Kirchner and the Berlin Street

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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Self-Portrait with Cigarette (Selbstbildnis mit Zigarette). 1915

Lithograph. Comp.: 23 3/8 x 19 11/16" (59.5 x 50 cm). Collection of Catherine Woodard and Nelson Blitz, Jr., New York

Curator, Deborah Wye: My understanding of the paintings in the show is tied up with Kirchner's biography, after he had moved from the relatively small city of Dresden to the really teeming capital of Berlin.

This self portrait is from 1915, and I think it has a lot of elements that are revealing. It shows him I think with a rather cocky look on his face, the cigarette thrust in his mouth. I think that’s a bit of a pose. He has a very furrowed brow – his eyes look very, very soulful. This was at a point when he had left the artist group, the Brücke that he had worked with for about eight years. And so he was out on his own.

The Brücke group had been very close knit, almost like a family, living and working communally together.”

Narrator: So when the Bruecke artists’ group dissolved, Kirchner was without the personal and artistic support that had fueled his development.

Deborah Wye: He was disappointed in his work's reception in Berlin. Also, just around the corner, the world war was going to break out, and he was extremely fearful about that. So Kirchner was at a complex moment in his personal life, and I think some of these emotions perhaps led him to choose the particular motif of the prostitute, to be his symbol for the modern city of Berlin. I think he was feeling isolated and rather alienated himself.

Narrator: About his Berlin street scenes, Kirchner said:

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (read by actor): They originated in…one of the loneliest times of my life, during which an agonizing restlessness drove me out onto the streets day and night.