Self-Portait as a Soldier by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Self-Portrait as a Soldier by Ernst Kirchner (1915)

In my last blog I looked at the early life of the German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.  I left off the biography at the time he decided to leave Dresden and move to Berlin.  He was still a member of Die Brücke art group, which he had helped to form, and life for Kirchner was good.  Alas, as we all know only too well, life is not constantly good and to our liking and in this second and final instalment of Kirchner’s life I look at what went wrong.

In 1906, Die Brücke held its first exhibition, and two new artists, Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein, joined the group.  The following year, one of their founder members, Fritz Bleyl married and left the group to concentrate on looking after his family.  In 1908 Pechstein moved to Berlin and in October 1911, Kirchner followed, along with some of the other artists from the group.  It was in Berlin that Kirchner along with Pechstein founded a private art school, known as the MIUM-Institut, (Moderner Unterricht in Malerei-Institute)   Kirchner’s aim for this private school was to spread the word about modern ways of teaching art.  Alas, the venture failed with only two candidates, friends of Kirchner, enrolling on the first course.  The school closed the following year.  It was in this same year, 1912, that Kirchner met and started a relationship with Erna Schilling, a relationship which would endure all his life.

With all groups of artists, there comes a time when they begin to drift apart, because of their differing views of the future.   In cases of musicial groups one of them often wants to pursue a solo career and in the case of artist groups sometimes one of them wants to stage a solo exhibition of their work.  With all groups of artists, whether it is painters or musicians, there is often a hierarchical dilemma.  Is there to be a leader of the group?  Is the group to be run on a consensual basis?  This was the problem with Die Brücke as Kirchner believed he was the leader of the group and in 1913 he wrote the Chronik der Brücke, chronicling the history and aims of the group.  In his summation of what had gone before he portrayed himself as the leader and thinker of the group and the others were his followers and this upset the other members.  This publication along with the desire of some of the members, including Kirchner himself, to do their “own thing” led to the break-up of Die Brücke.  Probably because of what Kirchner had written in the chronicle the break-up was not an amicable one and harsh words were exchanged.  For Kirchner the split had been so acrimonious that he completely disassociated himself from Die Brücke artists for the rest of his life and would in later years denigrate the work of the group saying the paintings he did during Die Brücke days were simply “the nonsense of youth”.  Kirchner was determined that history should remember him and his art as a personal triumph, that he was self-sufficient and in fact, never needed Die Brücke.

An Artists’ Group by Kirchner (1927)

The one time, in later years, when he reflected on his Die Brücke days, was in 1926 when he completed a large panel painting entitled An Artists’ Group, which depicted Otto Mueller seated reading the infamous Chronik der Brücke whilst Kirchner, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff stood to the right discussing this very chronicle, which ironically contributed to splitting the group asunder.  Otto Mueller who had only joined Die Brücke in its latter days was included in the work because he was a particular friend of Kirchner but Kirchner pointedly omitted Max Pechstein from the depiction, as he was the least popular member and he had left the group in 1912.

The year 1914 signalled the start of the First World War and this was to have a terrible and deep impact on Kirchner.  He received his call-up papers and joined the German army as an “unwilling volunteer” and was posted to Halle where he served as a driver in the artillery in order to avoid being drafted for less desirable duties.  Life in the army proved too much for Kirchner and he suffered a series of physical ailments, due to general weakness and lung problems.  He eventually suffered a mental breakdown which resulted in him being temporarily discharged from army and confined to a number of sanatoria.  Was he ill or did he just want to be away from army life and the horrors of war?  Maybe we will never know but during his time in hospital and sanatoria he was able to produce some of his best works including my featured painting today, Self-Portrait as a Soldier.

Stafelalp by Moonlight by Kirchner (1919)

Kirchner’s mental state showed no sign of improvement and his friends decided that he should move to a more tranquil environment and so they helped him emigrate to Switzerland and the small mountain town of Frauenkirche which lay just below the Stafelalp,  just south of Davos.  Here he remained for most of his life.   It was during these latter years that although his artistic style remained the same, the subjects of his art changed and he took a keen interest in the life of the farmers, who worked in this mountainous region,  and he recorded it in some of his works.   Although Kirchner was now living in a tranquil setting and his lifestyle was much more relaxed,  he was suffering from his time in the various German hospitals and had developed an addiction to drugs and this was exacerbated further by his alcoholism.  It was not until 1921 that he managed to wean himself off this narcotic addiction and get his life back together.

During the mid 1920’s Kirchner visited Germany in an attempt to regain recognition for his artistic works.  He received a number of commissions and in 1927 he had hoped to be appointed a professor at the Kunstakademie in Dresden.  In 1931 he was admitted to the Preussische Akademie der Künste in Berlin and by now most of the major museums in Germany housed some of his artworks.  Things were once again looking up for Kirchner but all that was to end two years later in 1933 when the National Socialists came to power.  Four years later, in 1937, the National Socialists campaign, known as entartete Kunst (degenerate art), stripped all the museums of his art and he was forced to resign from the Akademie in Berlin.   This proved all too much for Kirchner who had returned to his home in Frauenkirch, where on June 15th 1938, aged 58, he stood before his small house and shot himself.

The work I have featured today is the oil on canvas painting, entitled Self-Portrait as a Soldier, which he completed in 1915 and now hangs in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College in Ohio.  In it Kirchner imagines that due to the savagery of war, his hand has been severed and he is unable to paint.  Could it be that Kirchner was thinking about Van Gogh’s 1889 painting, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear when he first set about this work, albeit Kirchner’s severed hand was simply in his mind whereas Van Gogh’s self-mutilation was very real?

The work is all about Kirchner’s fears with regards how the war would affect him as an artist.   His fear was such that it was almost a pathological fear as to what would happen to him and his life as an artist.  It was not just about him but his belief that all young artists would be adversely damaged both mentally and physically by the conflict.  Kirchner painted the Self-Portrait as a Soldier during his time recovering at a sanatorium in Halle.  He has depicted himself in the uniform of the Königlich-Preußische Mansfelder Feldartilierie-Regiment Nr. 75 of Halle/Saale.   It is a haunting portrayal.  His face is drawn with a cigarette hanging loosely from between his lips.  His eyes are unseeing and empty, without pupils and in the irises we can see the reflection of the blue of his uniform. What are the most striking aspects of Kirchner’s self-portrait are the lost right hand and its bloody stump.  This grotesque aspect of the painting is the way Kirchner viewed his losses or possible future losses caused by the war.   He is concerned that he will lose his ability to paint.  He believes that all his creativity, artistic vision, and inspiration will be destroyed.  Behind the self portrait stands a nude woman.  There would seem little to connect the military man and her except that Kirchner may have wanted to think back on his early artistic days and his period where nudity dominated his works.

The style of Kirchner’s self-portrait is similar to his famous Berlin street scenes which he painted between 1913 and 1915.  In those, like this work, the style he used was of a primitive manner.   Kirchner had introduced primitivism to Die Brücke group.  Primitivism is a reference to the use by Western artists of forms of imagery derived from the art of the so-called primitive peoples especially those who had been colonized by Western countries.

Although Expressionism is not my favourite artistic style I have enjoyed researching the work and life of Ernst Kirchner and will soon return to look at some of his contemporaries.

Bathers at Moritzburg by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Bathers at Moritzburg by Ernst Kirchner (1909)

My last three blogs looked at Italian Renaissance paintings but today, and in my next blog, I want to move in a completely different artistic direction and look at the life and work of a man who is widely acknowledged as the greatest artist of German Expressionism.  His name is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Before I look at the early life of Kirchner I suppose I should explain a little about the term Expressionism.  Expressionism came about around 1905 and lasted until about 1920.  It is a term given to a style of painting, music, or drama in which the artist or writer seeks to express the inner world of emotion rather than external reality.   This term Expressionism is applied to art which seeks to cause an emotional response, not to actual pictorial content but to the exaggerated style adopted by the artist who is seeking to reflect his inner self.   The term is generally applied to modern European art, where exaggerated forms and vivid colours were employed.  In Germany, at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was disillusionment with the old fashioned academic styles of painting and this prompted a flood of experimentation and innovation.  The artists were desperately searching for a new way to express themselves through the medium of painting and by doing so convey their personal experiences of their new modern world with all its advancing technology.   Expressionism is an artistic style in which the artist attempts to depict not objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in him or her.   They accomplish their aim through distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy and through the vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of formal elements. The actual term Expressionism was first used in the preface of the catalogue for the 22nd Berlin Secession Exhibition of April 1911 to describe the work of Braque, Derain, Picasso, Vlaminck and Marquet.

Kirchner was born in Aschaffenburg in northwest Bavaria in 1880 and is now looked upon as one of the most important representatives of Expressionism.  Kirchner was brought up in a middle–class family environment.  His father was an industrial chemist.   Kirchner showed an early interest in drawing and as an extra-curricular activity, during his school years his parents arranged for him to have drawing and watercolour lessons at home.  His parents support for his love of art was not wholehearted as they saw no future in their son becoming an artist and so after taking his final school leaving exams they insisted he attended the Königliche Technische Hochschule to study architecture.  Kirchner went along with his parents’ plans as he believed the course would also allow him to have further training in art, such as freehand and perspective drawing.  He took his preliminary diploma in 1903 after which he spent the winter term studying in Munich.

Whilst at the Hochschule he became close friends with another student Fritz Bleyl and later they, along with two other architecture students, Karl-Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel, after successfully completing their architecture degree course in 1905, formed an artist group which they called Die Brücke (The Bridge).  The name, given to their group by Rottluff, was to symbolise a connection between Germany’s artistic past and future and they intended that their art would be that very link and the way forward.  Theirs was a radical group which was opposed to middle-class conventions, which they considered lacked fervour, and it was their aim to shun the traditional academic style of art and initiate a new style of painting which would be more in keeping with modern life.  They still saw their artistic work as belonging firmly within the tradition of German art, especially the art of Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder.  This young group of artists was anti-establishment, liberal in their attitude and full of revolutionary ideas.  Like all new groupings the four founders decided that the group should have its own manifesto setting out its ambitions.  Kirchner was in the forefront of thinking up the wording for the manifesto and he clearly summed up what the group wanted to achieve:

 “….. freedom in our work and in our lives, independence from older, established forces…”

The group met regularly at the Dresden studio of Kirchner.  The lifestyle of this group was Bohemian in character.  In the Royal Academy 2003 exhibition catalogue Kirchner – Expressionism and the city, a quote from Fritz Bleyl described his friend’s first studio, which had formerly been a butcher’s shop:

“…[it was] that of a real bohemian, full of paintings lying all over the place, drawings, books and artist’s materials — much more like an artist’s romantic lodgings than the home of a well-organised architecture student…”

In Kirchner’s studio social standards were largely ignored. Art historians quote reports of the goings-on which took place at the studio and recount tales of “much impulsive love-making and naked cavorting”.  During these meetings at Kirchner’s studio, the artists met to study the nude in group life-drawing sessions.   However, Kirchner wanted to distance himself from the rigid and painstaking academic style of life drawing and he and his fellow artists would instead sketch the naked women, quickly in quarter-hour sessions (Viertelstundenakte) and by so doing, they believed that they were able to capture the fundamental nature of their subject as instinctively as they could. The models who posed nude for Kirchner’s group were not professional models; they were just part of Kirchner’s circle of friends, who were only too willing to become part of this newly-founded art movement.

The lifestyle of the group in some ways was mirrored in the flower-power days of the 1960’s or the punk rock days of the late 70’s.  They hoped and succeeded in shocking the bourgeoisie.  Normal social conventions were abandoned and the group’s studio became a place almost of decadence with group life-drawing sessions, frequent nudity and casual love-making.  Like Matisse and Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was fixated with the female nude, as a symbol of his own intense sexuality as well as it being a seductive return to primitive nature. The intention of Die Brücke artists was to wage battle against the constricting forces of bourgeois culture.  To them this culture was linked indelibly with mediocrity, corruption, and weakness. Kirchner believed fervently on self-empowerment and complete freedom from convention and this could be seen in his early art which often concentrated on erotic subject matter. In the paintings done by Kirchner and the other artists of this group they often depicted the female nude crudely as both “primitive” and submissive.  For them this depiction of the female signified both male domination and male virility.

Die Brücke poster for the 1906 exhibition

In the September and October of 1906, a year after the formation of Die Brücke, the first group exhibition was held at the K.F.M. Seifert and Co. in Dresden.   The works exhibited focused on the female nude and Fritz Bleyl designed the lithographic poster for the event.  In 1906, Kirchner met Doris Große, who became his favoured model and remained at his side until 1911 when he decided to leave Dresden and move to Berlin.   Doris would not make that journey.  From 1907 to 1911, Kirchner liked to spend part of his summers at the Moritzburg lakes which lie to the north of Dresden.  He and the other members of Die Brücke art group, along with their friends relaxed amidst the countryside tranquillity and led a relaxed communal lifestyle and embraced the popular German culture of going back to nature and dispensing with such frivolous things as clothes !

My featured painting today is by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and is entitled Bathers at Moritzburg which he completed around 1910.  It is a painting depicting people who have for a short time shunned the claustrophobic and overpowering life in the city and have gone back to the freedom of nature.   This is their reunion with nature.   It is a painting full of energy.  There is vigorous activity all around.   The first thing that strikes one about this work of art is the overstated colours he has used in this painting.  We have the contrast of the yellow-orange flesh of the bathers with the blue of the water.  This contrasts serves to emphasise the nudity of the figures. Although I have dated the painting as being completed around 1909, the original effect may have been too extreme for Kirchner as in 1926 he repainted parts of the picture making the colours lighter and the surface of the painting more even. It is presently housed in the Tate Modern in London.

As a leading proponent of Expressionism how did Kirchner view his style?  In a letter written in 1937 to art dealer Curt Valentin, he explained the development behind his own Expressionist style:


“…First of all I needed to invent a technique of grasping everything while it was in motion…I practised seizing things quickly in bold strokes, wherever I was and in this way I learned how to depict movement itself, and I found new forms in the ecstasy and haste of this work, which, without being naturalistic, yet represented everything I saw and wanted to represent in a larger and clearer way. And to this form was added pure colour, as pure as the sun generates it…”

In my next blog, I continue looking at the life of Ernst Kirchner as he moves to Berlin, suffers mentally from the rigours of World War I, splits from Die Brücke and spends the last years