Ernst Ludwig KIRCHNER

Aschaffenburg 1880 - Frauenkirch 1938


One of the finest exponents of figurative Expressionism in the early part of the 20th century, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was active as a painter, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor. He studied in Munich and Dresden, and from the very start of his career was as much engaged in the graphic arts as in painting. It was in Dresden in 1905 that he became a founder member of the artist’s group Die Brücke (‘the Bridge’), alongside his friends and fellow artists Erich Heckel, Fritz Bleyl and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Between 1905 and 1913 the Brücke artists - who were soon joined by Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein, followed in later years by Kees van Dongen and Otto Mueller - mounted a series of group shows in Leipzig, Braunschweig, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Dresden and Berlin, and also issued portfolios of original prints that included woodcuts by Kirchner. The work of the Brücke artists achieved some commercial success among a small group of contemporary collectors, and Kirchner’s paintings and drawings of the cafés, cabarets and theatres of Dresden, as well as the landscapes of the surrounding area in Saxony, are among his finest early works. In 1911 Kirchner moved to Berlin, where he continued to develop a reputation as a painter of powerfully modern, urban figure subjects. Between 1913 and 1915 he produced the seminal paintings of Berlin street scenes that became known as the ‘Streetwalker’ series, and which represent a high point of his oeuvre. Although he had a number of solo exhibitions of his work in 1913 and 1914, the outbreak of the First World War upended his life and caused him great anxiety, and he began to drink heavily. In the spring of 1915 Kirchner entered military service but within a few months had suffered a nervous breakdown. Medically discharged from the army, he came to spend several weeks in a sanatorium. In 1917, following a long period of intense physical and psychological stress, Kirchner left Berlin and settled in the village of Frauenkirch, near Davos in the Swiss Alps, where he was to spend the remainder of his life. He continued to have periods of convalescence in Swiss sanatoriums, with occasional bouts of paralysis, and did not emerge from the grip of the worst of his mental difficulties until around 1920. In Switzerland he developed a late style that was somewhat more private and subdued than his earlier manner, with a new emphasis on alpine landscapes, while also continuing to produce superb woodcuts. At the same time, however, he made the decision to repaint or re-date some of his earlier paintings, disavowing much of his Brücke work as ‘the nonsense of youth’. Isolated from the circle of German dealers, collectors and critics who might have supported his career, Kirchner struggled for recognition and success in his native country. Perhaps as a result of his inclusion in the Entartete Kunst (‘Degenerate Art’) exhibition held by the Nazis in 1937, as well as the removal of some 640 of his works from German museums, Kirchner began to destroy some of his earlier works. His increasing disillusionment with his status as an artist, and his despair at the Anschluss and the growing threat of war, led the artist to take his own life in June 1938. Kirchner was a highly prolific artist, and despite the destruction of many of his paintings by the Nazis, a large corpus of his work survives today. Some twenty thousand drawings by the artist, often in the form of sketchbooks, are known; while a handful of these drawings were produced as studies for paintings, the vast majority were made as works of art in their own right.