Museum  November 11, 2019  Angelica Frey

Kirchner and His Women: Between Innovation and Tradition

Neue Galerie

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, detail of Berlin Street Scene, 1913-14. Neue Galerie New York and Private Collection.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was one of the most eminent figures of German expressionism. A new exhibition centered on him, currently on view at the Neue Galerie, is primarily devoted to his masterful use of color and his deep understanding of how they work together. In fact, color was the main lens through which he visualized reality. Within the exhibition, though, is also a survey, albeit limited to a small number of exemplars, on the way Kirchner approached female subjects, the female body, and female portraiture.

neue galerie

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Mountain Forest, 1918-20. Kirchner Museum Davos

“Women were important to Kirchner’s creative drive and his girlfriends, Doris (Dodo) Grosse and Erna Schilling, in particular, were muses who inspired him to make some of his most memorable works,” curators Jill Lloyd and Janis Staggs told Art & Object over a joint email correspondence. “His source of creativity was fundamentally grounded in the feminine, and as he put it, ‘The work originates in impulse, in ecstasy.’”

There is a strong link between Kirchner’s romantic relationships with women and his artistic output. In fact, he likened sexual relations to artistic creation, as both were evidently highly inspirational. “Often, I got up in the midst of coitus to put down a movement or an expression,” he was quoted saying. 

His most renowned painting, is, perhaps, the 1913 Streets of Berlin, which embodies the dynamism of the new city both through frantic brushstrokes and through the scene that unfolds: it looks like a snippet from the life of the bourgeoisie, but the flamboyantly-clad women, complete with large hats and statement coats, are actually high-class prostitutes, staring at a shop window. Fashion plates served as inspiration.

“Consumer culture was dominant, giving rise to department stores, flashy advertising, and rampant prostitution,” explained the two curators. “As such, and as a conveyer of modern life, he faithfully studied these developments and perused storefront windows, fashion journals, and walked the streets themselves like a flâneur so that he could accurately portray life in Berlin.”

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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Seated Woman (Dodo), 1907.

Yet, it’s through the nude that we can clearly see him playing with both tradition and innovation. His Seated Nude in Blue and Orange from 1909-10, portrays his then-girlfriend Doris Grosse, whom he affectionately called Dodo. Her beauty clearly enticed him, and he tried to translate it into a vivid and alive painting. Seated Nude is an expressionistic riff on the nude, where the art movement wanted to emancipate this very traditional subject from its stiff, academic veneer, and from its preferred subjects, such as goddesses: Doris, in fact, was a shop assistant and a model.

“One of the central tenets of the Brücke (Bridge) group of artists was to focus on the nude ‘in free naturalness’ and to paint their models in a modern context and not in an allegorical, historical, or religious framework,” Lloyd and Staggs told us. “It is also worth emphasizing that he portrayed his models as he found them and did not idealize their features following the standards of classical beauty.”

African Dancer, from 1910, denotes Kirchner’s fascination with arts and cultures for the exotic locale. While this portrayal does not meet today’s standards of sensitivities when it comes to cultural representation, it’s undeniable to see how Kirchner genuinely bought into the widespread idea, back then, that those cultures were a source of renewal that could challenge the conventions of Western society. Funnily, he pre-dated the painting, back to 1905. This comes from a personal pet peeve of his, where he always wanted to be seen as “the first,” and disliked it when critics singled him out as a follower rather than as an innovator.

neue galerie

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, The Toilette, 1913-20. Centre Pompidou, Paris.

When he moved to Berlin in 1911, he was entranced by the burgeoning idea of Neue Frau, the emancipated, urban-dwelling woman who, when it comes to aesthetic codes, had more of an androgynous look compared to the fin-de-siècle idea of female beauty. The portraits he painted of his new girlfriend Erna Schilling, a night-club dancer, reflect this tendency. In The Toilette (1913), she appears as a tantalizing, modern woman who, unlike Dodo with her traditionally feminine beauty, had a statuesque and architectural body, offset by a white corset and a pair of high-heeled shoes. Her body looks like it’s made of carved wood, more than actual flesh.

His wood-carving practice did influence his perception of the female body. “This new approach is, on the one hand, reflective of how he responded to the rather anonymous and harsh living conditions in one of the largest metropolitan cities in the world at that time, with an emphasis on commodification, and, on the other hand, it reflects his intense focus of creating works on paper during those years, such as the woodcut in particular,” explained Lloyd and Staggs. “The other major shift that occurred is that he came to view women as more independent and controlled and often portrayed them as statuesque beauties, towering over their male counterparts.” In Tower Room, Fehmarn (1913), a naked Erna is depicted by a kitchen table, towering over Kirchner: this body language indicates that she is aware of her own sexual power.

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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Tower Room, Fehmarn, 1913.

Yet, his nudes were also indebted to tradition, particularly the Northern Renaissance. Nude in Black Hat which exists both as a woodcut-on-paper version and as painting currently exhibited in Frankfurt, is a nude that is largely indebted to the legacy of Northern-European Old Masters. Its body shape, with pert breasts and generous hips, is almost a direct citation of Northern Renaissance works by Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose attenuated and stylized nudes inspired him. “He created modern interpretations of these women in contemporary settings,” the curators explained. This also allows us to understand his approach to the female body in an art-historical context.

“Anyone who viewed Kirchner’s work during his lifetime would have recognized these references to the German tradition of painting,” explained the curators.” And [would have] seen his work as representative of a modern inheritor working in this lineage.”

About the Author

Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. She writes about art, culture, and food.

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