An oil painter, leader, and printmaker, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had marked his own place in the German expressionism during the 20th century. He was well-known for co-founding Die Brucke (The Bridge), a group of German expressionists that included Heckel, Bleyl, and Karl Schmidt as the other founders. All together, they shared a vision of revolutionizing German art by holding art shows on several occasions featuring all kinds of art media.
Kirchner’s versatility had been instrumental in shaping 20th century German expressionism. He was a sculptor and a designer besides being a painter, which also made him a source of inspiration for his contemporaries, particularly the members of his group. Despite being directly involved in the First World War, he would still be a relevant figure coming out of the army service. However, the Nazis labeled his art as degenerate in 1933, which resulted to over 600 of his works were either destroyed or sold to the market. Unfortunately, during this period, his health had been feeble so he had little energy to execute a new series of paintings.
After four years since the Nazis confiscated his works, he was to attend an exhibition for the Riehen collector, Dr. Bosshart, who purchased three of his new oil paintings. The said commission provided him new motivation to continue with his art and so he actively participated in the “cleanse” modern art campaign that flourished in Germany at the time. But the depressing state of the country after the war had a huge impact on his overall well-being, suffering from a relapse of his intestinal problems towards the latter part of the 1930’s. However, Kirchner did not die from a chronic illness but of suicide in 1938.
Few examples of his major works included The Nude Figure – reverse (1907), Dance Hall Bellevue – Obverse (1910), Two Girls Under an Umbrella (1910), Girl with Cat (1910), Half-Length Portrait of Frauenkopf, Gerda (1914), Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915), and Landscape in Graubunden with Sun. Kirchner had also done a large collection of drawings and prints.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was born on May 6, 1880 in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria. His father was a chemical engineer, a Prussian descent and his mother, the daughter of a merchant was of Huguenots origin. Later in his life, Kirchner would be referred to as the Huguenot. Ernst Ludwig’s father was also a member of the Berlin Academy, which profession prompted him to travel from one place to another. Therefore, the young Kirchner had spent most of his youth relocating to different places.
In 1886, they moved to Frankfurt, to Perlen, and to Chemnitz by 1890, where his father was appointed Professor of Paper Sciences at a technological institute. At that same year the young Kirchner attended his secondary education where he met an art teacher who made a huge impact on his early interest in the arts. Under the tutelage of this teacher, he learned how to treat light and shade in painting.
Although his parents recognized his artistic talents, they still wanted him to take up a professional training in architecture. In 1901 he attended the Technical School in Dresden, where he befriended Fritz Bleyl who had been friends with Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt at the time. In 1903 though, Kirchner settled in Munich to take up courses at the School of Art under Professors Hermann Obrist and Wilhelm von Debschitz. There he developed a particular interest in life-drawing and composition. But a year later, he went back to Dresden to finish through the winter semester and graduated as an engineer. Presumably his family couldn’t ask for more from him so they let him be with pursuing his passion for the arts.
In 1905 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner together with Schmidt, Bleyl, and Heckel founded Die Brucke (The Bridge). His association with the group gave him no option but to dedicate himself to his craft in order to push through German expressionism at the time. The group aimed at connecting the traditional academic style and a new art expression; hence, the name ‘Bridge’.
Die Brucke was basically the reaction of the founders to the traditional styles of Matthias Grunewald, Albrecht Durer, and Lucas Cranach (the Elder). One of the primary media they used was woodcut prints. The Bridge was particularly influential in laying the foundations of modern art in that century, and the members practically developed it in the studio of Kirchner, which Bleyl described as a bohemian-inspired studio “full of paintings lying all over the place” among other art materials. It was the home of a romantic artist rather than a place of an organized architecture student.
Some of the major activities that were held at the studio were life-drawing sessions. The group had invited a few friends to come over to model for them in different positions. There was a rule that governed their session which was to never spend beyond a quarter of an hour on any drawing. The group also held art shows on tour in various German cities throughout 1906. Touring around the country had allowed them to recruit more members, thus expanding their base and influence. During that year, they have acquired Emile Nolde and Cuno Amiet as new notable members.
In 1907, Kirchner stayed in Moritzburg Lakes in Dresden to work on some paintings. A year later he and Emmy Frisch visited the Fehmarn Island near the Baltic Coast to search for landscape inspirations. And in 1908 he became acquainted with Doris Grosse, a local milliner.
Ernst Kirchner would spend the last bathing holiday in 1911 at the same Moritzburg Lakes, which afterward he soon followed the other members to Berlin. The group formed a new base in the said city where they have also established a private art school, MUIM-Institut also known as Modern Teaching of Art.
Throughout the mid-1910’s, it had been a series of exhibitions for Kirchner. In 1912 he joined the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, where he met Cuno Amiet who was a Swiss painter responsible for organizing the Swiss paintings as a contribution to the said exhibition. Although Kirchner had been enjoying the time of his life, Die Brucke got disbanded in 1913 due to disputes regarding the publication of the group’s documentary, which was supposed to be titled “Chronicles of the Brucke Group”.
The disbarment of Die Brucke left Kirchner quite disappointed to the point that he disassociated himself from other artists such as Hermann Pechstein. He even went as far as closing MUIM-Institut and together with Erna, they moved to Fehmarn. He found himself working up his career on his own and during this period, he arranged his own art shows and painted the first series of streetscapes of Berlin. One exhibition where he stood out on his own was held at the Folkwang Museum in Hagen and then at the Gurlitt Gallery, Berlin.
In September 1914, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner joined the German army voluntarily. He was assigned at Halle an der Saale, 75 Mansfeld Field Artillery Regiment, as a driver of the reserve unit. However, the painter suffered a nervous breakdown which led to his early release. He returned to Berlin and there he was inspired to paint the ever-influential Self Portrait as a Soldier (1915). His mental health would have been poor still so he was admitted to a mental asylum in Konigstein in Taunus.
Eberhard Grisebach and Helen Spengler invited Kirchner to recuperate in Davos in 1917. After obtaining a travel permit he went to Davos in January, where he would settle down for years. He stayed at the Pension Wijers within the Villa Pravigan compound located close to the Spengler’s estate and was cared by H. Spengler. The healing process had been difficult for the artist as he found little motivation to live anymore. It didn’t help when his mentor and friend, Botho Graef, died of a cardiac arrest on April 1917.
At that same month, Kirchner wrote a letter to Henry van de Velde who was heading to Davos, too. He stated his interest in joining de Velde in a collaboration related to architecture, in which Kirchner could be de Velde’s designer for the woodcuts of the buildings to be made. A month later, he then returned to Davos accompanied by a nurse called Sister Hedwig. By June, the artist suffered from nervous paralysis which disabled him to move his legs and arms. He went back to Berlin and stayed in an apartment-converted-studio to try to revive his commercial success.
By August, Kirchner visited de Velde in Stafelalp to produce 11 woodcuts. But within one month he experienced another episode of nervous breakdown so he had to be admitted to Bellevue Sanitarium, while Sister Hedwig stayed in Berlin. Fortunately, his poor mental health did not stop him from painting. He pursued working on a large set of painting materials provided by de Velde and somehow found happiness by doing so.
Summer of 1919, Kirchner racked up 17 woodcut prints for de Velde’s buildings. This set of prints was considered his major graphic work of his career. And then on July, he traveled to Stafelalp where he was to produce another series of oil paintings that depicted the rural life and setting of Alpine farmers. Another set of woodcut prints were executed which showed the views of Stafelalp during that year.
Throughout the early 1920’s, there had been a significant improvement in Kirchner’s condition. He was invited to exhibit in several galleries and museums in both Switzerland and Germany. In 1921, he submitted some paintings to an exhibition in Berlin and it was well-received. However, on February of that year, his father died but there was no strong evidence that this event left a negative impact on his well-being. He even got to visit Zurich on May and met Nina Hard, who would become his model for many of his works.
In 1925, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner met Albert Muller, who was one of the founders of Rot-Blau, an art group in Basle. Muller and his friends became his students for some time and afterward returned to Germany and traveled around Frankfurt, Chemnitz and Berlin. In 1929, he again decided to distance himself from Muller’s art group because they thought of Kirchner as their patron, which he denied.
Throughout the 1920’s Kirchner had several trips all over Germany and developed a smoking habit. Thus, in 1930, he contracted a health problem which required him to undergo a medical operation in Berlin. Later that year the Prussian Academy of Arts accepted him as its new member, but when the Nazis took over the German government, much of his works were confiscated for being considered as degenerate art.
Around 1934 to 1935 he might have stayed in Berne and Zurich to complete some mural paintings there but the one thing that stood out was a sculpture commission he received by a newly opened school in Frauenkirch. The sculpture was executed right before the school’s inauguration in 1936.
From 1936 to 1937, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had begun to suffer health problems. His doctors prescribed him to take Eukodol and Ovaltine until he was able to recuperate somehow. He continued joining a series of exhibitions in and out of Berlin in 1937 even though 639 of his works had been confiscated by the Nazi party already. Another effect of getting labeled as a degenerate artist was disbarment from the Prussian Academy of Arts.
When Austria invaded by Germany Kirchner got anxious about the possibility of Switzerland falling into the hands of the Nazis. In 1938, he committed suicide by a gun shot in his home in Frauenkirch. His remains were buried at the Waldfriedhof cemetery three days after his death.