“I have to draw to the point of madness, just draw. Just work, work and think of nothing else”, said the brilliant Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It did him no good, he was just another “degenerate” artist to the Nazis.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s life, and his art rose and fell with the two world wars. W W1 would lead him to his spirit place and his mojo. World War 2 would would see his work vilified.
Born in 1880 in Aschaffenburg, Germany, the wildly creative Ernst Ludwig Kirchner studied architecture in Dresden before co-founding the Die Brücke (the Bridge) artists’ community. In 1911 he moved to Berlin where he began producing seriously progressive work with the group until 1913 when the friendship between Kirchner and the other Brücke artists disolved.
The seminal Die Brücke group had a major impact on the evolution of modern art in the 20th century and was a major catalyst for the creation of Expressionism.
Two years later and with WW1 in full swing, Kirchner was called up to fight. In 1915, while training for the front, he suffered a nervous breakdown. After 2 years recouperating in clinics in Königstein im Taunus and Kreuzlingen on Lake Constance, he sought healing in the Swiss Alpine mountain resort of Davos. The place was to become his muse. He began to paint peasants at work and dreamlike visionary landscapes that captured the overwhelming presence of the Alpine scapes he saw around him.
“I have to draw to the point of madness,” he once said, “just draw. Just work, work and think of nothing else”.
He was a one-off; prolific, unique and progressive. All the “work, work and think of nothing else.” would do Kirchner no good. The rise of the Nazi party and the strangest art exhibition in history would see to that.
In his street scenes from back in 1913–14, Kirchner had represented the intensity of the pulsating metropolis with a bevy of prostitutes, easily identified by their feather headdresses, excessive makeup, and flamboyant walk. In 1920, despite its content, Street, Berlin was bought by Berlin’s Nationalgalerie.
While the artist sympathized with the national socialist movement in the 1930s, the Nazis nonetheless labeled 770 of his works “degenerate”, including Street, Berlin, which was removed from the Nationalgalerie.
Kirchner’s pictures were effectively banned in Germany and 639 of them were removed from museums. In 1937, the Nazis exhibited 740 modern works in the defamatory art show Degenerate Art in Munich in order to “educate” the public on the “art of decay.” The Nazis selected 25 Kirchner works for display, Street, Berlin (above) in pride of place (on the upper level, room 4), amongst them. The exhibition purported to demonstrate that modernist tendencies, such as abstraction, are the result of genetic inferiority, the symptoms of moral decline in society.
Notes beneath Street, Berlin pointed out that it was “purchased with the taxes of working German people” by the Nationalgalerie, for 12,000 German marks. This figure would have seemed ridiculously high (due to the inflation of the 1920s) and was intended to further provoke visitors.
This defamation of his person and his work intensified Kirchner’s always rocky mental state and sent him down into a spiralling personal crisis. In Davos, on 15 June 1938 he shot himself. His grave and that of his partner Erna Schilling are in the Davos forest cemetery.
Street, Berlin, now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in NY.
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