Kirchner and the Berlin Street

5 / 11

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Street Scene (Friedrichstrasse in Berlin) (Strassenszene [Friedrichstrasse in Berlin])

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Street Scene (Friedrichstrasse in Berlin) (Strassenszene [Friedrichstrasse in Berlin]). 1914

Oil on canvas. 49 3/16 x 35 13/16" (125 x 91 cm). Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

Narrator: In 1916, after he completed the Berlin Street Scenes, Kirchner wrote to a friend:

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (read by actor): I am now like the cocottes I once painted: the merest brushstroke now, gone tomorrow. Nonetheless I am still trying to put my thoughts in order and, from all the confusion, create an image of the times, which is my task, after all.

Curator, Deborah Wye: Street Scene, Friederichstrasse is interesting in that it does name a specific street in Berlin. There are no identifying elements, but it does tell you that while Friederichstrasse was a great shopping street during the day, at night it was a place known for prostitution.

Here you see a woman, very haughty, standing there with her hand on her hip. She has a mask like face, and she's surrounded by two other women. They form a kind of triumvirate, definitely a group with a sense of camaraderie. Yet, the faces, with their blank stares, are really a face of alienation. So it's this combination of alienation and allure, which I think symbolized for Kirchner the broader idea of city life at that time in modernity.

Men are lined up in what seems like a parade behind the women. And they have their legs extended into the street, as if there could be one man in a study of motion. Many people point to this as a device of the Futurist artists. When Kirchner came to Berlin, there was a major show of Futurism in 1912, and I'm sure Kirchner was somewhat envious of the attention that the futurists were receiving.

The competition might have raised the stakes for him in a way that was positive, even while he was feeling lonely and alienated. As painful as it might have been in Berlin, surrounded by all that was happening there, it was stimulating as well. With the Street Scene series he had very ambitious goals—it had an important place in his work. I think he achieved great things.