Unsuitable for the army, suitable for Art

By L.Seizani

I confess that I hadn’t heard of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. When some friends suggested to go and see a retrospective of his works, I agreed. In front of his first works I thought I saw works by others, by Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin. However, it seemed that Kirchner had incorporated them all in his own paintings, his engravings and his sculptures. The quantity of his works is impressive and shows that the artist went through various phases untill he reached the last one, the most modern one and for me, with the exception of “The piano” the most indifferent one.

Where was that shore of dreams?
One group of paintings depicts some young friends vacationing on some island of the Baltic Sea. Kirchner and his artist friends with whom he had formed the “Bridge”, an important Expressionistic art group, spent there a few summers. Their girl-friends who posed also for them, nude and careless, swam in the sea as if they were the only people on earth, as if they belonged to a tribe unknown to the civilized world. I found these works enchanting and couldn’t make myself leave them behind and proceed to the next ones. Mainly because I had read that these had been the last happy moments of the painter before enlisting as a soldier for the First World War. Lots of hardships would follow and he would suffer from a severe depression. Where was this island of Femarn where Kirchner and his friends were looking for a more natural way of life and were completely abandoned to love and sensuality? Where was this paradise lost in which each one of us would like to have lived even for a short period of time? Maybe it hadn’t truly existed but Kirchner allows us to take a furtive glance and dream about it.
Τhe little girls at the studio
At about the same time he paints portraits of some little girls who frequented the studio of the “Bridge” artists and posed as models for them. How innocent they look in certain paintings and how mischievous in others. Reading about Kirchner’s and co. way of life, your mind automatically goes to the worse. The paintings show Marzella and Fränzi in early adolescence, going around the painters with a ribbon on their long hair, wearing a little dress sometimes or nothing at all but with their private parts covered. No, one can’t find a hint of anything naughty. Besides, the artists had girl-friends who were as I said before their models and posed for them boldly and led a bohemian life with them.
Τhe soldiers’ shower
The dream is over as the Great War is starting. Although he enlisted as a volunteer, Kirchner would suffer later from a nervous breakdown and would be released of his army duties; he was going to spend the following years in clinics of Germany and Switzerland. The memories of the war haunt him and he paints a very powerful scene, inspired from the soldiers who had to take a shower all together. It is a terrifying painting, those nude weak bodies of the soldiers who crowd under the water supervised by an officer; it is a shocking scene that once you’ve seen it you can’t forget it. What follows is a certain period of “sedation”, a languor in the Alps, the time of healing, when he paints mountain landscapes, wooden huts and sheep but the past can’t be forgotten. The depression, the abuse of narcotics can’t be wiped off. Nor can his character, the authoritative character that caused him to break with all his companions from the “Bridge” be wiped off either. The only steady point in his life is his beloved Erna Schilling who will never leave him.
Harlots and widows
He will go on “hiding” in Switzerland in order to escape from the threat of the war, he will go on creating and will become very famous in his country. A group of his older paintings depicting scenes from the streets in Berlin, show clearly his artistic identity. These are his most powerful works, with the tall thin harlots walking while a line of men follows them. Also the wooden carvings with the widows of First World War officers all dressed in black. My words are not capable to speak faithfully of these paintings which transmit something very odd, almost nightmarish. This group of paintings contains some masterpieces which make you realize that Kirchner belongs to the chorea of great artists along with another German, Otto Dix and the Norwegian Edvard Munch.
However, the Nazis didn’t think so and had a poor opinion of his art. He was labelled a “degenerate artist” by them. They asked for his resignation from the Berlin Academy of Arts. 639 of his works which were at the time in state museums of Germany were confiscated and later destroyed or sold. All this, along with the psychological problems he had already, led him to suicide. He asked his dear Erna to do the same but she didn’t agree.

The article was written after a visit to the Städel Museum of Frankfurt where the retrospective of Kirchner took place in 2010.