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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German, 1880–1938)

Street, Berlin

Oil on canvas
47 1/2 x 35 7/8" (120.6 x 91.1 cm)
Credit Line:
MoMA Number:
Audio Program excerpt

German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse

, March 27–July 11, 2011

Curator, Starr Figura: This is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Street Berlin, a painting from 1913. It is an image of two prostitutes strolling the streets of Berlin, and they're surrounded by a lot of men glancing furtively this way and that. And for Kirchner, the prostitute was really a symbol of modernity and of the metropolis of Berlin. And it really symbolized this paradoxical experience of the glamour offset by alienation, the intimacy offset by isolation, and the fact that more or less everything was a commodity. And Kirchner used this really vibrant color, as a way of emphasizing this sense of discord and anxiety, in the way these very intense colors clash with one another. He's also tilted the composition, and compressed it so that the perspective is collapsed. And that enhances the sense of disequilibrium that we get when we look at it.

Director, Glenn Lowry: By this time, Kirchner and the other Brücke artists had left Dresden for Berlin. The nation’s capital and largest city, it had recently emerged as the center of the modern art world in Germany.

Starr Figura: The Brücke artists moved to Berlin by 1911 to sell their art to the much more dynamic art world. But what happened was the very tight group cohesion that was key to the development of their style, began to unravel once they got to Berlin. The Brücke group actually disbanded in 1913, just a few months before this work would have been made.

Glenn Lowry: But for German Expressionism in general, Berlin had a galvanizing effect.

Starr Figura: From this point on, Expressionism flourishes, and the artists who we met in some of the earlier sections of the exhibition moved to Berlin. And all of these different individuals influence and encourage each other, in this approach to making art that involves an emphasis on emotion, on stripping away the comfortable facade and trying to expose certain psychological and emotional truths.

Audio Program excerpt

Kirchner and the Berlin Street

, August 3–November 10, 2008

Curator, Deborah Wye: This is a painting that's been in The Museum of Modern Art's collection for a long time. So, part of the purpose of this exhibition was to try to understand this painting in a broader way by bringing together other works in the same series. I never had any idea that the two women were actually prostitutes.

But the women have a very kind of knowing, conspiratorial conversation going on between them. You might wonder, why are they out at night so late, all dressed up, without any male companions anyway? I'm not sure that would have been considered proper in 1913.

Their steps are syncopated in a certain way, and their hips actually seem to sway in a certain motion. It's as if they're really trying to get attention. Even though of course the painting is static, Kirchner has created a sense of motion in the way they're walking forward.

There are men lurking in the background, some of whom look as if they're about to approach the two women. A male figure, to the right, seems to be looking into a store window. But I feel suspicious of him. He's carrying a cane and the cane is almost touching the women. He could possibly be the procurer, who's making sure they're doing what they should be doing.

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