, when one asks how much of this vast production counts as great art, some unpleasant decisions and exclusions have to be made. There are works in every collection of German Expressionists by artists who never painted a decent canvas in their lives, but who seem to have earned a historical right to hang there: Otto Müller with his saccharine-and-Gauguin dusky maidens is one such figure. The awful sculptor Ernst Barlach is another—an example of what tended to happen when the twentieth-century artist sought inspiration from the Germanness of German Gothic, and “made it new” (and folksy and winsome). Then there is Käthe Kollwitz, with her repetitive grief—not an inconsiderable draftsman (and a better sculptor than Barlach), but a moral browbeater, whose graphic range had been foreshadowed by Daumier, effortlessly, in a single print.


And then there are welcome and attractive artists who, as mentioned earlier, got carried along by the general impetus, and made lovely things because they were part of a group—most notably the (originally) Dresden group Die Brücke, of which Kirchner was a founder—and it was hard to remain immune to the general excitement. Max Pechstein was like this. And these artists were lucky, and we are lucky to have their best work, even if we scratch our heads at the way they stumble and wander when the group’s moment has gone, when the magic is over.

Finally there are the artists on whose shoulders the main burden falls, for if we decide that they are no good then the whole era must be written off, artistically: Kirchner, Nolde, Beckmann, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Grosz, Kandinsky while he was living with Gabriele Münter, and Münter while Münter was living with him, and then the two major examples of artists killed in their prime in World War I, August Macke and Franz Marc. One may add some, one may yearn to subtract some, but here is the roll call on any normal day.

World War I bisects the era. Before it, in the rhetoric of the time and in strange paintings such as those of Ludwig Meidner, we get prophecies of the apocalypse, and it is by no means to be assumed that the prophets of the era think that the coming apocalypse, supposing it to be a war, will be a wholly bad thing. Anything to get rid of this stale taste of the banality of everyday life was what the diarists of the day seemed to beg for, or at least that is what can be found in the writings of the Expressionists. Thomas Mann, in his satirical short story of 1904, “At the Prophet’s,” takes us into the milieu:

Strange regions there are, strange minds, strange realms of the spirit, lofty and spare. At the edge of large cities, where street lamps are scarce and policemen walk by twos, are houses where you mount till you can mount no further, up and up into attics under the roof, where pale young geniuses, criminals of the dream, sit with folded arms and brood; up into cheap studios with symbolic decorations, where solitary and rebellious artists, inwardly consumed, hungry and proud, wrestle in a fog of cigarette smoke with devastatingly ultimate ideals. Here is the end: ice, chastity, null. Here is valid no compromise, no concession, no half-way, no consideration of values. Here the air is so rarefied that the mirages of life no longer exist. Here reign defiance and iron consistency, the ego supreme amid despair; here freedom, madness, and death hold sway.

Kirchner’s Dresden studio, with its batiks and its African sculptures as its symbolic objects, might have had some of this flavor, but it was a sociable place. More than sociable, it was—or Kirchner presented it as—an erotic arcadia in which the artist would sometimes (he said) break off in the act of lovemaking in order to capture a gesture or expression on the canvas. It was a bohemian fantasy—not because one doubts what Kirchner said (although one should systematically doubt everything that Kirchner said), but because if it was as he said, it was a fantasy happily lived out, while it lasted. In the summer, nude bathing and sketching parties in the Moritsburg lakes, not far from Dresden; in the winter, nude bacchanalia in the studio—the studio whose exotic furnishings speak of a desire to tap into the primitive.

In the common symbology of the day there is nature at its purest—the lake, the alp, the glacier—which is the source inspiration for the artist, as the glacier is for the composer Max in Ernst Krenek’s highly popular opera Jonny spielt auf. Then there is the city, which spells danger. And in the city there is the Negro, who in the real life of the time would have been either a prizefighter or a jazz musician, and who in the opera is the immoral jazz musician Jonny, who steals the precious violin from the virtuoso Daniello, and who will triumph in the end, just as his music will triumph—because it is black and immoral and from the New World. So the city and the jungle are much the same thing.


And of course the woman of the city has her dangerous side, alluring though she undoubtedly is. The woman of the studio is model, lover, friend, wife, companion, fellow bather, bohemian, free-lover. The woman of the streets may be most of those things as well, but in her public aspect, in the street scenes which Kirchner painted around the outbreak of war, she had to maintain a meticulous, respectable aloofness. We are told that the women who walked on the Friedrichstrasse, the shopping street in central Berlin, had to behave with decorum, not pause at shop windows, not linger or talk to potential customers. They might not talk to each other, come to that—and it is this studied aloofness which Kirchner captures in this series of canvases, sketches, and graphic work.

In the large painting of 1914 called Potsdamer Platz, which the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin purchased in the summer of 1999, and which has been the subject of a recent exhibition there, one of the women is wearing a veil. This either marks her down as already a war widow or identifies her as a prostitute, for we are told that the prostitutes began to wear veils at this time. Perhaps there was a frisson: it identified them as vulnerable women who needed comforting. Or perhaps it was a way of explaining their solitary status, and warding off the attentions of the police.

Whatever the reason, Kirchner’s women in these street scenes have a majesty and elegance which is in sharp distinction to the numerous portrayals of whores by other artists of the period. A few years after finishing the painting, when he was in the middle of a physical and mental breakdown brought on by a mixture of terror at the prospect of going to the front and self-punishment through drink and drugs, he wrote to his patron Gustav Schiefler, identifying himself with the prostitutes he once painted—in the sense that they were likely to vanish at any moment. But although the women in the Berlin picture are undoubtedly seen as the targets of the men in the background, one of whom has stretched an enormous Expressionist leg from the sidewalk to the middle of the road, as if making the first step toward an assignation, the vulnerability of whores does not seem to bulk very largely in the artist’s mind. The two prostitutes dwarf the men in the picture—they dwarf the architecture too. The one facing us has a face like a green mask, not unlike the African sculpture Kirchner loved to imitate.

When the Berlin Nationalgalerie bought this painting in 1999, Apollo magazine hailed it as the acquisition of the year, chiefly because of the work’s innate importance, but also because its purchase, and some others that year, seemed to indicate that the worst of the costs of reunification having been met, German museums were beginning once again to make major acquisitions. The painting had been on loan to the gallery previously, and during the 1930s it had hung in the modern section of the Nationalgalerie, in the Kronprinzenpalais, along with a similar work from 1913 called The Street. When the building was closed by Hitler in 1936, the privately owned Potsdamer Platz was returned to the collection it had come from, in Krefeld. The Street, which was owned by the Nationalgalerie, went into the exhibition of Degenerate Art, after which it was sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There was a symbolic sense of restitution in the recent exhibition, which reunited several similar works, and placed them in the context of their time.

One reason why the privately owned Potsdamer Platz is so important in Kirchner’s oeuvre is that its ownership history meant that the artist never had a chance to repaint or touch it up, which was the fate of many of his other canvases. He touched up his work, and he repainted his life where he could. He had a sense, not unfounded, that he was the leading artist of his group, indeed of his country. What irked him was that people believed he owed a debt to artists such as Matisse and Munch. He did indeed owe such a debt, and to Van Gogh too. All the German Expressionists owed a great deal to Paris, and one cannot arrive at a just appreciation of them without acknowledging and understanding this. It matters little to us. It may have mattered a great deal to artists for whom the issue of national and cultural identity was alive and controversial. Kirchner liked to absolve himself of this debt by denying it, by muddying the issues of chronology, and, most bizarrely, by inventing a French art critic—whom he called Louis de Marsalle (supposedly a French army doctor stationed somewhere in North Africa), in whose writings he received a just assessment of his achievement.2 None of these ruses was necessary.

Kirchner was said to draw the way other men write—that is to say with fluency and speed. But the remark is also just in this sense, that he is one of those artists whose sketches are like a handwriting—they will reveal their author in a few brief passages. So it is that even the slightest of his sketches can be exciting when recognized as a part of what was supposed to be an ecstatic search for a key expressive form.

The war bisected his life, as it bisects the period—the war which, we are told, some Expressionists devoutly believed would lead to the victory of Expressionism. During the Weimar years, Kirchner remained largely in Switzerland, slowly weaning himself off the morphine to which he had become perhaps accidentally addicted when he was hospitalized following his breakdown during World War I. He turned to the mountains for inspiration, rather like the composer Max turning to the glacier in Krenek’s opera, but I never see his alpine works without a little sinking of the heart. The glacier in the opera tells Max to return to life, and not to be afraid. Sometimes Kirchner overcame his fear and went back to his fatherland, but for the most part he stayed in the mountains.

Hitler came to power. Kirchner’s work was removed from all public collections in Germany, and either sold abroad or destroyed. He lost his seat in the Prussian Academy, to which he had only just been elected. He lost his collectors and his public at a stroke. When Germany annexed Austria, in March 1938, the border of the fatherland suddenly advanced to within twenty-five kilometers of his house in Switzerland, and in June that year he shot himself through the heart.

This Issue

September 20, 2001