The Museum of Modern Art, August 3 – November 10, 2008
When Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) moved to Berlin in 1911, he was already in his early thirties. He had long completed his architecture studies at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden and recently gained prominence as one of the co-founders of Die Brücke, which, along with Der Blaue Reiter, became one of the two most important German Expressionist artists collectives. It was not until arriving in Berlin however, that Kirchner found the tempo of his time and ultimately, the subject matter that would lead him to his mature work.
By 1900, with a population of about two million, by 1900 Berlin was the third largest metropolis in Europe after Paris and London. The city was buzzing with the social extremes and technological advances that can only occur during a Golden Age. Though Kirchner had moved to Berlin with the other Brücke members—Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Max Pechstein, among others—to help further the success of the group as a whole, he soon found himself on his own. As the competitive art scene of the city proved fatal for the formerly close-knit group, Kirchner became more independently known. In 1913, when he exhibited in the Armory Show in New York, and was offered his first solo shows in Germany at the Museum Folkwang Hagen and Berlin’s Galerie Gurlitt, Die Brücke dissolved.
Personally, as well as professionally, Berlin’s impact on Kirchner was twofold. It offered him both plentiful stimuli and painful alienation. He was successful yet lonely, despite his associations with various local artists and writers. In the fall of 1913, the strain of this divide found expression in Kirchner’s Berlin Street Scenes. Brief but intense (Kirchner’s stark focus on urban street life began to ebb by 1915), the series marked one of the most significant achievements of his career. Kirchner’s work from the previous decade had been deeply influenced by the Fauves, Munch, and Van Gogh, as well as African and Oceanic art, but in the Street Scenes, he began to develop a style that was less of an homage and more of a unique mélange. Losing himself in the anonymity of the big city, he seemed to become one with his surroundings, capturing the ephemeral energy of the streets.
This outstanding exhibition brings together seven of the eleven paintings associated with the Street Scenes and contextualizes them with more than sixty works on paper, ranging from finished pastel drawings to prints and loose studies. It is unusual in that it offers, for the first time, a scholarly, in-depth study of this particular body of work, as well as a superb portrayal of an apocalyptic era in a place that, in the gloom of history, will remain as incomprehensible as it was notorious.
The creative dynamism of prewar Berlin was not only tragically short-lived, but in retrospect it can be seen as a final flicker of carefree decadence. It was a manifestation of sensual oblivion before the crimes of two World Wars would forever change the collective consciousness. Some historians have described the 1910s as a brief era of innocence, but Kirchner’s early urban portraits suggest otherwise, and by the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he was more than skeptical. Expressive brushwork, jagged lines, strong diagonals, harsh accentuations of form and infectious color combinations characterize the work. As a whole, they summon a feverish, unbalanced atmosphere. Staring at the blank faces of Kirchner’s streetwalkers, shoppers, lowlifes, burghers and aristocrats, we realize we are looking at a ticking time bomb, a moment when anything is possible. Kirchner’s scenarios are theatrical without being symbolic—they simply feel real. Here, happenstance can easily turn into danger and laughter into a howl. Cocottes dressed in elaborate fur coats are transformed into night-crawling vampires by the green glow of a streetlamp. Stepping out of the shadows, self-made and immune to bourgeois superiority, they blithely enter the rich texture of urban life without wasting a thought on what might come tomorrow. One is reminded of the unabashed glance of Manet’s Olympia as well as the unselfconsciously self-confident 1920s movie star Clara Bow.
Overall, it is Kirchner’s strong sense of the here and now that makes this work such an invaluable document. It reflects an ethos in which no consideration was given to the consequences that might come the next day, year, or decade—a stage on which true decadence and ignorance could freely reign.
An exhibition as honest, powerful and thought-provoking as this one should not only serve as one artist’s insightful examination of his own time, but as a warning that emotional detachment is the seed of disaster, and that art is an urgent reading of the temper of the times.