Berlin

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel und Otto Mueller beim Schach (Erich Heckel and Otto Mueller Playing Chess), 1913, oil on canvas, 14 × 15 7⁄8". From “1913: The Brüke and Berlin.”

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel und Otto Mueller beim Schach (Erich Heckel and Otto Mueller Playing Chess), 1913, oil on canvas, 14 × 15 7⁄8". From “1913: The Brüke
and Berlin.”

“1913: The Brücke and Berlin”

Brücke Museum

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel und Otto Mueller beim Schach (Erich Heckel and Otto Mueller Playing Chess), 1913, oil on canvas, 14 × 15 7⁄8". From “1913: The Brüke and Berlin.”

It was a momentous year, not just in the wider history of modernism—with the publication of such landmark works as Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay-Terk’s Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France and Guillaume Apollinaire’s Alcools—but in particular for the Expressionist collective known as Die Brücke. Having relocated to Berlin from Dresden, Germany, two years previously, in 1913 three of the group’s remaining protagonists—Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff—were preparing a chronicle that was to serve as both a catalogue and a summation of its activities over the eight years of its existence. Kirchner took on the task of penning the text, and when Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff read it, they thought he had unduly cast himself as the leader. Latent tensions came to a head, Die Brücke disbanded, and its members launched their solo careers.

In 1913, Berlin was Europe’s third-largest city, a dazzling cosmopolis already famous for its riotous nightlife. Kirchner’s ink renderings of Wittenbergplatz and Uhlandstraße, which opened the exhibition, put the artist’s mastery of the jotty line to great use in eliciting the frenzied pace of the capital in the waning years of the Kaiser’s empire, its hatted and trench-coated bourgeoisie hurrying along the avenues. The Brücke artists dwelt in cheap unwanted attic studios scattered throughout the city’s upper-middle-class southwestern districts. Through a combination of archival materials and artworks—a smattering of paintings, but mainly drawings and woodcuts, which were a quintessential medium for Die Brücke—this exhibition was a fascinating study of a single year, give or take, in the lives of its members, implicitly arguing that the breakup of the group came at an aesthetic high point in each artist’s development.

Truthfully, Kirchner was the most talented of the bunch, or second, perhaps, to Emil Nolde, who was only briefly a member. Unsurprisingly, then, Kirchner was also the artist with the most and best works on display in this exhibition, though Schmidt-Rottluff deserves special mention for a series of woodcuts—largely nautical scenes and studies of marine life—produced in the months after the split, as well as for a selection of printing blocks such as those for the voluptuous Mädchen auf Sofa (Girl on a Sofa), 1913.

Expressionism was felt to be Germany’s indigenous style. Its aesthetic was not strictly pictorial, but also encompassed literature, music, architecture, and cinema. Expressionist film was still in its early stages in 1913, the year of the silent horror film Der student von Prag (The Student of Prague), but literary efforts were well under way; a young Alfred Döblin, for instance, was at work on a number of novellas that were published with Kirchner’s woodcut illustrations, facsimiles of which were included here.

It was Kirchner to whom the exhibition’s narrative kept returning, culminating in a fantastic set of spontaneous pencil-and-ink works depicting Berlin’s decadent nightlife that complemented the street scenes by him shown at the outset. One hundred and six years ago, Berlin was, just as it is today, a city that never sleeps, and in pieces such as the monochromatic ink-on-paper Café Chantant I, 1914, Kirchner is at his most electric, with his seemingly chaotic but actually intricately controlled bursts of line work, beneath which his female subjects’ faces are defined with unusual exactitude, revealing human presences that glow through the fireworks.