Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
German Painter and Printmaker
Born: May 6, 1880 - Aschaffenburg, Bavaria
Died: June 15, 1938 - near Davos, Switzerland
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"A painter paints the appearance of things, not their objective correctness, in fact he creates new appearances of things."
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.
Most Important Art
More Art Works
Street, Berlin (1913)
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
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.
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
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 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.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Useful Resources on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
| Kirchner and the Berlin Street |
By Deborah Wye, Ernst Kirchner
| Kirchner |
By Norbert Wolf
| Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Drawings and Pastels |
By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Roman Norbert Ketterer, Wolfgang Henze
| Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Friends: Expressionism from the Swiss Mountains |
By Beat Stutzer, Samuel Vitali, Han Steenbruggen, Matthias Frehner
| Hand and Head: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Self-Portrait as Soldier |
By Peter Springer, Susan Ray
| Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Photographic Work |
By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
| National Gallery of Art: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Exhibition |
Includes Exhibition Materials from the Kirchner Retrospective
| The Museum of Modern Art: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner |
Features Biography of the Artist and an Extensive List of Works
| Brucke-Museum: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner |
Provides Information on Kirchner and Die Brucke
| On the Block: Berlin Street Scene |
By Carol Vogel
| Desire in Berlin |
By Ian Buruma
| Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Michael Werner Gallery |
By Robert Pincus-Witten
| Dark Visions of a Lonely Town on the Brink |
By Ken Johnson
| The Life and Art of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Zeichnen bis zur Raserei) |
Director: Michael Trabitzsch