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About this illustrated book
Iris Schmeisser, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner illustrated the 1924 reprint of Umbra Vitae (Shadow of life), a posthumous collection of Georg Heym's Expressionist poems that was first published in 1912, the year of the poet's premature death, at age twenty-four, by drowning. Kirchner, who owned a copy of the earlier edition and knew the poems very well, designed all of the elements himself, including the 46 woodcuts throughout the book; the color woodcuts on the cover, the frontispiece, and the front and back endpapers; and the bold grotesque typography (fette Groteskletter). The illustrations, printed in a blacklike brown, serve as visual correlatives to Heym's hauntingly poetic images of "life's shadow." The dark side of life—death, war, madness, alienation, loneliness, and anxiety—was a recurrent theme in Heym's poetry.
The book's forty-three poems had been compiled by Heym's friends from the Expressionist literary group Der Neue Club (The new club) in Berlin. Ernst Rowohlt, in Leipzig, published the first edition. Editor Hans Mardersteig, on behalf of publishing house Kurt Wolff in Munich, invited Kirchner to illustrate the reprint. The book is titled after one of Heym's poems.
Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 52
It was within the artists' group Brücke (Bridge), founded in 1905, that Ernst Ludwig Kirchner formulated his views on art and established a visual language. Together with other core members—Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Pechstein, and, briefly, Emil Nolde—Kirchner sought a new spirit of freedom and authenticity that rejected both the stultifying traditions of the academy and the restrictive conventions of bourgeois society. Brücke artists felt that art could respond to essential life forces with spontaneity and immediacy through such subjects as the nude in nature or figures dancing with frenzy and abandon. Sharing studios and models, teaching each other techniques, and even vacationing together, they evolved a common style that first embraced the fluidity of Fauvism and then turned to the energy and angularity of tribal art for inspiration.
Printmaking was fundamental to Brücke activities, and annual portfolios of prints were published to help the artists gain recognition and produce income. For the most part, however, members' prints were experimental in nature and made with only a few proof impressions. Kirchner continued this unstructured approach to printmaking even after the dissolution of Brücke in 1913, eventually creating some two thousand works, primarily in his own studio.
During World War I, after briefly training in the mounted artillery, Kirchner suffered a mental collapse. His depiction as an isolated figure is seen in Evening Patrol of 1915. His series of prints of this period, entitled Schlemihl Meets His Shadow, is also considered the embodiment of his anxiety and paranoia, conditions that would continue to plague him, along with ill health, for the remainder of his life. In 1938, after being ostracized from German art circles by the Nazis, and having hundreds of his paintings removed from museums and declared "degenerate," Kirchner ended his own life.