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


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…

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