Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the Tension of the Modern Times

Zuzanna Stańska 6 May 2023 min Read

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was one of the most prominent painters of German Expressionism. Furthermore, he also was one of the founders of Die Brücke! As an artist, he focused both on painting and printmaking. Unfortunately, in the 1930s his work was considered degenerate by the Nazis and many pieces were destroyed. Let’s discover some of the artworks that survived!

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-portrait in studio, 1913/15, New print from glass negative, 13 × 18 cm © Kirchner Museum Davos,
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait in Studio, 1913-1915, Kirchner Museum Davos, Davos, Switzerland.

Before all the horrible things that happened, Kirchner produced many pieces of art. His Expressionistic works represented a powerful reaction against the boring, and in those times outdated, Impressionism which was dominant in German painting when he first emerged. For Kirchner, Impressionism was nothing more than a symbol of the staid civility of bourgeois life. However, what is interesting is that he chose to rework the typical Impressionist motif – ballerinas.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Six Dancers, 1911, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, USA.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Six Dancers, 1911, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, USA.

Kirchner always denied that he was influenced by other artists but of course, he had his favorite painters. Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch were clearly important in shaping his style. In 1898, Kirchner was impressed by the prints of German Renaissance artists, especially those of Albrecht Dürer. Also, his fellow artists from Die Brücke were particularly significant in directing his intense and raw palette, encouraging him to use flat areas of unbroken, often unmixed color and simplified forms. This was only intensified when he discovered African and Polynesian art in 1904.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Sand Hills at Grünau, 1917-18, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, USA.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Sand Hills at Grünau, 1917-1918, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, USA.

Much of Kirchner’s work shows his interest in malevolence and eroticism. Kirchner loved the modern vibe of the early years of the 20th century, the wild rhythm of crowded cities, and fashionable women. During the months leading up to the Great War, following the breakup of the Die Brücke in 1913, Kirchner painted numerous Strassenszenen, or street scenes. These works earned him well-deserved recognition as an Expressionist painter of the city. He was particularly fascinated by circus artists, cabaret dancers, and sex workers, whose existence on the fringes of society belonged, in Nietzschean terms, to the same world as the visual arts.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Two Streetwalkers, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Two Streetwalkers, 1910s, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, USA.

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