Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: A German Expressionist on Fire

Sandra Bertrand


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) was a key figure in the turbulent history of German Expressionism.  As the cofounder of the Brucke, or Bridge group in 1905—four architecture students in Dresden who decided to revolutionize the established order with their painting—he defined himself as a “Farbenmensch” (color person), intent on blazing a path to his immortality.  And visitors to New York City’s Neue Galerie are sure to be electrified by the artist’s paintings, drawings, prints, and decorative works.

Founded in 2001 by Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky, the Neue Galerie is housed in a beautifully ornate mansion at 86th and Fifth Avenue in New York City, and has become an exquisite showcase of Austrian and German art.  For this exhibition, designer Peter de Kimpe has created a backdrop of walls in salmon pinks and blues and greens that complement the vibrant works on display.

Upon exiting the elevator or the main staircase, a narrow hallway on the third floor provides a timeline of attention-grabbing photographs and text about the artist.  It is worth whatever difficulties are posed in navigating on a busy afternoon, as it functions as an excellent introduction to the phases of Kirchner’s life and the locales—Dresden, Berlin and Davos—where he created his major works.



Perhaps the happiest times for Kirchner were in Dresden, when he started a studio with the other members of the Brucke group: Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff and later, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller.  Inspiration over technique was the order of the day.  In Kirchner’s words: “As young people who bear the future—we want to acquire freedom for our hands and lives, against the well-established older forces.”

Van Gogh’s exhibition in 1908 at the Arnold Gallery in Dresden was a transformative event for the artist.  Bold, short strokes, black outlines, and a heavy application of paint played an early role.  Norway’s Edvard Munch and James Ensor were emulated as masters of psychological portraiture.  Doris Standing (1906) in pale greens and blacks is a haunting dead-ringer for Munch’s early melancholic style.  The painting is placed alongside Portrait of Hans Frisch (1907), one of the largest portraits on display, which also exhibits the heaviest application of paint.  An interesting side note: The Brucke  artists were known to occasionally mix petroleum with layers of oil paint to allow for a smoother application.   

Kirchner was obviously in thrall with the cabaret dancers and circus performers he frequently encountered.  Tightrope Walk (1908-10) is an awkward but compelling jangle of acrobatic limbs in tights with a profusion of pinks and oranges and garish shapes filling the canvas.  The Russian Dancer Mela (1911), with her striking scissor-like legs, is a simple but strong evocation of the performer. 



The female figure as a subject is frequently on display but not always erotic in execution.  Rather, the emphasis is on color and composition as foremost. Two Nudes (1907) is an exception where a certain voluptuousness holds sway.  That is also true of African Dancer, with her supple hips and buttocks. 

When Kirchner separated from his Dresden companion Doris “Dodo” Grosse, he admitted that he began to see the female form in a new light.  Upon meeting Erna Schilling, a Berlin woman, and her sister, “the beautiful, shapely, architectonically structured bodies of these two girls replaced the soft Saxon bodies.”

Kirchner’s move to Berlin in 1911 allows his signature style full play and is never more evident than in his Berlin Street Scene (1913-14).  The placement of his prostitutes with their plumed hats and furs shows a mastery of perspective.  The artist has thrust the women and their male partners in a rhythmic march towards the foreground, creating an inescapable tension. The action comes to an abrupt stop with a male subject front and center with his back to the viewer.  This painting was co-acquired in 2006 and Director Renee Price sees it as a work of “pointed social critique,” one that’s central to their mission.



Red Elizabeth Bank in Berlin (1912) provides another distorted urban scene.  The Luisen canal is prominently placed in the central plane of the picture.  Two churches in red in the background vie for the eye’s attention, counterbalanced by two bridge piers of the same color on each side of the river. Trees on opposite embankments complete another example of the artist’s talent at perspective. In the lower right, two characteristic stick-like figures march toward the river’s edge -- almost as an afterthought.

The outbreak of World War I in August of 1914 had brutal consequences for his artistic contemporaries and Kirchner was no exception.  Assigned to serve in the mounted artillery, in September 1915 he suffered a complete breakdown, spending extended periods in sanitoriums.  In his work, jarring contrasts of color and shape were intensified.  Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915) is a powerful and disturbing example of the artist’s anguish.  In full uniform, cigarette dangling from his mouth, he presents himself as a desolate figure—eyes vacant, amputated hand in full view.  In the background, a nude woman is presented against a dark backdrop, but of no apparent consequence to the subject.  The amputation is figurative only but a symbol of the painter’s fear of artistic impotence.

From 1918 to 1938, Kirchner chose to live and work in Davos, Switzerland, an alpine farming community that would give him some fresh perspective.  Viewers may be surprised at first to see such a change in subject matter but the desire to find solace in pastoral settings was hardly new.  Kirchner and the early members of the Brucke had spent summer idylls at the Moritzburg Lakes near Dresden from 1909-1911. 

Particularly stunning is a triptych expressing this search for harmony.  The first presents three workers with mountain peaks in the background, the second cattle grazing under a blistery sun and the third, a woman in sun hat with a string of small abodes in the background. But there’s a darkness at work in the neighboring landscapes. His obsession with these mountainous terrains, especially the towering Tinzenhorn as a favorite subject, could also signal the futility of man in proportion to nature’s immensity.



A small rug in the same room is filled with a delightful pastiche of scattered faces and forms.  Designed by Kirchner and executed by Erna Schilling, it shows another direction taken during the artist’s later years.  A much larger wall tapestry is on display as well, with Lisa Gujer as Kirchner’s helpmate.  It is worth studying for its intricate array of animals and other arresting forms.

On the second floor, an array of woodcut prints provides a powerful glimpse into Kirchner’s natural talent for this medium.  Inspired by cutting techniques of Southern Germany, he often added color, hand painting his own works.  Among standouts are the Portrait of Otto Mueller (1915) and a rare injection of humor, Nervous People Eating, which reveals diners with bony fingers fussing at their plates.

Kirchner’s escape into solitude was eventually overshadowed by the creeping specter of the Third Reich and their insidious attempts to seek out and destroy what they perceived to be degenerate art.  A ray of hope was Director Alfred Barr’s decision to   mount an impressive exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  That show, German Painting and Sculpture, highlighted many of Kirchner’s works.  But by 1937, Hitler’s own Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich included over 30 of the artist’s paintings. (Recently, a major reconstruction of that exhibit was held at the Neue Galerie to much acclaim.)

Swiftly and relentlessly, following the Munich exhibition, more than 600 of Kirchner’s artworks were removed by museums, sold, or destroyed.  Sadly, such absolute defamation was surely a major factor in his suicide on June 15, 1938.

Thanks are due to curators Jill Lloyd and Janis Staggs and the Neue Galerie for their ongoing insistence in bringing the best of Austrian and German artworks to the general public.   


The exhibition will run through January 13, 2020 at the Neue Galerie.


Author Bio:


Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief arts critic.


For Highbrow Magazine


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Images courtesy of the Neue Galerie
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