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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Color Man


The Neue Galerie considers the career of German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner,  Portrait of Hans Frisch, ca. 1907

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Portrait of Hans Frisch,
ca. 1907, oil on canvas

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As one of the preeminent museums for German modern art in the world, the Neue Galerie in New York is a fitting venue for a career-spanning survey of the work of one of the greatest modernist artists of early 20th-century Germany, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. On view though January 13, the exhibition, titled simply with the artist’s name, takes in all phases of Kirchner’s work while focusing in particular on his use of color, and indeed on the central role of color in his work across a multitude of media.

Kirchner called himself a “Farbenmensch,” (“color man” or “color person”), an artist who thought of color before line or even composition. He would lay down planes of color and then let figurative elements emerge from them. He took advantage of new paints and chemicals, priding himself on the unique hues he achieved, and he made a serious study of color theory. However, for Kirchner color was not simply an aesthetic matter; colors are inseparably linked to emotions, and as an Expressionist artist his concern was to use color to illustrate and awaken powerful movements within the psyche.

Born in Bavaria in 1880, Kirchner arrived in the city of Dresden in 1905 to study architecture. There he met two artists, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel, with whom he formed the avant-garde group Die Brücke (The Bridge). Later they would be joined by Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, and Otto Mueller. The name of the group alluded to a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, in which the philosopher spoke of the fully realized man as a bridge, as one who “goes over.” The idealistic young artists thought of their movement as building a bridge to the future, but the bridge also connected to the past, as they felt a deep sympathy with artists of the German Renaissance such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, and Matthias Grünewald.

In common with many modernists at the time, Die Brücke had a certain primitivist aspect, and one of its goals was to make older folk-art elements relevant again and create a distinctively German modern art. It resolutely opposed the academic art of its time and strove to create work that was vibrant, alive, and emotionally immediate, with startling visual effects. In printmaking, they championed the old technique of woodcut, so strongly associated with the age of Dürer.


Kirchner’s painting from this period makes use of a Post-Impressionist-influenced technique in which complementary colors are placed close together. His oil on canvas Two Nudes (1907) has an almost Divisionist quality, with small pixel-like dots making the models’ skin shimmer as it must have in the artificial light of the studio. Portrait of Hans Frisch (1907) revels in red, green, and blue, almost folk-art-like in its flatness and in the way the subject seems to blend in with the patterned background of the textiles on the wall and the upholstery of the couch he reclines on. The hair and skin are of unnatural hues, a reminder that while the Brücke artists shunned abstraction, they did not embrace naturalism, either. Their aims were to communicate feeling, to depict their bohemian lifestyle in all its sensuality and weirdness, and to celebrate the interpenetration of art and life.

In 1911, Kirchner moved to Berlin, attracted by the capital’s energy, excitement, and modernity. In Berlin, his color palette shifted somewhat, adapting to the greenish-yellow glare of the arc lights, the glint of metal, and the dark clothes of the urban crowds. While there, he left Die Brücke, intent on establishing his individual identity as an artist, and by 1913 the group had disbanded. Kirchner’s Berlin paintings are among his greatest and best-known. Street Scene (1913–14) is full of sexual energy, with two prostitutes at the center and two black-clad men seemingly drawn into their orbit from the periphery. In the background are pedestrians and a horse-drawn tram, suggestive of the hectic hurry of the metropolis. Kirchner’s street scenes use distortion and slanted verticals to enhance the sense of density and dislocation and convey the vertiginous experience of modernity itself.

In August 1914, Kirchner’s Berlin dream came to an end as World War I began. He was conscripted into the army but in 1915 had a mental and physical breakdown that led to his spending most of the next three years in hospitals and sanatoriums. His drinking and drug use did nothing to help the situation. Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915) shows the artist in uniform, his right hand missing as if amputated and his forearm a greenish color as if gangrenous. In reality the artist never lost a hand, but here it seems symbolic of not being able to make art. In the background is a nude woman, presumably his girlfriend and model Erna Schilling. Her isolation from Kirchner in the composition suggests that war and its effects removed the artist from love and sex as well as from art.

Toward the end of the end of the war, Kirchner moved permanently to Davos, Switzerland. There he found peace and new scenes to invigorate his art. One of the themes running through the Neue Galerie exhibition is that Kirchner believed the separation between the fine and decorative arts was wholly artificial. He had always made many things besides paintings—not only woodblock prints but carved wooden furniture, jewelry, and textiles. His weavings, which he usually made in collaboration with textile artisans, take his characteristic colors and simplified forms and transpose them to a new medium, with a more two-dimensional look that is at once primitive and modern. His Swiss pastoral Cattle Drive Into the Alps (1926), on view in the exhibition, conveys a sense of serenity that would prove short-lived.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Kirchner’s world began to crumble. His work was declared “degenerate” by the Nazis, and many of his pieces were removed from public collections; some were even destroyed. Kirchner, who had always celebrated the greatness of German culture, was shocked and horrified to find himself branded un-German. And even though Switzerland was neutral, he worried that the Nazis might eventually come after him as they had come after his paintings. He actually destroyed some of his woodblocks and sculptures; it was as if he would rather do it himself than let the Nazis do it. Perhaps applying the same logic to his own being, in 1938 he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.


By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: November 2019

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