In 1905, painter and printmaker Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, along with Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff—all untrained in the visual arts—founded the artists’ group Die Brücke, or “The Bridge,” a moment that is now considered the birth of German Expressionism. Impelled, in Kirchner’s words, to express themselves “directly and authentically,” they rejected academic art as stultifying and searched for means to make work that possessed a sense of immediacy and spontaneity. They culled inspiration from the emotionally expressive works of Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch; Oceanic and African art they encountered at ethnographic museums; and German Gothic and Renaissance art, which led them to enthusiastically embrace the woodcut, a print medium through which they pioneered their signature style, characterized by simplified forms, radical flattening, and vivid, non-naturalistic colors.
The Brücke artists craved to “bring life and art into harmony,” upending conventions in both to cultivate what they considered a more instinctual and natural way of being—a reaction shared with a larger German youth movement against new realities of urbanization and conservative imperial German society. In their communal studio, decorated with non-Western art and erotic images, they made life-drawings from nude models in unselfconscious, informal poses. They spent summers together with their girlfriends on lakes near Dresden, allowing nudity and free love to reign, and conjuring this bohemian existence in their works. Kirchner’s woodcut of four nudes moving tranquilly in a rhythmic frieze, Bathers Throwing Reeds (1909), typifies this period, embodying *Brücke*’s utopic vision of a world untouched by encroaching industrialization and other alienating forces of modern life.
Once Kirchner moved to Berlin, in 1911, and after Brücke disbanded, in 1913, he found a subject in Berlin itself, newly established as a cosmopolitan metropolis. He captured its hectic pace, chaotic intersections, and crowded sidewalks, focusing in particular on streetwalkers in his monumental series of 11 paintings known as Berlin Street Scenes. Among them is Street, Berlin (1913), in which two finely dressed prostitutes with mask-like faces command the center of the street as indistinguishable men lurk in their wake. Kirchner found in prostitutes an apt symbol for Berlin, where anything could be bought and the potential for intrigue or danger was folded into the experience of moving with the ever growing, anonymous crowds pulsing through the city.
At the outbreak of World War I, Kirchner volunteered for service, but he soon experienced a physical and mental breakdown and was discharged. After convalescing in sanatoriums near Davos, he spent the rest of his life in the area, portraying its rural scenery, mountains, and villagers in his work. He also began to experiment with abstraction, reflecting his goal for “the participation of present-day German art in the international modern sense of style.” But the Nazis deemed Kirchner’s art “un-German,” and in 1937, as part of their Degenerate Art campaign—waged against works of modern art, which they seized by the thousands from museums and private collections—they removed more than 600 of his paintings from public collections. The following year, he took his own life.
Introduction by Hillary Reder, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2016