Born in Döbeln on July 31, 1883, Erich Heckel demonstrated a talent for the arts from an early age. In 1904, he began his architectural studies at the Polytechnical University in Dresden, where he met fellow student Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Discovering that they shared similar artistic and philosophical sentiments, the pair formed the artists’ association Die Brücke with their friends Fritz Bleyl and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff in 1905. In their effort to break from the traditional, neo-romantic style championed by the German artistic establishment, the group (which would later expand to include Otto Mueller, Emil Nolde and Hermann Max Pechstein) drew upon sources as geographically and chronologically diverse as the European Renaissance, Jugendstil, tribal and primitive art, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Northern European Symbolism. Emulating the Medieval guilds, this fledgling group of German Expressionists fostered an artistic community founded upon a shared belief in spirituality, creative freedom and harmony with nature. Members often traveled together, seeking out remote locations that appeared relatively untouched by civilization. Along with Kirchner and Pechstein, Heckel spent summers on the North Sea Coast and at the Moritzburg Lakes.
With the exception of Pechstein, who was a painter by training, all the Brücke artists were self-taught and learned from their fellow artists. The group gravitated toward printmaking—particularly woodcut, which they proudly considered a German art form. Beginning in 1906, their annual print portfolios proved an efficient, inexpensive way to reach the masses and generate income. By and large, Brücke print works were experimental, with only a few proof impressions, often on special paper, produced from each plate or stone, and all pulled by members of the collective. Heckel and his colleagues tended to use found pieces of unfinished wood or recycled lithographic stones in their printmaking, resulting in irregular shapes.
After the formation of Die Brücke, Heckel abandoned his studies and found work in the architectural offices of Wilhelm Kreis. Eminently practical, he dedicated himself to the administrative aspects of Die Brücke, serving as its treasurer and secretary, and often designing the posters and invitations publicizing the collective’s many exhibitions. He also became the unofficial mediator of disputes between the group’s members.
By 1911, all the Brücke artists had relocated to Berlin, completing an exodus begun three years earlier by Pechstein. Each member now began developing a more individualized style: Heckel’s colors became more subdued, his work altogether more melancholy and introspective. The mask-like features of his portraits during this period reflect his new proximity to Berlin’s ethnographic museum, whose collections also inspired many of his contemporaries. 1912 culminated in Heckel’s inclusion in the Sonderbund show in Cologne and, in cooperation with Kirchner, his decoration of a nearby chapel.
Despite its considerable success, Die Brücke disbanded in 1913 due to infighting among the members. Heckel’s first one-man show followed shortly thereafter, at Berlin’s Galerie Gurlitt.
Deemed unfit for military service when he enlisted after the outbreak of World World I, Heckel was assigned to duty as a medic in Flanders. This position allowed him to continue producing art, and he captured his war experiences in drawings, sketches and, incredibly, a number of graphic works, including a group of gripping self-portrait woodcuts.
Heckel married Milda Frieda Georgi in 1916, and once the war ended, joined the political artists’ advisory board Arbeitsrat für Kunst and the Novembergruppe.
Heckel’s 1937 designation as a “degenerate” artist led the Nazis to remove over 700 of his works from German museums. An air raid shortly before the end of World War II destroyed his Berlin studio, and with it, all of his print blocks and plates. Although Heckel would move to Lake Constance and again take up graphics, these later works were never considered as desirable as his earlier woodcuts.
Hailed as one of Germany’s most important artists, Heckel exhibited often and received numerous honors throughout the remainder of his life, including a 70th birthday celebration that included shows throughout the country. He held the post of professor at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Karlsruhe from 1949 to 1955, and died on January 27, 1970.