Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-portrait, 1914
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) was born in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria. Although Kirchner’s family had originally fostered his artistic talents through drawing and watercolour lessons at home, they did not support his wish to become an artist. Instead, in 1901, Kirchner went to the Königliche Technische Hochschule in Dresden to study architecture. It was during these years that he became friends with fellow architecture students Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl, all of whom shared Kirchner’s liberal attitude and revolutionary ideas. In 1905, these four young friends founded an artists’ group they called Die Brücke, or The Bridge (Fritz Bleyl was later replaced by Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller).
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Eine Künstlergemeinschaft, 1926. Members of the group Die Brücke. From left to right: Otto Mueller, Kirchner, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.
The Brücke artists rebelled against traditional, academic painting and aimed to establish a new aesthetic which would serve as a bridge (hence the name Die Brücke) between the Germanic past and the modern present. They saw their work as belonging firmly within the tradition of German art - that of Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder, in particular - and affirmed their national identity by reviving historic German media such as woodcut prints. However, they also studied contemporary movements in art abroad and held many of the ground-breaking beliefs of the international avant-garde.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Elisabethufer (Berlin) , 1913
The earliest meeting place for the Brücke group was Kirchner’s first studio in Dresden, in a former butcher’s shop, which Fritz Bleyl described as "that of a real bohemian". Kirchner’s studio was a liberal space in which social conventions were largely disregarded. Indeed, reports suggest there was much impulsive love-making and naked cavorting. Wanting to break away from the exactitude of academic lifedrawing, Kirchner and his friends began to sketch quickly in quarter-hour sessions, capturing the essence of their subject in natural attitudes as spontaneously as they could. The nude models in these early works were not professionals, but rather the circle of artists, friends and girlfriends whom Kirchner gathered round him in his studio.
Ernst Luwig Kirchner: Portrait Erna Schilling, 1913
In 1911, Kirchner moved to Berlin, where he founded a private art school, MIUM-Institut, in collaboration with Max Pechstein with the aim of promulgating "Moderner Unterricht im Malen" (modern teaching of painting). This was not a success and closed the following year, when he also began a relationship with Erna Schilling (above) that lasted the rest of his life.
Ernst Luwig Kirchner, Dodo with a Large Fan, 1910
For a brief couple of years, the fast-growing metropolis of Berlin offered the excitement and artistic stimulation that the Brücke artists were looking for. Together with his new girlfriend Erna Schilling, Kirchner re-created the atmosphere of his Dresden atelier by decorating his studio apartment with primitivist hangings, wall paintings and Africanised sculptures that he himself had carved:
This 1915 photograph by Kirchner shows his studio on Körnerstraße 45 in Berlin-Steglitz. Werner Gothein, Kirchner’s student, and Erna Schilling, Kirchner’s life-partner, are seated on the bed in the background. An unknown woman in white and the naked dancer Hugo Biallowons occupy the foreground. Kirchner’s painting Dodo with a Large Fan (above) can be seen behind them.
The few years before the outbreak of World War I saw an intensification in Kirchner’s art that culminated in his great "Streetwalker" paintings, prints and drawings, executed between 1913 and 1915. These Berlin paintings depicted the city's society, from affluent, well-heeled men and women to fashionable prostitutes and their beaux. Kirchner later described these paintings as "the nervous faces of people of our time reflecting every smallest irritation". The "Streetwalker’" paintings were apparently conceived, after much street observation, in Kirchner’s own studio with Erna and Gerda Schilling posing as models.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Street Scene (Friedrichstrasse in Berlin), 1914
Despite Kirchner’s artistic success during the Berlin years, a crisis of identity was brewing within the troubled artist. His neurosis was largely burdened by the impending war, which he had viewed with a tragic sense of foreboding and fear from the outset. In a state of nervous anxiety, and fearing that he would get called up, Kirchner began to drink absinthe and developed an increasing dependency on sleeping pills and morphine. In an effort to avoid conscription into the infantry, he signed on as an artillery driver - "an involuntary volunteer" - and was billeted to Halle.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Artillerymen, 1915
Kirchner found military service very distressing and, suffering a nervous breakdown, was admitted to a sanatorium at Königstein im Taunus. He would return here twice more over the next year as his condition failed to improve. In September 1916, Kirchner wrote to Gustav Schiefler: "I am half dead from mental and physical torments, and have placed myself in the care of a neurologist here, since I am unable to do anything but work." His torments of that time can be seen in his terrifying work Self-Portrait as a Soldier (below). Here, Kirchner imagines himself in military uniform with his hand severed, unable to paint. The work is often understood as being closely modelled on Van Gogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear of 1889, in which Van Gogh portrays himself in his studio after cutting his own ear off (the difference being that Kirchner’s amputation is imaginary, whereas Van Gogh’s selfmutilation was very real).
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915
As Kirchner’s crisis worsened, close friends helped him to emigrate, in 1918, to a log cabin near Davos in Switzerland where he remained for the rest of his life, receiving medical treatment at regular intervals. The move was Although he continued to paint with the same vibrant nervousness, his new environs inspired him to depict alpine scenes of mountain farmers, rather than the urban milieus of Dresden and Berlin. Kirchner made his final visit to Germany 1925–1926. His reputation grew through the rest of the decade; he became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1931. By this time, all the major museums of modern art had acquired works by him and he was regularly included in exhibitions.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Davos, 1925
This official recognition ended, however, when the National Socialists came to power in 1933. A total of 639 works by Kirchner were identified as "degenerate" by the Nazis and were subsequently confiscated from museums, before being sold abroad or destroyed. Others were displayed in the Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937, prompting the first thoughts of suicide in Kirchner: "The future before us looks very dark…If need be, I shall sacrifice my life for art." The combination of his mental fragility and the painful realisation that he had been officially ostracised in his homeland drove Kirchner to shoot himself a year later outside his cabin near Davos.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Exhibition Poster, Dresden, 1910
You can view more works of Kirchner here in my Flickr set.