Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Linear Madness of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Portraits

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner b. Aschaffenburg, Bavaria,1880. d. Frauenkirch, Switzerland, 1938.
As a major player in the German Expressionist group Die Brucke, Kirchner ‘s work, particularly his prints, set new standards to express emotion and use of material. His fractured portraits were as equally jarring psychologically as much as how they were created. Kirchner sought everywhere for psychological understanding of his figures. His achievements are substantial.
These were the product of a man who had experienced pain and suffering, after having a nervous breakdown during his military service in WWI. It was a lifelong scar which he see-sawed between rising from and sinking into despair. Not surprisingly, the last straw was the condemnation of his life’s work from the Nazi party in 1933 when over 600 of his pieces were removed from museums and collections. They were mostly destroyed or sold, and 25 pieces were ‘selected’ for the infamous Degenerate art Exhibition of 1937. The ‘degenerate’ brand mortally wounded his numerous accomplishments and he never really recovered from the social stigma it produced. He couldn’t find work, and his former friends and colleagues abandoned him.

”… the reason why we founded the Brücke was to encourage truly German art, made in Germany. And now it is supposed to be un-German. Dear God. It does upset me".
Kirchner’s family were of Prussian origins and his mother was claimed to have descended from the Huguenots. Kirchner's family moved frequently so he attended schools in Frankfurt and Perlen until his father became Professor of Paper Sciences at the college of technology in Chemnitz. Kirchner's parents encouraged his artistic career but they also encouraged a pragmatic education so he moved to Dresden in 1901 to study architecture at the Königliche Technische Hochschule. Kirchner continued his studies in Munich 1903–1904, then he returned to Dresden in 1905 to complete his degree.
In 1905, Kirchner, along two other architecture students, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel, formed an artists’ group called Die Brücke ("The Bridge"). This group wanted to find a new method of artistic expression, bridging the past and the present. They looked to previous artists like Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder, and they revived the medium of relief printmaking. From this point on, Kirchner committed himself to making art. The Die Brucke group had a major impact on the evolution of modern art in the 20th century and created what is called Expressionism. Kirchner composed a manifesto stating that "Anyone who directly and honestly reproduces that force which impels him to create belongs to us." Between 1907 and 1911, Kirchner spent summers with fellow Brucke arists at the Moritzburg lakes and on the island of Fehmarn. In 1911, he moved to Berlin, where he founded a private art school, MIUM-Institut, with Max Pechstein. It closed the following year, (but he also began a relationship with Erna Schilling which lasted the rest of his life.) In 1913, his writing of Chronik der Brücke led to the group’s demise.
At the beginning of WWI, Kirchner volunteered for military service. He was sent to Halle an der Saale to train as a driver. Kirchner's supervisor soon arranged for Kirchner to be discharged after he had a mental breakdown. (He struggled for the next few years to make art and bounced from one sanatorium to another.) Kirchner then returned to Berlin and continued to make art until 1915 when he was admitted to a sanatorium in Königstein in Taunus. During 1916, he returned to Berlin but he suffered another nervous breakdown and was admitted to a sanatorium in Berlin, Charlottenburg. Then, Kirchner was admitted to The Bellevue Sanatorium, in Kreuzlingen where he continued to produce paintings and woodcuts. In 1918, he was given a residence permit and he moved to "In den Lärchen" in Frauenkirch. Kirchner’s health eventually improved, and he made art and exhibited a lot in 1920 although he was still dependent on morphine.
He also began creating designs for carpets in 1921 which were then woven by Lise Gujer.
In 1925, Kirchner became close friends with fellow artist, Albert Müller and his family. He joined Rot-Blau, a new art group based in Basel, formed by Hermann Scherer, Albert Müller, Paul Camenisch and Hans Schiess, (but he left the group in 1929). At the end of 1925, Kirchner returned to Germany, visiting Frankfurt, Chemnitz, and Berlin. In 1926, Kirchner's close friend, Albert Müller, died and the next year, Kirchner organized a memorial exhibition for him at the Kunsthalle Basel.
In 1930, Kirchner began to experience health problems from smoking and during 1936 and 1937, his health further declined, suffering from a semi-paralysis in his hands. Towards the end of his life Kirchner became increasingly afraid after Austria was annexed by Germany, and he feared Germany might also invade Switzerland. In the summer of 1938, Kirchner took his own life. He was later buried in the Waldfriedhof cemetery.
The tragedy this artist suffered was one among many whose lives were torn apart during the world wars. German society as a whole was the most educated, one of the most elite societies in Europe of the time. Germany’s decimation; the loss of its teachers, writers, philosophers, musicians, artists, dancers, etc., etc. was nearly complete. The artists who fled Germany survived, but the ones who remained, those who believed and supported the Nazi party were cruelly and completely humiliated by the masses. They became isolated and many, like Kirchner, couldn’t endure it.
In closing, this artist’s pure, raw emotions are present on every one of his portraits; in every deeply gouged line, on every single block. Their faces will eternally cry out about incomprehensible injustices and hang precariously on the edge of madness. We can internalize their suffering. These works remind us what it is to be human, what it is to want to be compassionate.
One would hope the world’s current politicos would look a little more often at the powerful and important work produced by this artist and the group he is associated with. They have seen and shown us the ‘other side’, the ‘evil side’ of humanity. Do we ever need experience again situations like those that influenced this work?

Some of Kirchner’s Exhibitions and Accomplishments:
1906 first Die Brucke exhibition, K.F.M. Seifert and Co., Dresden, Germany
1913 Armory Show, NY
1913 first major solo show, Essen Folkwang Museum
1920 several exhibitions in Germany and Switzerland
1921 major display of Kirchner's work in Berlin
1931 made a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin, but resigned in 1933
1933 his work was branded as "degenerate" by the Nazis and 639 works were taken out of museums, destroyed or sold.
1934, Kirchner visited Berne and Zurich, and met Paul Klee.
1935 Kirchner created a sculpture for a new school in Frauenkirch, Switzerland.
1937 25 pieces exhibited in the Degenerate Art Exhibition, sponsored by Hitler’s Nazi party
1937 first solo museum show in the US, Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
1937 organizes Muller memorial exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland
1969 a major retrospective at the Seattle Art Museum, the Pasadena Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
1992 the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
2006 Christie's auction of Kirchner's Street Scene, Berlin (1913) = a record $38 million.
2008 Museum of Modern Art, NY

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