bio-Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

(German, 1880-1938)
"Street, Dresden" oil painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Street, Dresden. 1908 (reworked 1919, dated 1907 on painting). Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

A multifaceted artist central to the development of Expressionism in Germany, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was born to a comfortable, middle-class family in Aschaffenburg in 1880. In keeping with his father’s wishes, he decided at the age of ten to pursue a career in architecture. He enrolled in the Königliche Technische Hochschule in Dresden in 1901, and upon passing his exams two years later, continued his education in Munich (then Germany’s artistic and cultural center). In Munich Kirchner’s studies broadened to include courses in life drawing, composition and graphic arts at the Lehr- und Versuchatelier für Angewandte und Freie Kunst (Teaching and Experimental Studio for Applied and Fine Art). There he created his first woodcuts, pulling them on the school’s presses.

Kirchner returned to Dresden’s Königliche Technische Hochschule in 1904 and also began to paint with Erich Heckel. In June of 1905, along with Heckel and his fellow architectural students Fritz Bleyl and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Kirchner formed the artists’ association Die Brücke.

Determined to liberate themselves from the repressive values of established Wilhelmine culture, these artists opposed the established styles and materialism of their age. The collective met in a shared studio above a former butcher’s shop for life-drawing sessions and took trips to the lakes north of Dresden, near Schloss Moritzburg, to paint the nude figure in a natural setting. Their works chronicled bohemian life and celebrated the human form. Kirchner penned their manifesto.

The Brücke interest in printmaking, particularly woodcuts—which they considered a fundamentally Germanic medium—stemmed from their desire to renew German art. Beginning in 1906, they issued yearly print portfolios to disseminate their work and vision to a wider public, and to help finance their endeavors. The fifth of these annual graphics portfolios, published in 1910, was devoted to Kirchner.

The artists of Die Brücke moved to Berlin in search of a more supportive audience in 1911. The group participated in a number of exhibitions in 1912, in Moscow, Prague, Munich, and their new city of Berlin. The following year, however, Die Brücke dissolved when Kirchner, considered its leader, authored an egocentric history of the group that offended his fellows.

Between 1913 and 1915, Kirchner painted a series of famous street scenes capturing the pulsating modernism of the Berlin metropolis in bold, clashing colors. This body of work, with its angular forms, extreme distortions, nervous hatching and hectic brushstrokes, heralded the artist’s shift from symbolic to psychological imagery.

In order to avoid being drafted for less desirable duties, Kirchner volunteered to serve as a driver in the artillery in 1915. After only a few months he suffered a serious physical and mental breakdown and received a provisional discharge on the recommendation of his riding instructor, Hans Fehr. Kirchner was sent to a sanatorium at Königstein in Taunus in 1916, where his condition, exacerbated by alcoholism and drug use, failed to improve. In 1917, further treatment followed in Switzerland: first in Davos, and then, when he began to experience paralysis of his hands and feet, in Kreuzlingen.

At the end of his slow recovery, Kirchner settled in a farmhouse in Davos. He resumed painting and gradually adopted a more abstract style influenced by Cubism, his jagged forms giving way to more static depictions of Swiss landscapes and peasant life. This “tapestry style,” characterized by broad, “interwoven” areas of color, stems from his collaboration with the weaver Lise Gujer, who produced 24 woven works from Kirchner’s designs beginning in 1922.

From 1936 onward, Kirchner was increasingly disturbed by the Nazis’ attacks on modern art. In 1937, his work was branded as “degenerate” and removed from public view. On June 15, 1938, soon after Hitler’s annexation of neighboring Austria, the artist took his own life.