Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was one of the most important German artists of the 20th century. He, along with three other artists, founded Die Brücke (meaning The Bridge) a group that contributed to establishing the style of Expressionism and facilitated the progression of Modernist art away from literal representation. Kirchner’s work drew influence from global folk art traditions and pre-Renaissance European painting.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the Beginnings of German Expressionism
In 1905, four German artists, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Fritz Bleyl, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluf, founded Die Brücke (“The Bridge”): a group whose work would define the contours of German Expressionism at the start of the 20th century and influence the trajectory of Modernist art. The four members, who had met as architecture students in Dresden, sought to create a metaphorical bridge to the cultural future by means of their boundary-pushing art. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the other German artists in Die Brücke were born in the 1880s and grew up in a rapidly industrializing country. The choice to pursue the pre-industrial mediums of painting and printmaking represents an act of defiance against the inhumanity of the developing capitalist social order.
More so than other movements in the avant-garde, German Expressionism was influenced by folk art traditions. Free from the measured conventions of the academies, the Expressionists felt that such artwork exemplified a vigorous spirit befitting the moment. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and his contemporaries were some of the first artists to have significant access to art from geographically distant places. As well as the works of European artists, Kirchner was able to see art, spanning the present to the ancient past, from every other continent.
The members of Die Brücke would study the artistic traditions of various Asian, African, and Oceanic cultures in order to develop a fittingly cosmopolitan style for the modern world. With the revelations which accompanied such unfettered access to the history of art, Die Brücke’s goal of creating a “bridge” from the past to the present of art is a natural conclusion. From this new wealth of artistic resources, Kirchner and other German artists at the turn of the century arrived at the style of Expressionism.
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Expressionism’s emergence in Germany during the early 20th century is not coincidental. As the modern world asserted itself in Germany, among other places, the attendant industrial developments appeared as a contrast to the natural world. Furthermore, these new technologies seemed to dominate nature, subjugating it to human will for the first time in history. From this sense of imbalance, Expressionism sought to emphasize emotional experience and the animalistic aspects of humanity over the cold, mechanical logic of the modern world.
Living in Dresden, one of the fonts of industrial capitalism and its concomitant urbanization, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the other members of Die Brücke felt the growing gap between themselves and those living in pre-capitalist conditions. The artistic traditions of other such cultures, past and present, would thus be an important means of maintaining a humanist spirit in their art as social relationships around them were eroded by encroaching capitalism.
Though Die Brücke would disband in 1913, shortly before the start of the First World War, their artistic innovations would outlast them, and the individual members continued to pursue and develop the style of Expressionism. Among them, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner would emerge not only as a tremendous figure in the context of Expressionism but as one of the most significant artists of the Modern era.
The German Artist’s Modern Anxiety
In Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s work, the anxieties of life as a subject of industrial capitalism were a pronounced theme. His series of street scenes in particular deal with the topic of social isolation in the urban environment. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street, Berlin renders a procession of figures not as distinct people or forms, but as abrupt streaks of color and movement. There is a mechanical feel to the jagged line work, the sharp and deliberate marks. Simultaneously, Kirchner’s hand is evident in the irregularity and streakiness of the surface. Strangely, we see the artist as a person before any of his subjects. In this way, the painting represents the struggle to make or maintain that sort of human recognition in the context of the modern world.
An ambient sense of alienation pervades even Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s most intimate scenes. Often, this is underlined by his palette, full of unmixed, straight-from-the-tube colors, relying on dark black lines and high-contrast in order to cohere into recognizable forms. The unnaturally bright colors of Two Girls lend an uneasiness to the picture. An otherwise tender scene becomes synthetic and troubled. There is no genuine warmth, even when depicting human comfort. Kirchner’s paintings are afflicted with an unsettling glow.
This disconnection from other humans pervades Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s work. Compositionally, Marzella would seem to be a rather straightforward portrait. Kirchner’s rendering, however, denies any sort of connection to the sitter. As a contrast, one might consider an artist like Alice Neel, who creates simplified and expressive figurative paintings which, nonetheless, do seem to capture the essential humanity of the subjects. Conversely, Kircher seems to be painting this woman only because she is in front of him. He does not treat the rendering of her body or face any differently than that of the wall behind her. The broad strokes of color are indiscriminate. Everything is part of the same pattern, meaning there is no solace from the overall intensity in Kirchner’s work.
The Reinvention of Woodblock Printing
Woodblock printmaking was a major part of the German Expressionists’ practice. Though woodblock printing had flourished in Japan well into the modern era, the medium had largely fallen out of use in Europe since the Renaissance as other printmaking techniques were developed. In the early 20th century, however, this method found a new home in Europe with German artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Woodblock printmaking was suited to the needs of Expressionism because the method of image-making can be much more immediate and spontaneous than in etching or lithography.
The directness of the process was appealing for those who sought to reflect visceral and primal emotion in their work. Additionally, this printing method connected the modern German artists to a pre-industrial tradition of European art. Approaching woodblock printing from their modernist perspective, they were able to investigate the medium’s unique aesthetic potential.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s prints harnessed the violence of the woodblock process (where the surface is gouged away) to compliment his already angular drawing style. As well, the prints are high contrast: monochrome black and white, with no half-tones. This makes the image extremely sharp and legible despite the crudeness of rendering. A dense composition, like Modern Bohemia, still appears dynamic and spontaneous in such a stark style.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner After the War
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s life and art were profoundly affected by World War I. Following the dissolution of The Bridge, the German artist volunteered for military service in 1914 at the beginning of the war. He was dismissed a year later after suffering a mental breakdown. The rest of his life, and by extension his artistic output, would be influenced by his struggle with mental health. Though his artistic output remained consistent in terms of style and form, Kirchner’s traumatic experiences are reflected in the subject matter of his painting after 1915.
This is clear in his Self-Portrait as a Soldier, where Ernst Ludwig Kirchner paints himself in military uniform, missing his right hand. Kirchner suffered no such dismemberment during his service. Thus, this depiction might suggest that the mental consequences of war have affected his ability to make art or otherwise function, just as a physical disability might. Behind him are a number of paintings, most prominently a female nude, leaning against the walls of the studio. Perhaps this painting shows Kircher reconciling his identity as a painter, established during a youth of bohemian frivolity, with the cruel realities of the world which he faced as a participant in the war. Though his style remained broadly the same and he would never stray from Expressionism, Kirchner’s artistic output was very much altered by his experiences in the military. Kirchner reworked a number of pieces after he returned from military deployment including Street Dresden, which would become one of his most revered paintings.
Landscape in the Taunus visualizes the conflict between the natural and industrial worlds. A train runs at great speed through the countryside, near a fleet of ships. These industrial impositions, it is suggested, have become an intractable feature of the landscape, just as the mountain range or forest. This image was published in the anti-war periodical Der Bildermann in 1916, at the height of the first World War, alongside works by a number of other German artists. During this time, the destructive potential of the modern world was becoming undeniably, painfully clear.
Many of the landscapes Ernst Ludwig Kirchner made in the second half of his life depict Davos, Switzerland, where he spent a great deal of time receiving medical care. Works such as Sertig Valley in Autumn portray the idyllic landscape of Davos, providing a counterpoint to Kirchner’s disquieted depictions of Dresden and Berlin. Felt across Kircher’s body of work is the tension of the world as it is transformed by industrial capitalism. His work reaches backward towards the comfort of the natural world and homeostatic lifestyle with the natural world, and forward, through the uncertainty of the present, to a future that foregrounds the emotional, human experience as the paramount concern.