New York

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

This survey of twenty late paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is an important if ambiguous event. Even when taking into account the historic achievements of both Der Blaue Reiter (Kandinsky and Company) and Die Brücke (founded by Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, and Erich Heckel), it seems fair to say that the greater glory of that moment was captured by the French: by Matisse and the Fauvists, by Picasso and the Cubists. Certainly Kirchner’s own adaptation of Cubist tropes, the parallelizing and fanning stroke typical of his famous urban scenes of streetwalkers, for example, had, by World War I, already gone far in transforming the chromatic fervor of his earlier, Fauvistically touched Expressionism.

During the Weimar years, Kirchner’s painting began to be seen as old hat, owing to the emergence of an obsessively observed realist mode practiced by artists including Otto Dix, Christian Schad, Max Beckmann (to a degree), even George Grosz: Neue Sachlichkeit. Still, Kirchner maintained his iconic role as the national modern painter, a status questioned under Neue Sachlichkeit, rejected by the Nazis, and wobbly but still intact when, in the 1960s, Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter took pride of place. Indeed, Kirchner has never really been dislodged from his high station in modern German painting, an eminence that only throws the limitations of his final phase into sharper relief.

In 1917, following many years dogged by scandal and nervous collapse, Kirchner retired to the comforts of Davos, Switzerland, where the works in this exhibition were painted. (Despite the immense literature on Kirchner, the nature of his breakdowns remains vague, though it strikes me that they reflect a persecution complex, an interpretation also hinted at in Paula Kort’s admirable essay that accompanies the exhibition.) He died in 1938, prior to the worst excesses of the Third Reich but not before he saw his works purged from public view for their so-called “degeneracy” when, in 1937, he was especially vilified as an entarteter Künstler.

Kirchner’s humiliation, while surely painful and traumatic, in no way blinds one to the mediocrity of the Davos paintings. The artist’s own characterization of them as “the unexpected new” whistles in the dark. Still, in all fairness, it should be noted that the dubious achievements of other artists, lesser and greater, have been revalorized: Matisse of the middle–Nice period, Picasso in Antibes and Mougins, collaborationist Picabia in Nice, Mario Sironi’s Blackshirt propaganda, even the Nazi classicism of Arno Brecker all enjoy topical apology today. Why, then, is it so difficult to breathe life into Kirchner’s Davos work?

The problem owes much to the academization of the progressive graphic design of the 1920s, those compositional devices fostered at the Bauhaus and taken up internationally, not only by designers but by painters too. This kind of designer-ish painting quickly became formulaic, quasi-geometric decoration—occasionally animated by a biomorphic lyricism—despite the utopian high-mindedness that first inspired it.

Kirchner’s version of this mode tends toward largish compositions of intersecting figures, or figures in interiors engulfed in a kind of nature-inspired patchwork—modernistic potboilers. (Andre Lhote would be a French equivalent.) Not that Kirchner utterly failed to introduce a certain glum originality into the work—with his monumental figures that were indebted to the Oceanic nudes of Gauguin; his often-quirky Mannerist sense of color (pink, lavender, celadon, black—an unusual palette under any circumstances); the overtone of Nordic lyrical Symbolism echoing Munch. These aspects of the Davos works are not without merit and may yet provide the clues that could lead to a broad redemption. That this work is already esteemed for its period interest goes without saying. Such condescension is far from admitting them wholesale into the twentieth-century canon, but in this case it is a first and necessary step. One wonders how the Davos pictures—for they are rather more pictures than paintings—will look twenty years from now.

Robert Pincus-Witten

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