Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Vibrant Metropolis / Idyllic Nature Kirchner. The Berlin Years

Kunsthaus Zürich 
10 February to 7 May 2017 

Switzerland sees its first major exhibition devoted to the Berlin years of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938). The Kunsthaus Zürich has gathered together some 160 paintings, pastels, drawings, prints, sketchbooks and a selection of textiles, sculptures and photographs for a survey of Kirchner’s work in Germany’s bustling capital city and on the idyllic Baltic Sea island of Fehmarn. Between 1912 and 1914, these two contrasting places of inspiration marked the high point of Kirchner’s Expressionist oeuvre. The co-founder of theartists’ association ‘Brücke’, who is best known in Switzerland for his images of the ‘unspoilt’ mountain scenery around Davos, appears here in what, for Swiss audiences, is a less familiar, edgier guise.


The Kunsthaus Zürich has teamed up with the renowned Brücke-Museum in Berlin to bring together works on loan from many continents in a dialectical exploration of Kirchner. Important exhibits come from the Städel (Frankfurt), the Pinakothek der Moderne (Munich), the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Madrid),the Guggenheim Museum and Museum ofModern Art (both New York), the Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles),the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney) and the popular Kirchner Museum Davos. Private lenders are supplying works that, in some cases, have never before been shown in public. There is also a full-size reconstruction of the mansard niche of Kirchner’s second Berlin live-in studio – again, for the first time in Switzerland. The artist decorated it with textiles he designed himself, featuring Fehmarn motifs.


The exhibition is arranged chronologically, alternating between Berlin and Fehmarn – the two places of inspiration. They are often viewed as diametric opposites: on the one hand the frenetic lifestyle of a city that never rests, on the other the relaxing peace of a rural retreat; the hardship and alienation of the city dweller versus a harmonious existence in union with nature. Our exhibition, together with the accompanying catalogue, presents these two poles –metropolis and idyllic nature – as two conjoined aspects of Kirchner’s life and work. Both exemplify his longing for an existence removed from bourgeois norms and for a new and contemporary form of expression. In addition to exhibits from Kirchner’s time in Berlin, the presentation also includes a representative selection of his early paintings from Dresden and some of the first pieces produced in Switzerland. They provide the context without which it is impossible to comprehend the profound changes in Kirchner’s art between 1911 and 1917. The focused presentation investigates this pivotal phase in Kirchner’s work, and with it the socio-political changes of the early 20th century.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s move from Dresden to Berlin in autumn 1911 marks a turning point in his art. In the years from 1912 to 1915, in thrall to Europe’s most modern metropolis, the young artist created works that, in their exaggerated and condensed way, can be regarded as metaphors for an early 20th-century attitude to life. In this era of radical transformation, the imperial capital held out the prospect of progress and limitless potential, but also isolation and a struggle to survive. It was the centre of unbridled industrial growth, the rise of the automobile and, with two million inhabitants, the largest ‘tenement city’in Europe. Yet Berlin was also the metropolis of art, hedonism and prostitution. In this melting pot of opportunities and risks, Kirchner created works of breathless, existential directness that took aim squarely at Wilhelmine conventions. His motifs were also shaped by these observations: fashionably dressed passers-by; motorised traffic and industrial plants ‘eating’ their way through the city; café and brothel scenes. Movement, dynamism and multiple perspectives typify Kirchner’s work during the Berlin years, in what, looking back, he described as a ‘painting of motion’. The prime example – ‘Street, Berlin’ (1913) from the Museum of Modern Art, New York – will be on show at the Kunsthaus, as will the double-sided canvas ‘Two Women on the Street (recto)/‘Two Bathers in Surf’ (verso) from the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.


LIn the summer months of 1912 to 1914, Kirchner left Berlin for the Baltic Sea island of Fehmarn, which he already knew from an earlier visit. Here, together with his new companion Erna Schilling and his fellow painters, he led an uninhibited life close to nature. Far from the big city and freed from all conventions, they enjoyed an Arcadian existence. It was in this idyll that, in 1912, he painted the long-lost and recently rediscovered square painting ‘Mexico Bay, Fehmarn’, which is in private ownership. The celebrated ‘Three Bathers’ (1913, from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney) also bears witness to their bond withnature. Contrasts of warm and cold, colours that range from muted to strong, and dynamic forms express this exalted sense of harmony with nature.


The outbreak of the First World War took Kirchner by surprise during his 1914 summer retreat on Fehmarn, forcing him to break off his stay abruptly and return to Berlin. His army training as a field artilleryman in Halle and his general experiences of war plunged him into a deep psychological and physical crisis in 1915, with large-scale alcohol and drug abuse threatening his artistic identity. The works that arose despite – or perhaps because of – this crisis, such as the celebrated ‘Schlemihl’ woodcut cycle or the drawing ‘Self-Portrait under the Influence of Morphine’ (1917), made using a reed pen and ink on gesso paper, form a further key focus of the exhibition. Following a number of stays in sanatoria in Königstein, Berlinand Kreuzlingen, Kirchner moved to Switzerland in 1918, embarking on his long road to recovery in the mountains of Davos, where he remained until he took his own life in 1938. The exhibition closes with this new turning point in Kirchner’s career.


The Kunsthaus Zürich first exhibited works by Kirchner in a group exhibition in 1918, from which two woodcuts were acquired. Projects for major solo shows in 1926 and 1936 did not come to fruition. After Kirchner’s death there were monograph exhibitions in 1952 and 1954 followed, in 1980, by the biggest retrospective to date. Now, a hundred years on from Kirchner’s move to Switzerland, the Kunsthaus Zürich is devoting an exhibition to the master of Expressionism, with a particular focus on the Berlin years (1911–1917).

Kunsthaus curator Dr. Sandra Gianfreda has designed the presentation together with Prof. Magdalena M. Moeller, director of the Brücke-Museum, Berlin.


Edited by Sandra Gianfreda

272 pages | 210 color plates | 8 1/2 x 10 1/2 

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) was one of the most prolific and creative members of the German expressionist movement. His move from Dresden to Berlin in 1911 marked a turning point in his career and ignited the most important and innovative period of his work. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Berlin Years looks in-depth at this significant time during which he produced his most celebrated masterpieces.

As Sandra Gianfreda reveals, under the influence of the most modern metropolis in Europe, Kirchner created works whose exaggerated and condensed style could be regarded as a true metaphor for the attitude to life during the early years of the twentieth century. During this time of rapid change, Berlin was not only the center of industry, but it was a metropolis of the arts and encouraged a new kind of hedonism. Berlin vibrated with energy and intellectual questions that Kirchner channeled in his work, creating pictures of breathless, existential directness that challenged conventions of the age. An essential book for fans of Kirchner’s work, it presents his greatest paintings and demonstrates the profound changes in his style that were inspired by his time in Berlin.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Self-portrait in the live-in studio in Berlin-Friedenau, 1913/1915
Glass negative, 13 x 18 cm
Kirchner Museum Davos, Gift of the Estate of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 2001

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Two Nudes by a Tree, Fehmarn, 1912/13
Oil on canvas, 100 x 75 cm
Private collection

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Erna with Japanese Umbrella (Japanese Girl), 1913
Oil on canvas, 80 x 70.5 cm
Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau / Bequest of Dr Othmar und Valerie Häuptli
Photo: Jörg Müller

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Curving Bay (Laburnum Tree), c. 1914
Oil on canvas, 146 x 123 cm
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Nervous Persons at Table (Kohnstamm Sanatorium), 1916
Woodcut on cardboard, 42 x 28 cm
Kassel, Museumslandschaft Hessen, Graphische Sammlung, Städtischer Kunstbesitz

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
The Lighthouse of Fehmarn, 1912
Oil on canvas, 119.5 x 91 cm
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh: Patrons Art Fund
Photo © 2017 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Three Bathers, 1913
Oil on canvas, 197.5 x 147.5 cm
Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Foundation Purchase 1984

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Erich Heckel and Otto Mueller Playing Chess, 1913
Oil on canvas, 35.5 x 40.5 cm
Brücke-Museum, Berlin

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Friedrichstrasse Berlin, 1914
Oil on canvas, 125 x 91 cm
Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
Photo: bpk/Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Self-Portrait in Morphine Rush, 1917
Reed pen and ink on gessoed paper, 50 x 38 cm
Brücke-Museum, Berlin

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Mexico Bay, Fehmarn, 1912
Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 50.5 cm
Private collection, Germany

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Circus, 1913
Oil on canvas, 120 x 100 cm
Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich,
Pinakothek der Moderne,
Photo: bpk/Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen/
Sybille Forster

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Mansard niche in Kirchner’s live-in studio, Berlin-Friedenau, 1914/15
Glass negative, 24 x 18 cm
Kirchner Museum Davos, Gift of the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Estate, 2001

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Schlemihl’s Encounter with the Shadow (Sheet 6 from the Schlemihl-Cycle), 1915
Colour woodcut on blotting paper, 30.5 x 29.3 cm
Brücke-Museum, Berlin, Karl and Emy Schmidt-Rottluff Foundation

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Street at Schöneberg City Park, 1912/13
Oil on canvas, 121 x 151 cm
Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs Harry Lynde Bradley
Foto: Larry Sanders

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Street, Berlin, 1913
Oil on canvas, 120.5 x 91 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase, 1939
© 2017. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Streetcar and Train, 1914
Oil on canvas, 71 x 81 cm
Die Lübecker Museen, Museum Behnhaus Drägerhaus

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Artillerists’ Bath – Bathing Soldiers, 1915
Lithograph on yellow paper, 50.5 x 59.0/4 cm
E.W.K. Collection, Bern/Davos
Collection E.W.K., Bern / Davos