Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Madrid, Fundación Mapfre, from 24 May to 2 September 2012

He was a major figure of Expressionism but not only, as demonstrated by the MAPFRE Foundation with about 153 works by Ernst Kirchner, highlighting in particular the last twenty years of his production, spent mainly in Switzerland. Assembled from all over the world, these loans were made possible despite the many exhibitions devoted to the artist over the past few years [1] but as we know, he was more than prolific : oils on canvas, pastels, drawings, engravings on wood, lithographs, sculptures, photographs.... Indeed, the other very interesting aspect of this show is the fact it reveals the multiple facets of his work.

1. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Young Woman Stretching, 1907
Pastel - 42 x 34 cm
Coire, Bündner Kunstmuseum
Photo : Bünder Kunstmuseum

2. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Cocotte Head with Plumed Hat, 1907
Lithography - 38.5 x 33 cm
Ulm, Ulmer Museum
Photo : Ulmer Museum

The chronological visit begins with the early years in Dresden (1905-1911), the creation of Die Brücke and its members’ determination to break with the predominant academic art ; an adventure which the Quimper museum, after that in Grenoble, is currently retracing in a very thorough exhibition. This first room recalls the influence of Jugendstil, Neo-Impressionism, also that of Van Gogh, obvious in The Sunflowers, or that of Matisse, tangible in Dodo Sitting at the Table. Kirchner and his friends also claimed the legacy received from old masters such as Dürer and Cranach, whose mark is felt in the engraving on wood Nude with a Hat. The muses which inspired Die Brücke are also presented here : Fränzie, Marcella, and in a general way the female figure, evoked in all its forms.

3. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Judgement of Paris, 1912-1913
am Rhein, Wilhelm-Hack-Museum
Photo : Joachim Werkmeister

A Young Woman Stretching, quickly sketched in with pastels (ill. 1) hangs alongside a lithograph of a hussy wearing a superb hat (ill. 2). The swift stroke, the vivid and non-naturalist colors express this search for spontaneity, authenticity and vital freedom which the group claimed and which also appears in the sketchbooks scattered throughout the visit. This quest for authenticity went hand in hand with a fascination for the primitive, illustrated in Black Dancer and also in the sandstone sculpture of a squatting woman. In fact, Kirchner produced several statues which he used for his drawings and paintings, in a permanent exchange as demonstrated by the MAPFRE Foundation.

The years in Berlin (1911-1915) saw the disbanding of Die Brücke (1913) and the development of Expressionism per se. Kirchner’s style became more vigorous, the forms sharper, the subjects gloomier, reflecting social reality, agitation and the city’s night life, all evoked in the famous street scenes which added to the artist’s fame. The Judgement of Paris deploys before our eyes, and those of the lustful man sitting in the dark, three women - goddesses or prostitutes ? - in a setting which might very well be a brothel ; the feminine figures expose themselves in a troubling way displaying their greenish flesh, their sharply angled forms and, finally, giving off an air of primitive idols rather than of mythological divinities (ill. 3).

4. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
The Toilette, 1913 and 1920
Oil on Canvas - 101 x 75 cm
Paris, Centre Pompidou
PHoto : Fondation Mapfre

5. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
The Redhead, 1914
Oil on Canvas - 91 x 64 cm
Private Collection
Photo : Fondation Mapfre

During this period Kirchner would often visit the isle of Fehmarn, on the Baltic Sea, where he produced many studies of nudes in the water, notably quick sketches done with a few pencil strokes, several beautiful ones of which are on view here in the exhibition.
In this section, two painted figures establish a dialogue expressing the negative and positive aspects of a woman : The Toilette presents the back of a feminine figure with sickly greenish brown flesh against a blue background (ill. 4), while The Redhead reveals a white body, enhanced by the bright green setting behind her (ill. 5). The Toilette no doubt represents Erna Schilling, a model who was to become the artist’s companion. Placed in an unbalanced space, she is combing her hair in front of a mirror which reveals the strange reflection of a drawn face and a body with drooping shoulders. This composition reminds us that Cubist works were on view in Cologne in 1912.

6. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Ill (Selfportrait), Ludwig Schames,
Henry van de Velde, Butz, 1917-1918
Engravings on Panel
Photo : Fondation Mapfre

When the First World War broke out, Kirchner was exempted from military service due to health problems and depression, undergoing various stays in sanatoriums in Germany and Switzerland, producing during this time many splendid but tortured portraits engraved in wood, and here the exhibition presents an entire gallery of them (ill. 6), notably an Ill which is also a self-portrait.

He spent some time in Davos (Switzerland) in 1917 before settling there permanently in 1918. The themes of his paintings changed radically at this point : Kirchner began to sing the charm of the Alps and peasant life there, in compositions full of serenity, flat, static and with more luminous colors as well. Inspired by the techniques used in embroidery and weaving around 1925, he outlined the forms, juxtaposed and overlaid large and small blocks of color, initiating what is sometimes called the "tapestry style" [2] exemplified by The Valley of Sertig in the Autumn (ill. 7).

7. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
The Valley of Sertig in the Autumn, 1925-1926
Oil on Canvas - 136 x 200 cm
Davos, Kirchner Museum
Photo : Fondation Mapfre

8. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
The Family, 1927-1928
Oil on Canvas - 119 x 70 cm
Krefeld, Kunstmuseen
Photo : Kunstmuseen

Besides the work in progress, the artist also spent time touching up the paintings damaged during the move from his studio in Berlin to Davos. This was the case for the stunning triptych Women Bathing whose three panels have been assembled for the occasion here ; painted in 1915, it was modified in 1925 introducing forms with better defined contours and a flatter space. Kirchner went so far as to backdate certain works so as to appear as a forerunner.

9. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Horsewoman, 1931-1932
Oil on Canvas - 200 x 150 cm
Davos, Kirchner Museum
Photo : Kirchner Museum

10. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Orange and Yellow Nude, 1929-1930
Davos, Kirchner Museum
Photo : Kirchner Museum

Although officially retired, the artist kept abreast of international artistic trends and in 1925 spent several months traveling in Germany. A distinct vocabulary began to take shape with each canvas : the painter progressively thickened the contours of the figures to the point of transforming them into spots which overflow their borders, such as The Family (ill. 8), and treated the faces like colored surfaces, comparable to masks. Kirchner studied the Bauhaus attentively as well as the works of Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and Le Corbusier, allowing himself to be tempted by abstraction : he chose simpler, more geometric forms but without ever really abandoning the figurative. He merged different viewpoints (ill. 9), liberating color from the restrictions of contours, at times creating "air shadows", colored halos which seem to emanate from the figures themselves (ill. 10). Perspective disappeared, the figures blend into the flat space which is sometimes structured by fine horizontal lines.

11. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Pair of Acrobats, 1932-1933
Watercolor, Oil on Canvas and Panel
Photo : Fondation Mapfre

A pair of acrobats is a good example of his simultaneous use of the techniques of painting, sculpture and paper (ill. 11). With canvases and engravings borrowed essentially from the Musée Kirchner in Davos, the last sections of the visit illustrate a whole facet of Kirchner’s creative production, abandoning the violence of immediate expression for more peaceful compositions and decorative lines. The catalogue, in which the works are unfortunately reproduced without entries, devotes an entire essay to this "new style" and includes three texts by the artist, published under the pseudonym of Louis de Marsalle. An internet website also provides a virtual visit through this surprising ensemble, revealing an artist who desired to experiment with everything possible, capable of renewing himself, but devoured by his art, to the point that not bearing to see his paintings excluded from museums by the nazis and relegated to the rank of "degenerate art", he committed suicide.

Curators : Karin Schick and Maria Luisa Barrio

Collective work, Kirchner, Fundación MAPFRE, 2012, 343 p. ISBN : 978-84-9844-364-6.

Visitor information : Fundación MAPFRE, Paseo de Recoletos 23, Madrid. Tel : +34 91 581 61 00. Open Monday from 2 pm to 8 pm, from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 8 pm, Sundays from 11 am to 7 pm. Admission : free entrance.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, lundi 25 juin 2012


[1] Notably at the MoMA in New York, "Kirchner and the Berlin Street", August-November 2008 ; at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, April-July 2010 ; at the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg, October 2012-January 2011.

[2] Catalogue of the exhibition, p. 27 : Donald E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Mit einem kritischen Katalog sämtlicher Gemälde, Munich, 1968, pp. 136-140.

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