Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Life and Art Periods

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

ERNST LUDWIG KIRCHNER SYNOPSIS

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.

ERNST LUDWIG KIRCHNER KEY IDEAS

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.
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ERNST LUDWIG KIRCHNER BIOGRAPHY

Early Training

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.

In 1905, Kirchner and Bleyl, along with fellow architecture students Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel, founded the artist group Die Brücke ("The Bridge.") The aim was to eschew traditional academic styles and to create a new mode of artistic expression, forming a "bridge" between classical motifs of the past and the present avant-garde. Die Brücke expressed extreme emotion through crude lines and a vibrant, unnatural color palette. The group would meet in an old butcher's shop that served as Kirchner's studio to practice figure drawing. (Studio meetings, however, would often devolve into casual lovemaking and general nudity.) Much of the artwork created by Die Brücke was a direct response to the graphic work of Albrecht Dürer and the bold color palette of the Neo-Impressionists. Kirchner held a particular interest in the woodcarvings of Dürer, and sought to modernize them with his own unique style of pared-down lines and dynamic compositions.

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Mature Period

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Biography

In 1906, Kirchner and Die Brücke held their first group exhibition in a lamp factory. The female nude, inspired by late-night studio meetings, was the primary subject of the exhibition. Kirchner's woodcut print, Nude Dancers (Nackte Tanzerinnen) (1909), exemplifies the energetic tone of the exhibition. The crude, graphic lines depict naked women dancing on a stage. Die Brücke ended in 1913 with Kirchner's publication of Chronik der Brücke (Brücke Chronicle), which focused on the "freedom of life and of movement against the long-established older forces."

Thereafter Kirchner desired to establish his own identity as an artist. He developed an interest in industrialization and the alienation experienced by individuals in cities. Gradually, he turned his attention away from the female nude and toward the Berlin streets with the creation of the Strassenbilder series in 1915. These paintings focus on the energetic life of modern Berlin, as he observed the changing political situation of World War I and its impact on German culture. Kirchner depicted crowds of people with bold, expressive brushstrokes and in brash colors of blue, green, orange, and pink. Perspective was often skewed, the figures looming and teetering either toward or away from the picture plane, as a rejection of the academic conventions that he learned in his architecture courses.

Late Years and Death

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Photo

Kirchner voluntarily joined the military in 1915, though he was released shortly after due to a nervous breakdown. He recovered in several Swiss hospitals between 1916 and 1917. Scarred by his military experience, in 1918 he moved to a farmhouse in the Alps, near Davos, where his new residence inspired a series of mountain landscapes.

His reputation as a leading German Expressionist continued to grow with exhibitions in Switzerland and Germany in the 1920s. His first monograph and catalog of graphic works were published in 1926. He was commissioned to create several murals in the Folkwang Museum in 1927, and in 1928 was invited to take part in the Venice Biennale. In 1931, as his success continued, Kirchner became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts.

In 1933, however, German Nazis branded Kirchner as "Degenerate artist," forcing him to resign from the Berlin Academy of Arts. Over 600 of his works were detained or destroyed by the Nazi regime. The traumatic impact of these events led to his suicide on July 15, 1938.

ERNST LUDWIG KIRCHNER LEGACY

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a leading force behind the Expressionist movement in Germany. Since 1913, his work has gained international recognition, extending its popularity into America. His art captures German culture at a critical point in pre-World War I history. Although his work speaks to a specific culture, his expressive skill as a painter and printmaker has influenced generations. Many attempt to emulate Kirchner's distorted sense of perspective. The graphic, agitated lines and highly-keyed color palette are timeless and distinct to the artist. Kirchner's work continues to be exhibited and sold around the world. It has also been a significant influence on new generations of Expressionists, including artists such as Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorf.

Original content written by Larissa Borteh
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ERNST LUDWIG KIRCHNER QUOTES

"My paintings are allegories not portraits."

"The heaviest burden of all is the pressure of the war and the increasing superficiality. It gives me incessantly the impression of a bloody carnival. I feel as though the outcome is in the air and everything is topsy-turvy.. All the same, I keep on trying to get some order in my thoughts and to create a picture of the age out of confusion, which is after all my function."

"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."

"All art needs this visible world and will always need it. Quite simply because, being accessible to all, it is the key to all other worlds."

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Influences

Interactive chart with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Albrecht Durer
Albrecht Durer
Albrecht Durer was a German painter, printmaker, and theorist from Nuremberg. Durer introduction of classical motifs into Northern art has secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance. His well-known works include his Apocalypse woodcuts.

Modern Art Information Albrecht Durer
Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch
Norweigan painter and printmaker Edvard Munch was a pioneer of the German Expressionist movement. His works such as The Scream explored deeply psychological concepts in a Symbolist style.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Edvard Munch
Rembrandt
Rembrandt
Known throughout history simply as Rembrandt, the seventeenth-century Dutch artist is among the premier master painters in Western civilization. Working during the time historians have dubbed the Dutch Golden Age (or the Dutch Baroque period), Rembrandt's art was characterized by his sweeping Biblical narratives, stunning attention to detail, and masterful use of chiaroscuro, the painterly application of light and shadow. In this respect, he remains one of the most influential painters of all time.

Modern Art Information Rembrandt
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter, commonly associated with the Post-Impressionist period. As one of the most prolific and experimental artists of his time, van Gogh was a spontaneous painter and a master of color and perspective. Troubled by personal demons all his life, many historians speculate that van Gogh suffered from a Bipolar disorder.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Vincent van Gogh
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Henri Matisse
Erich Heckel
Erich Heckel
Erich Heckel was a German painter and printmaker. He was a founding member of the German Expressionist group Die Brucke. The Nazi party declared his work degenerate and forbade him to show his work in public. By 1944 all of his woodcut blocks and print plates had been destroyed.

Modern Art Information Erich Heckel
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff was a German Expressionist painter and printmaker, and a member of Die Brucke. In 1937, 608 of his paintings were seized by the Nazis and several of them were shown in exhibitions of Degenerate art.

Modern Art Information Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Fritz Bleyl
Fritz Bleyl
Fritz Bleyl was a German Expressionist artist, and one of the four founders of Die Brucke. He designed graphics for the group, which graced group posters. He left Die Brucke after two years to look after his family. He did not exhibit publicly thereafter.

Modern Art Information Fritz Bleyl
Symbolism
Symbolism
Symbolism is an artistic and literary movement that first emerged in France in the 1880s. In the visual arts it is often considered part of Post-Impressionism. It is characterized by an emphasis on the mystical, romantic and expressive, and often by the use of symbolic figures.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Symbolism
Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled as "wild beasts", Fauve artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fauvism
Oceanic Art
Oceanic Art
Oceanic art refers to the creative works made by the native peoples of the Pacific Islands and Australia, including areas as far apart as Hawaii and Easter Island. The subject matter typically carries themes of fertility or the supernatural. Petroglyphs, tattooing, painting, wood carving, stone carving and textile work are other common art forms.

Modern Art Information Oceanic Art
Buddhist Painting
Buddhist Painting
In the fourteenth century, stylistic influences from Nepal and China joined to create Buddhist painting. In the fifteenth century they fused into a Tibetan synthesis. Most Buddhist artists were anonymous and rarely signed their works, although names have survived in texts, in murals on monastery walls, and on some thankas and bronzes.

Modern Art Information Buddhist Painting
Primitive Art
Primitive Art
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists in the West were greatly influenced by art they deemed 'primitive' or 'naïve', made by tribal or non-Western cultures. Such art, ranging from African and Native American to naive depictions of the French peasantry, was thought to be less civilized and thus closer to raw aesthetic and spiritual experience.

Modern Art Information Primitive Art
Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Willem De Kooning
Georg Baselitz
Georg Baselitz
Georg Baselitz is a twentieth century German painter and sculptor, and was an originator of the Neo-Expressionist group "Neue Wilden," which focused on subject-based painting and the importance of color. Much of Baselitz's work is noted for its provocative subject matter, often sexual or overtly dark in nature.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Georg Baselitz
Jorg Immendorff
Jorg Immendorff
Jorg Immendorff was a contemporary German painter, sculptor, stage designer and art professor. He studied at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf under Joseph Beuys. His paintings are sometimes reminiscent of surrealism and often use irony and heavy symbolism to convey political ideas.

Modern Art Information Jorg Immendorff
Otto Mueller
Otto Mueller
Otto Mueller was a German painter and printmaker of the Die Brucke Expressionist movement. The central topic in Mueller's works was the unity of humans and nature. His paintings focus on the simplification of form, color and contours. He is especially known for his paintings of nudes and Gypsy women.

Modern Art Information Otto Mueller
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Die Brucke
Die Brucke
Die Brucke (The Bridge) was a group of German Expressionist artists that banded together in Dresden in 1905. The group, which includes artists such as Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Emil Nolde, had a major impact on the evolution of modern art in the twentieth century and the creation of Expressionism. Die Bruke artists' used bold colors to depicts gritty scene of city life.

Modern Art Information Die Brucke
Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Impressionism
Neo-impressionism
Neo-impressionism
Neo-Impressionism was an art movement founded by Georges Seurat in the 1880s. It brought a new and quasi-scientific approach to the Impressionists' interests in light and color, along with new approaches to the application of paint, sometimes in dots and dashes. Its followers were drawn to modern urban scenes as well as landscapes and seascapes.

Modern Art Information Neo-impressionism
Nude Dancers (Nackte Tanzerinnen)
Nude Dancers (Nackte Tanzerinnen)

Title: Nude Dancers (Nackte Tanzerinnen) (1909)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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.


Woodcut print - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Marzella
Marzella

Title: Marzella (1909-1910)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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).


Oil on canvas

Deutsch: Nollendorfplatz
Deutsch: Nollendorfplatz

Title: Deutsch: Nollendorfplatz (1912)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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.


Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art

Street, Berlin
Street, Berlin

Title: Street, Berlin (1913)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The vigorously painted Street, Berlin explores the figure of the city prostitute: chic streetwalkers who have angular, mask-like faces. The two women proudly walk down the busy, tilted street of cloaked men with more sullen expressions. Street, Berlin accentuates the hidden sensuality beneath the prostitutes' haughty fashion. The luxury and anxious energy in painting also serve as a commentary on a pre-World War I German culture, as Kirchner believed increasing political tensions further detached urban individuals from society. The Streetwalker series, of which this is a famous example, is one of the most admired areas of Kirchner's art. The models for the series may have been dancer Gerda Schilling and her sister Edna, who later became the artist's lover. He once described the two women as having "beautiful, architecturally structured, rigorously formed bodies", and his encounter with them undoubtedly influenced this series of figure paintings.


Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Self-Portrait as a Soldier
Self-Portrait as a Soldier

Title: Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Self-Portrait as a Soldier examines the psychological distress experienced by Kirchner during his service in the military. He was a reluctant soldier and soon became preoccupied with avoiding service, and following a self-induced psychosis, aided by his use of alcohol and drugs, he was discharged. The painting displays a uniformed Kirchner standing in his studio, smoking a cigarette. His right hand is severed, symbolizing his trauma and possibly also his anxiety of his loss of manhood; the motif is based on Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear (1889), a picture the artist painted after he too had inflicted injuries upon himself. In the background of Kirchner's picture stands a nude who bears a resemblance to his lover of the time, Erna Schilling.


Oil on canvas - Allen Memorial Art Museum, Ohio

Blick auf Davos
Blick auf Davos

Title: Blick auf Davos (1924)

Artwork Description & Analysis: After being discharged from the military in 1950, Kirchner took refuge in Davos, where the Alps surrounding his home provided a new kind of bucolic inspiration. The painting depicts a cool mountain range embracing a small town, a pictorial sigh of relief following the end of World War I. Inspired by van Gogh's landscape paintings and the work of the Fauvists, Kirchner used pulsating shades of violet, blue, green, and yellow to depict the rural scene. The swooping perspective is similar to Kirchner's early paintings of urban life.


Oil on canvas

Nude Dancers (Nackte Tanzerinnen)

Nude Dancers (Nackte Tanzerinnen), 1909, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Woodcut print

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.
Marzella

Marzella, 1909-1910,
Oil on canvas

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

Deutsch: Nollendorfplatz, 1912, The Museum of Modern Art
Oil on canvas

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.
Street, Berlin

Street, Berlin, 1913, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Oil on canvas

The vigorously painted Street, Berlin explores the figure of the city prostitute: chic streetwalkers who have angular, mask-like faces. The two women proudly walk down the busy, tilted street of cloaked men with more sullen expressions. Street, Berlin accentuates the hidden sensuality beneath the prostitutes' haughty fashion. The luxury and anxious energy in painting also serve as a commentary on a pre-World War I German culture, as Kirchner believed increasing political tensions further detached urban individuals from society. The Streetwalker series, of which this is a famous example, is one of the most admired areas of Kirchner's art. The models for the series may have been dancer Gerda Schilling and her sister Edna, who later became the artist's lover. He once described the two women as having "beautiful, architecturally structured, rigorously formed bodies", and his encounter with them undoubtedly influenced this series of figure paintings.
Self-Portrait as a Soldier

Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Ohio
Oil on canvas

Self-Portrait as a Soldier examines the psychological distress experienced by Kirchner during his service in the military. He was a reluctant soldier and soon became preoccupied with avoiding service, and following a self-induced psychosis, aided by his use of alcohol and drugs, he was discharged. The painting displays a uniformed Kirchner standing in his studio, smoking a cigarette. His right hand is severed, symbolizing his trauma and possibly also his anxiety of his loss of manhood; the motif is based on Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear (1889), a picture the artist painted after he too had inflicted injuries upon himself. In the background of Kirchner's picture stands a nude who bears a resemblance to his lover of the time, Erna Schilling.
Blick auf Davos

Blick auf Davos, 1924,
Oil on canvas

After being discharged from the military in 1950, Kirchner took refuge in Davos, where the Alps surrounding his home provided a new kind of bucolic inspiration. The painting depicts a cool mountain range embracing a small town, a pictorial sigh of relief following the end of World War I. Inspired by van Gogh's landscape paintings and the work of the Fauvists, Kirchner used pulsating shades of violet, blue, green, and yellow to depict the rural scene. The swooping perspective is similar to Kirchner's early paintings of urban life.
Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.