Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (18801938), founding member of the artist association Brücke (Bridge) and one of the most significant artists of Expressionism, had a lasting influence on the art of classic Modernism. The oeuvre of the painter, commercial artist and sculptor is being honored by the Städel Museum
with the first comprehensive retrospective in Germany for 30 years, featuring over 180 works. I am amazed at the power of my paintings in the Städel, Kirchner wrote in his diary on 21 December 1925. Kirchner had close relations to both the Städel and Frankfurt. Not only was the Frankfurt Galerie Schames the venue in 1916 for one of the first Kirchner exhibitions, the Städel was also one of the first museums to buy paintings by Kirchner as early as 1919. Drawing on its very own Kirchner collection which, with numerous major works, numbers amongst the most significant worldwide, and thanks to high-quality international loans the exhibition is able to present works from all the artists periods. Alongside masterworks from the Brücke era with its nudes, the works from his years in Berlin with the famous street scenes, the paintings shaped by World War I that reflect Kirchners existential fears, and the Davos works depicting subjects from the Swiss mountains, the less well known work from the artists early and late period is also presented. For the first time the works that attracted such controversy executed during his late period in the new style, which startle the viewer with their uncompromising twodimensionality and a high degree of abstraction will be on view in Frankfurt together with his major works. The retrospective in the Städel Museum enables a new perspective of the startling modernity of Kirchner, whose excessive lifestyle was reflected in his art in an incomparable manner.
The exhibition will be presented as part of the Phenomenon of Expressionism, a project in collaboration with the Kulturfonds FrankfurtRheinMain. As main sponsor the latter also enabled the exhibition. As partners and sponsors Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne will also accompany the exhibition project.
The chronologically arranged exhibition starts with a group of important self portraits providing an overview of the artists various stages of life. Born 1880 in Aschaffenburg, in 1938 the artist took his own life in Frauenkirch-Wildboden near Davos. The very large scope of styles evident in his work in itself suggests that Kirchner was much more than only an Expressionist. The next section of the exhibition is devoted to Kirchners early work, which shows him to be trying to find himself as an artist. He selects elements from Impressionism, Symbolism and Fauvism. Van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch are important points of reference. While in Kirchners painting Fehmarn Houses from 1908 there is evidence of a post- Impressionist style influenced by van Gogh, he later became acquainted with works by Matisse in 1909, in many paintings the prevailing element is the innovative force of the emphasized two-dimensional. The influence of the French master is also clearly manifested in the painting Reclining Woman in White Chemise from 1909 from the Städel collection, which will be presented to the public for the first time in this exhibition. As it is on the rear side of the painting Nude Female at the Window from the year 1922/23 it was previously considered to be of little importance. It is one of the particular features of Kirchners work that he paints on both sides of the canvas. I, too, have to make some economies now, and material has become very expensive. But thank God, a canvas has two sides, the artist wrote in 1919. Owing to the fact that Kirchner did not restore as he called it, or re-work the rear side, something that frequently occurred, Reclining Woman in White Chemise is one of the few large-format early works preserved in its original state. The fact that it is signed also indicates that it can be seen as a finished work.
The third part of the exhibition focuses on Kirchners Expressionist works from his Dresden years. During this period Kirchner became a leading figure in the artist group Brücke established 1905 in Dresden, which succeeded within a few years in joining the league of the international avant-garde and exert a lasting influence on the image of Expressionism in Germany with its sensual-impulsive painting that has continued until today. In the conservative-academic art business of Germany under Wilhelm II not only the expressive colors and compositions with distorted perspectives had a provocative effect, but also the unconventional, anti-bourgeois style of living and working favored by the artist group, which was committed to the ideal of a sensual harmony of life and artistic activity. They met up in their studios to work free of social constraints and shared these studios in the same way that they shared their models, who were frequently also their respective partners. A highlight of this creative phase is the painting Standing Nude with Hat (Städel Museum) for which, according to Kirchner, he was inspired by the painting Venus by Lucas Cranach the Elder (also in the Städel). In the tableau Kirchner presents his then girlfriend Dodo naked and yet self-confident and chic. Alongside Dodo the portrayals of the eight year old Fränzi and the somewhat older Marcella, two of the children who regularly visited Kirchners studio, also played an outstanding role. This exhibition also features portraits and nudes of the two girls, some originally from the Brücke Museum Berlin and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Simultaneously, the behavior towards the child models, their inexperience and innocence which so fascinated the Brücke artists are also critically examined. These portrayals form a link to the circus and varieté subjects, which stand out for their exotic quality and lively display of color. For the first time since 1980s the large-format main work Girl Circus Rider from Saint Louis Art Museum can be shown in Europe again in the Frankfurt retrospective. The topic of dance as an element of movement, as it is presented, say, in Varieté (Städel Museum) interested Kirchner throughout his lifetime and also features in his late work.
The move from Dresden to Berlin in 1911 meant a break for Kirchner: The new surroundings not only influenced the subjects in his work but also their style. He expressed the nervousness of the pulsating city with angular, pointed shapes, over-long bodies and bilious, wan colors. The relationships between the sexes are charged. Latent aggressive encounters between whores and clients replace the peaceful mood of the Dresden nudes. Kirchner transferred this clash in his street scenes to the public domain. Today, these paintings are still widely considered as the culmination of his oeuvre. A highlight of the Berlin years shown in the exhibition alongside a room featuring street scenes (e. g., Museum of Modern Art, New York), nudes such as The Toilette; Woman before the Mirror (Centre Pompidou, Paris) or the work Two Yellow Nudes with Bouquet of Flowers (Bündner Kunstmuseum, Chur) is the monumental triptych Women Bathing measuring ca. 196 x 350 cm. This is the first time since Kirchners death that the triptych could be secured for an exhibition and shown together with loans from private collectors, the Kirchner Museum Davos and the National Gallery Washington. Kirchner himself describes it as one of his strongest works.
The artistically fertile era of the Berlin years experienced a deep cut through the outbreak of World War I. Kirchner responded to the awful reality of war with dread and inner conflict. He featured his own experiences and the existential fear he felt during his military service in paintings such as Artillerymen in the Shower (Guggenheim Museum, New York) or in the series of wood engravings on Pictures for Chamissos Peter Schlemih (Städel Museum), one of the most important prints of the 20th century. Following emotional and physical collapses Kirchner recuperated in a sanatorium in Königsstein im Taunus. Works such as West Harbor, Frankfurt (Städel Museum) or Taunus Road (private collection) were produced in this period. Kirchner would also find important sponsors of his work in Frankfurt: Not only his gallery owner Ludwig Schames, but also some of his most important collectors lived here. They included the chemist Carl Hagemann, whose collection of contemporary art was one of the most comprehensive at the time. The Städel largely owes the Kirchner works it owns to this collection, which was made over to the Museum after World War II by Hagemanns heirs as a gift or permanent loan.
Broken by his experiences of the war Kirchner went to Davos in 1917 to recuperate and remained there until his death in 1938. Originally intended as a place of temporary retreat the Swiss Alps rapidly became an important source of artistic inspiration. The artistic challenge was no longer posed by the pulsating city but the majestic landscape of the mountains and the peasant life he experienced there.
The final section of the exhibition explores Kirchners new style developed from the mid-1920s. A completely transformed color palette of pink, brown and lilac tones made demands on the observers aesthetic perception. What is remarkable is that as in his early work the artist was inspired primarily by French art. The curved forms and geometrically abstract figures frequently recall Picasso. Kirchners renewed change of style, which he himself always regarded as an advancement met with little understanding amongst his supporters. Even today critics and public occasionally respond with irritation at this post-Expressionist work phase.
Kirchner experienced the most vehement attack on his art in 1937, as a result of the National Socialists banning what they considered to be degenerate art: more than 600 works by Kirchner were removed from German museums. The Städel also lost all of its Kirchner works at the time. Since the mid-1930s the artists physical condition had deteriorated once again. Kirchner was again consuming substantial amounts of tranquilizers, also because of his increasing depressions. In March 1938 when the German army marched into Austria and stood just 20 kilometers away from Davos as the crow flies, Kirchner destroyed part of his works presumably out of fear they might fall into the hands of the Nazis in the event of them occupying Switzerland. On the morning of June 15, 1938 Kirchner put an end to his life close to his home by shooting himself twice in the heart.
In the past 30 years numerous exhibitions addressing individual topics in Ernst Ludwig Kirchners oeuvre have made revealed significant facts that served to enrich art historical research. Now the comprehensive retrospective in the Städel Museum provides an opportunity to bundle them and add new complementary insights. The exhibition casts a critical glance at the artist with all his contradictions and illustrates both the fascination exerted by the extensive stylistic richness of Kirchners works but also their incredible creative force and startling modernity.