Building Bridges: William Cook on the Rise and Fall of an Important but Neglected German Painter. (Art)

By Tudor, Antony | New Statesman (1996), July 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

Building Bridges: William Cook on the Rise and Fall of an Important but Neglected German Painter. (Art)


Tudor, Antony, New Statesman (1996)


Better late than never, Britain is finally waking up to German expressionism. It is only a few months since Max Beckmann transfixed the Tate, and now the Royal Academy has followed suit with a similarly arresting survey, devoted to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Incredibly, it is the first Kirchner show here in 30 years, and the first ever held in a British public gallery -- and it shows what an exciting and complex talent our insular island has missed.

Kirchner was born in Germany in 1880 and committed suicide in Switzerland in 1938. Yet this compact but comprehensive display straddles only 13 years, from the advent of his career, in Dresden in 1905, to its glorious and dreadful climax in 1918. In this short time, his intense vision shifted from hedonism to decadence to hysterical decay, as Deutschland slid from imperial pomp into the "bloody carnival" of the First World War. It must have been a terrible journey, especially for an artist of such psychotic sensitivity, and this alarming record of his rise and fall, and the rise and fall of Germany, has the narrative pull of a gothic novel.

In 1905, Dresden was still a beautiful city, the Florence of the Elbe, but unlike Canaletto, Kirchner did not paint the architectural drama of its baroque streets so much as the erotic drama of its boudoirs. Decorated with African, Indian and Oceanic art, and inhabited by a similarly exotic array of models, Kirchner's studio was his sexual playground, too. "How you enjoyed sex!" he told his first great muse and lover, Dodo. "With you, I experienced it to the full, almost to the point of lunacy." A less sensual lunacy would overwhelm him in the awful years to come. In a comic metaphor for Dresden's prim disapproval of his bohemian aesthetic, he was accosted by a prudish policeman during one of the alfresco frolics that inspired his bucolic nudes, and narrowly escaped prosecution. Kirchner and his free-loving friends decided to decamp to cosmopolitan Berlin.

He fared little better in the licentious Prussian capital. The art school he founded attracted only two paying pupils, and his influential expressionist clique, Die Brucke ("the bridge"), fell apart. Yet here in Faust's metropolis, he created his greatest pictures. These claustrophobic street scenes, in which anonymous predatory men stalk debonair, disdainful prostitutes, captured the alienation of urban life and the amoral appeal of a brash new culture on the brink of apocalyptic collapse. As he revealed, "they were made at one of the loneliest moments of my life".

Kirchner's biography echoes the (self-) destruction of his fatherland, but his art is far too exuberant for this to be a purely tragic tale. His Dresden pictures are a joyous celebration of youthful pleasure, and although in Berlin his perspective shifts from libidinous lover to that of furtive voyeur, these fretful Meisterwerken still crackle with the thrill of what was then the world's fastest-growing city. Kirchner lived the life he painted, and throughout the compressed time-span of this frightening yet life-affirming retrospective, he surely lived (and painted) life to the full.

Loneliness is no bar to creativity, but insanity often is -- and the war finally pushed Kirchner's fragile psyche over the edge.

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