Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
German Painter and Printmaker
near Davos, Switzerland
Summary of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a driving force in the Die Brücke group that flourished in Dresden and Berlin before World War I, and he has come to be seen as one of the most talented and influential of Germany's Expressionists. Motivated by the same anxieties that gripped the movement as a whole - fears about humanity's place in the modern world, its lost feelings of spirituality and authenticity - Kirchner had conflicting attitudes to the past and present. An admirer of Albrecht Dürer, he revived the old art of woodblock printing, and saw himself in the German tradition, yet he rejected academic styles and was inspired by the modern city. After the war, illness drove him to settle in Davos, Switzerland, where he painted many landscapes, and, ultimately, he found himself ostracized from mainstream German art. When the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s he was also a victim of their campaign against "Degenerate Art." Depressed and ill, he eventually committed suicide.
- The human figure was central to Kirchner's art. It was vital to the pictures that took his studio as their backdrop - pictures in which he captured models posing as well as aspects of his bohemian life. For Kirchner, the studio was an important nexus where art and life met. But the figure also informed his images of Berlin, in which the demeanor of figures in the street often seemed more important than the surrounding cityscape. And, most commonly, he depicted the figure in movement, since he believed that this better expressed the fullness and vitality of the human body.
- Kirchner's Expressionistic handling of paint represented a powerful reaction against the Impressionism that was dominant in German painting when he first emerged. For him, it marked a reaction against the staid civility of bourgeois life. He would always deny that he was influenced by other artists, yet Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch were clearly important in shaping his style. Fauvism was particularly significant in directing his palette, encouraging him to use flat areas of unbroken, often unmixed color and simplified forms.
- Kirchner believed that powerful forces - enlivening yet also destructive - dwelt beneath the veneer of Western civilization, and he believed that creativity offered a means of harnessing them. This outlook shaped the way in which he depicted men and women in his pictures, as people who often seem at war with themselves or their environment. It also encouraged his interest in Primitive art, in particular that of the Pacific Islands, for he considered that this work offered a more direct picture of those elemental energies. Primitive art was also important in directing Kirchner to a more simplified treatment of form. Primitive sculpture undoubtedly inspired his own approach to the medium and his love of rough-hewn, partially painted surfaces.
Biography of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was born on May 6, 1880 in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, and began studying architecture at the Dresden Technical High School in 1901 at the encouragement of his parents. While attending classes, he became close friends with Fritz Bleyl, who shared his radical outlook on art and nature. During this time, Kirchner chose to dedicate himself to fine art rather than architecture.
Important Art by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
This woodcut print features a group of voluptuous nude female dancers on stage. Created during the Die Brucke era, the work exemplifies the energetic atmosphere of a meeting in Kirchner's studio, a recurrent scene in his pictures. In an attempt to revive the traditional printmaking, Kirchner created expressive, dynamic black lines by aggressively carving away the woodblock; the large areas of light and dark create an ambiguous sense of spatial depth on a two dimensional surface. Kirchner renders a balance between the two extremes (light and dark, bold and delicate) to create a harmonious composition, allowing the eye to sweep across the picture plane. The conscious decision to leave white areas unrefined, making the process of carving visible, is a rejection of conventional academic teaching, a philosophy typified by Die Brucke.
Around the time this picture was painted Kirchner was spending time around the Moritzberg lakes, and the girl depicted is the daughter of a circus artiste's widow that he met there. Emblematic of his Die Brucke phase, Marzella is a provocative depiction of a young, pre-pubescent girl. The youth of the figure coupled with the intense gaze and heavily made-up face give the appearance of uncanny maturity. Unnatural colors and self-conscious body language add to the unease in the composition. The painting is an example of a technique of rapid sketching used by members of Die Brucke, who believed this process allowed them to capture the "soul" of the subject. The picture is also indicative of the influence of Edvard Munch on Kirchner's work, since the composition appears to be based on Munch's Puberty (1892).
Deutsch: Nollendorfplatz reveals Kirchner's shift in subject matter from the female nude to depictions of the metropolis. Here, the perspective is skewed, a clear rejection of his previous study of architecture. The quick, gestural use of line creates a sense of immediacy and speed within the piece, capturing the essence of a busy German city. The use of clashing blues and yellows to depict the cityscape is typical of Kirchner's style during the Die Brucke years, though the distorted imagery of the city may also have been inspired by an exhibition of Italian Futurist art that he saw in the year that this was painted.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
- Kirchner and the Berlin StreetBy Deborah Wye, Ernst Kirchner
- KirchnerBy Norbert Wolf
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Drawings and PastelsBy Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Roman Norbert Ketterer, Wolfgang Henze
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Friends: Expressionism from the Swiss MountainsBy Beat Stutzer, Samuel Vitali, Han Steenbruggen, Matthias Frehner
- Hand and Head: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Self-Portrait as SoldierBy Peter Springer, Susan Ray
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Photographic WorkBy Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
- National Gallery of Art: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner ExhibitionIncludes Exhibition Materials from the Kirchner Retrospective
- The Museum of Modern Art: Ernst Ludwig KirchnerFeatures Biography of the Artist and an Extensive List of Works
- Brucke-Museum: Ernst Ludwig KirchnerProvides Information on Kirchner and Die Brucke
- On the Block: Berlin Street SceneBy Carol Vogel
The New York Times
January 8, 2009
- Desire in BerlinBy Ian Buruma
The New York Review of Books
December 4, 2008
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Michael Werner GalleryBy Robert Pincus-Witten
- Dark Visions of a Lonely Town on the BrinkBy Ken Johnson
The New York Times
August 1, 2008