Kirchner and the Berlin Street

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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Potsdamer Platz. 1914

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Potsdamer Platz. 1914

Oil on canvas. 6' 6 3/4 x 59 1/16" (200 x 150 cm). Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photograph by Joerg P. Anders. © Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, New York

Curator, Deborah Wye: Potsdamer Platz is an unusual street scene painting because it actually shows a place that's identifiable. We have pictures of this time, and this is precisely what it looked like.

It was a hectic plaza, really, in Berlin—one of the most important shopping areas during the day. But at night, it was a place where prostitutes came out to find their clients. They're standing on a traffic island, but it becomes almost the kind of pedestal that one might see in a department store window that revolved, so that the outfits of the women could be seen in the round. So there is this posing, kind of haughty quality, particularly to the woman in blue.

These women tell lots of different tales. The woman in the blue seems quite young. The woman in the black seems quite old and is wearing a very unusual hat, which was called a widow's veil. The prostitutes took up wearing this hat, as a form of disguise, so that they'd fit in. But also, to gain sympathy, in some cases. There's also a morality tale here, of younger woman starting down the road of prostitution and they staying in it and then becoming kind of old and worn and haggard, like the woman in the black.

There seems to be danger everywhere. One man is stepping right into the street. The street is this greenish color, which has a nightmare effect.

Kirchner goes another step further, by cutting the pedestal in the front, in such a way that you feel as a viewer that you're right about to step on that traffic island yourself. So the viewer is really implicated in this scene.