Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – The Berlin Years

11 Aug

A painter paints the appearance of things, not their objective correctness, in fact he creates new appearances of things.

1913. Kirchner - Street, Berlin1913 Street, Berlin

In 1911. Kirchner moved to Berlin and started a new phase in his artistic endeavors; vivid street scenes with prostitutes and elegantly dressed men, chic streetwalkers with angular faces; all presented in brilliant pinks, purples, blues and blacks, with heavy brush strokes accentuating the dynamic, hectic and urban mood of the decadent city. Luxury and anxious energy of Berlin, the Hauptstadt of Decadence, were perfectly captured by Kirchner who said of Berlin ”You’ll be totally surprised when you set foot in Berlin. We’ve become a large family and you can get everything you need – women and shelter.” Kirchner himself arrived there with his then new girlfriend Erna Schilling who helped him in re-creating the atmosphere of his studio in Dresden. Walls of his new studio-apartment in Berlin were soon decorated with primitivist hangings, Ajanta- inspired wall paintings and African sculptors he carved himself.

Berlin in those years was just what Kirchner was looking for; with the crowded cafes, different venues, interesting people, lively circuses and cabarets, the city proved to be very alluring for him, and the initial excitement with the life in Berlin was evident in his early works. Later however, his paintings showed an uneasy balance between the excitement with the city and the alienation he felt living in it. Landscape of his paintings was the one of vibrant colours, intensity, with the emphasis on movement, and the capturing of the intensity and urgency of the city. His artistic sensibilities, caught up in the city’s dynamism led to an increased sensitivity of the form, colour and expression. Daring brush strokes and harmonies, along with angular figures and night street scenes characterised Kirchner’s Berlin years.

1914. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Potsdamer Platz1914 Potsdamer Platz

With the angular figures, intense colours and simplified, yet very atmospheric background, Kirchner succeeded in ‘creating new appearances of things‘; in these paintings, especially ‘Street, Berlin‘ and ‘Potsdamer Platz‘ we see Berlin not how it technically looked like in early 1910s, but rather through these twisted perspectives and vibrancy we see, or feel, a whole mood of the city; a decadent spirit captured for eternity. “It seems as though the goal of my work has always been to dissolve myself completely into the sensations of the surroundings in order to then integrate this into a coherent painterly form.“, Kirchner said, and that’s what he seemed to be doing, taking inspiration from the street scenes he saw through his window, portraying the street scenes in the ‘capital of cabaret’ with raw intensity of colours.

Conflicting interests and fierce rivalries characteristic for Berlin’s art world of the time, along with the competitive ambiance eventually splintered the group in 1913. Although they continued having joint exhibitions in Berlin, the close personal connection among the members loosened as the members struck out in different artistic directions. These artistic differences were aggravated by Kirchner’s chronicle of Die Brücke, in which he imposed himself as a prominent figure. The other artists associated with the group felt that their contributions for the group were understated. Kirchner’s relationship with the Bridge group remained difficult for the rest of his life, and he even rejected any association with them.

1913. Kirchner - Berlin Street Scene1913 Kirchner – Berlin Street Scene

After disassembling with the group, he went on to develop a much more individual style and his Berlin scenes of alienated figures, reflect a sense of creative isolation and city melancholia. Kirchner’s street scenes, painted in sharp brush strokes and vibrant colours, are permeated with sarcasm and the depressive and alienating atmosphere of Berlin. Initial excitement with the city shifted into a metropolitan loneliness and anxiety which resulted in a morbid fascination with the alienation in modern society. His ‘Berlin street scenes‘ portray society as Kirchner saw it; a bleak masses of people walking by each other, lonely and estranged figures with dark holes instead of eyes reflect the darkness that had begun to engulf him. Painted in dark colours, some of the sullen gentleman seem like shadows; a modern life stripped of its false glamour and splendor with nothing but a raw essential left; all the hypocrisy, obduracy,  materialistic obsessions and complete detachment from nature, God and true values of existence are presented without embellishment.

Ladies shown on the painting were mostly prostitutes. Kirchner’s girlfriend Erna Schilling and her sister Gerda, a dancer, whom the painter described as having ‘beautiful, architecturally structured, rigorously formed bodies‘, posed as models for his street scenes. Kirchner glorifies the hidden sensuality beneath the prostitutes’ clothes in these paintings; their bodies are elongated, their posture elegant, their faces angular, with a mask-like appearance, their gaze wanders between pride and doubtfulness. Dressed in their haughty attire, their faces painted with rouge, these ‘ladies of the night‘ mirror the alienating, melancholic, isolating and anxious atmosphere of Berlin at the time, and of the society in general.

1914. Friedrichstrasse - Kirchner1914 Friedrichstrasse – Kirchner

Perhaps the most famous of Kirchner’s street scenes is a painting ‘Friedrichstrasse‘ painted in 1914. In it, the viewer is confronted by three elongated women (most likely prostitutes again) who stand proudly in the foreground like three magnificent peacocks. Behind them stand anonymous suited men with blank expressions, suggesting the dehumanisation of individuals as a result of a modern life. Kirchner’s vivid palette and aggressive brush strokes only intensify the agony and anxiety an individual faces. The street is crowded, noisy and hectic, yet none of the individuals interact with each other. His street scenes portray an individual in isolation. Each of these works has a unique character, but the idea behind it is ‘a sense of living dangerously in a great capital city on the edge of a catastrophe.’

In these years his work became more dramatic; his usual heavy brush strokes now appeared almost violent, energetic composition and elongated figures reflect isolation, while the black brush strokes give a sense of movement and speed. The metropolitan alienation, despair and anxiety Kirchner expressed in his works perhaps show the life as it was in his head; dark and hectic, and serve as a prelude to his final mental and psychical collapse, and the collapse of modern society in general. These street scenes are only a continuation of the ‘Fin de Siecle neurosis.‘ Kirchner later described his subject matter as ‘the nervous faces of people of our time’ reflecting ‘every smallest irritation’.

1912. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Nollendorfplatz1912 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Nollendorfplatz

Kirchner’s work, and that of the other members of ‘The Bridge’, was influential on David Bowie who was fond of the Expressionists in general. He liked the intensity, striking forms and ‘raw power’ of Kirchner’s paintings, but the most appealing to him was the alienation that Kirchner expressed in his Berlin street scenes. In the 1970s Berlin was permeated by the atmosphere of neglect and desolation. Berlin’s world-weary self regard was attractive to foreigners who saw their own alienation mirrored in the city’s outsider status; David Bowie was one of them, fascinated by Berlin’s rich yet lush history of cabaret, expressionist silent movies and urban paintings. Bowie identified himself with the city’s fate; the fate of growing too quickly, both politically and in urban development, and having to suffer eternal growing pains. Architecture critic Heinrich Wefing once talked of Berlin’s partus praecipitatus – ‘always having to be more, always having to wrestle with one’s own role’ — Bowie recognised himself in this fate.

Brian Eno once said ‘Very rough, rough strokes — and they all have a mood of melancholy about them or nostalgia, as if they were painting something that was just disappearing. And all of that — the boldness of attack, the unplanned evolutionary quality of the images, and the over-all mood — remind me of the way David works.’ Works such as ‘Nollendorfplatz’ and ‘Brandenburger Tor‘ reveal Kirchner’s shift in subject matter from female figures to metropolitan scenes. The painting ‘Nollendorfplatz’ is painted in clashing blue and yellow shades, with monstrous ‘strassenbahnen‘ and a crooked perspective as a clear rejection of the previous architecture studies. It brings Max Weber’s concept of rationalisation on a higher level with people appearing as tall dark shadows, so uniformed and monotonous they merge with the landscape of the city. Quick and heavy brush strokes create a feeling of speed, movement and bustle of modern life in a city. Kirchner’s distorted imagery symbolise the destructiveness and desolation of an urban life; he questions the social progress and the dehumanization of people in cities. He expresses his inner emotions and confusion with life in modern society.

1915. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Brandenburger Tor1915 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Brandenburger Tor

Kirchner committed suicide on 15th June 1938. after the Nazis branded his work as ‘degenerate’ and sold or destroyed over six hundred of his paintings. Still, Kirchner ought to be remembered as a leading force behind German Expressionism. He was an artist who painted Berlin and captured both its decadent, dynamic and daring atmosphere, along with the isolated urban individuals completely detached from society. Kirchner’s paintings reflect the mood of the German capital in the years of political tensions and mirror both the extravagances and cultural florescence before the final collapse.

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