Now, what is art anyway? To me art works are symbolic patterns, which have connotations that are unclear or hidden. They may have interferences with the Zeitgeist and references to the past, both integrated through and with the individual artist’s situation at a given moment. Art, like the symbol has a future in a psychoanalytic sense. To the psychoanalytic C.G. Jung, a symbol is a real instance of a collective or personal archetype from the past. The past does not suffice to interpret it – neurologically speaking, everything beyond 3 seconds, is considered future to our brain. The current exhibition by the “Pinakothek der Moderne”, using UV, infrared and X-ray images, make signatures and overpainting visible and to give a comprehensive insight into the working process of the artist. We see by those means the past of an art work. Good art at the time of creation in its environment is encrypted future. So this essay is about past, present and future of Kirchner’s art work – 2014, 1937 in Munich.
Short excursion to history. Kirchner must have love-hated Munich. 1937 there was a opening of two exhibitions in Munich, the first “Great German Art Exhibition” in the then newly built “Haus der Kunst” and the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in the Hofgarten, it was ultimately the shunned modern art which triumphed. While the artificially created chaos of the “degenerate” art show – which included Kirchner’s work, who lived in Switzerland already – provided viewers with a unique overview of modern German and international art and got 2 million visitors, the properly displayed paintings and sculptures in the light-filled halls of the “House German Art” showed merely mediocre, provincial works, art that was not, like Hitler promised, revolutionary, but rather aesthetic primitively politicized.
Fast forward to 2014. The German Expressionists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the Norwegian Edward Munch are my most favourite painters. Although Kirchner played a determining role as a pioneering “bridge” Artists for the color revolution at the beginning of the last century, he was scarcely been recognized as the cunning “color man” he was (at least to me). Particularly photographs, but also drawings, sketchbooks, prints show Kirchner’s multi-talented cross-media design and give insight to his private life. Major loans from many museums in Europe, especially from Switzerland, as well as high-ranking German and Swiss private collections help quite a bit, because Munich for various reasons has had not as many “Kirchners” it should, although this has been getting much better lately. For the first time, both sides of selected double-sided painted canvas were made accessible. Handwritten revisions allow to present another unusual practice of Kirchner: The correction of his earlier work and the adaptation to his current style. The stunning Kirchner exhibition gives insight in his systematic way to color and his confrontation with the controversial tradition of color theory. Basis of the presentation is a joint research project, which was conducted by the Bavarian State Painting Collections in cooperation with the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart and the Kirchner Museum Davos in Switzerland to examine systematically Kirchner’s painting technique.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner studied art in Munich at the Kunsthochschule. Though critics have often tied Kirchner to influences such as Fauvism (Matisse in particular), Cubism, and Post-Impressionism, the artist himself always denied the influence of others. True, while Kirchner shows a very subjective response to reality and bold, undisguised brushstrokes and vibrant colors those did not come directly from the tube at all. Nor were they spontaneous – Kirchner was a pioneer new tar (artificial carbon) colours and he uniqely himselfprepared the canvas and mixed them with wax an cleaning solution to get the results he wanted. Like Klee he digged in colour theory als physically shown nicely in the presented dancing scenes. The Fauvist movement and German Expressionism, both projecting indebted to the same late nineteenth-century sources, especially Van Gogh. Hoewver, the French were more concerned with the formal aspects, while the German Expressionists were more emotionally involved in their subjects.
In 1905, Kirchner became one of the founding members of the “Die Brücke” group of avant-garde artists. These artists worked together to develop cross-media skills in drawing, painting, woodcut and lithography. Even when the design was based on his paintings, Kirchner’s preparation of the matrices and often hand-coloring of the prints, made each print became a unique artistic work. Their group lived counter culture, Kirchner’s studio was real bohemian, full of paintings lying all over the place, drawings, books and artist’s materials — much more like an artist’s romantic lodgings than the home of a well-organised architecture student, a place without social conventions to allow casual love-making and frequent nudity. Kirchner moved to Berlin in 1911, where he produced his most forlorn street scenes, such as the painting, “Potsdamer Platz” and the related woodcut, “Women in Potsdamer Platz”. The city facinated him, in particluarly varite, circuse and – dancers. Many of his friends and models were dancers, Erna and Nina Hard and/or very young women.
Like Lina Franziska Fehrmann (1900-1950), the adolescent model for Seated Girl, who met Kirchner in 1910. She and her siblings regularly posed for artists in the Die Brücke group. Today Kirchner most likely he would share the fate with Roman Polanski. The painter’s point of view as an expressionist is summed up in a letter which Kirchner wrote to his friend and dealer, Curt Valentin, in 1937 – oned year before his suicide “Dear Mr. Valentin,. . . Did you know that as far back as 1900 I had the audacious idea of renewing German art? Indeed I did, and the impulse came to me while looking at an exhibition of the Munich Secessionists in Munich. Their pictures were dull both in design and execution, the subjects uninteresting, and it was quite obvious that the public was bored. Indoors hung these anemic, bloodless, lifeless studio daubs and outside life, noisy and colorful, pulsated in the sun. In those days I was a strong and healthy lad, not like I am today when the spirit is still active but the body often fails me. I was filled with the desire to try and grasp what they had missed; I did and I am still doing so today.“
Not only were teenage models somehow more “authentic” than adults, they also had the advantage of being much more sympathetic to artists. Girls’ slender, nearly hermaphroditic bodies could be sexual without being exploited. Much art was in effect allowing artists to run through feelings on paper or canvas before committing to full-fledged adult relationships. In this respect, the Kirchner’s teenage nudes constitute one component in the process of identity formation as he, like almost all the Expressionists, were in their twenties when he executed his breakthrough works.
After the separation from the Brücke Group 1913 he established an individual artist identity. Despite Kirchner’s artistic success during the Berlin years, identity crisis hit the troubled artist. His neurosis may be largely influenced, like those of C.G. Jung and Herman Hesse by the impending war, which all three had viewed with a tragic sense of foreboding and fear from the outset. According to the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, the unconscious expresses itself primarily through symbols. Although no specific symbol or image can ever fully represent an archetype (which is a form without specific content), the more closely a symbol conforms to the unconscious material organized around or in us, the more it evokes a strong, emotionally charged response. The symbol has a very complex meaning because it defies reason; it always presupposes a lot of meanings that can’t be comprehended ill a single logical concept. The symbol has a future. The past does not suffice to interpret it, because germs of the future are included in every actual situation That’s why, in elucidating a case, the symbolism is spontaneously applicable for it contains the future. Jung is concerned with two kinds of symbols: individual and collective. By individual symbols Jung means “natural” symbols that are spontaneous productions of the individual psyche, rather than images or designs created deliberately by an artist. In addition to the personal symbols found in an individual’s dreams or fantasies, there are important collective symbols, which are often images such as the cross, the six-pointed Star of David, and the Yin Yang symbol. Symbolic patterns and images represent concepts that we cannot completely define or fully comprehend.
In a state of nervous anxiety, and fearing that he would get called up, Kirchner began to drink absinthe and developed an increasing dependency on sleeping pills and morphine. He volunteered to the Great Wat, but was discharged after a complete nervous breakdown. Due to mental deterioration, Kirchner emigrated 1917 to Switzerland and was admitted to the Bellevue Sanatorium and became patient of the psychoanalytic Ludwig Binswanger, whose patients included illustrious names: the Russian dancer Nijinsky, the actor and director Gustaf Gründgens and many others. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner made 22 woodcuts there.
He settled finally in the Swiss mountains near Davos. He remained in a log cabin for the rest of his life, receiving medical treatment at regular intervals. Although he continued to paint this inspired him to depict alpine scenes of mountain farmers, rather than the urban milieu of Dresden and Berlin. His reputation grew through the rest of the decade; he became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1931. By this time, all the major museums of modern art had acquired works by him and he was regularly included in exhibitions. That changed after the Nazis came to power in 1933.
In October 1991 a Los Angeles art show – tentatively titled ”1937: Modern Art and Politics” paied homage to the artists the Nationalsozialists attemped to degrade. Of the 650 works exhibited by the Nazis in Munich only 150 appeared in there.
During the eighties and the early 90ties I lived in California and ha a chances to see the restaging of the Munich “Degenerate Art” exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The original exhibition “Degenerate Art” first opened in Munich on 19 July 1937 and showed 650 works of art confiscated from 32 German museums. By April 1941, the show had travelled to twelve other cities and attracted over 3 million visitors. This ”Entartete Kunst,” or ”Degenerate Art,” was displayed the Nazis with the aim of demonstrating the ”immoral” influence of the avant-garde on German culture. Besides denouncing the great artists of the avant-garde, it disparaged Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee and hundreds of others whose work was considered ”un-German.” Jews and communists, abstract pioneers, and especially the Expressionists of the “Die Brücke”were condemned as sick, poisonous artists. It was one of the most infamous exhibitions of the 20th century; it was also one of the best from contents and best attended. And its effects are being felt even today – numerous paintings in that show had been sold worldwide. That is the reason that one needs to travel, if you like German expressionists. A total of 639 works by Kirchner alone were identified as “degenerate” by the Nazis and subsequently confiscated from museums, before being sold abroad or destroyed, prompting the first thoughts of suicide in Kirchner. In 1938, soon after Nazis annexed Austria, Kirchner becomes increasingly paranoid, destroys some of his works and finally committed suicide. His longtime companion Erna, gets legal custody of his work and stay in the cabin until her death 1945. Ironically, in a Fahrenheight 451 even, customs police recently discovered in Munich an unimaginable artistic heritage of classical modernism. A cache of approximately 1,500 saved painting by Picasso, Matisse and others which were hidden in the apartment of a 80year-old – including many works that had been confiscated by the Nazis.
While I strolled out of the special exhibition I saw this gray painting of contemporary art. If this reflects our life, watching wars on TV, why art today seems to be void of any despair I feel in Kirchner’s work? It is easy to point out the psychologically disturbed or cynical players who learn to manipulate the system to get their fifteen minutes or a nice big check from a foundation, or the hangers-on who play the game in order to get invited to the right parties. But every human field of endeavor has its hangers-on, its disturbed and cynical members, and they are never the ones who drive the scene.
The question is: Why did cynicism and commerce come to be the game you had to play to make it in the world of art? By now the main themes of modern art are clear to us. Standard histories of art tell us that modern art died around 1970, its themes and strategies exhausted, and that we now have more than a quarter-century of postmodernism behind us. The big break with the past occurred toward the end of the nineteenth century. My take is that post-modern art never challenged political powers like modern art did. Edvard Munch got there first (The Scream, 1893): If the truth is that reality is a horrifying, disintegrating swirl, then both form and content should express the feeling. Kirchner, C.G. Jung, Herman Hesse got there felt it and many others. Francis Coppola and Oliver Stone felt it.If the truth is that reality is fractured and frightening, then both form and content must express that. If the truth is, that reality is unintelligible, then art can teach this lesson by using realistic forms against the idea that we can distinguish objective reality from irrational, subjective dreams. It has always been my understanding that the truest definition of art is something that touches us in some way,emotionally, or makes us think.That needs skills and hunches. I still adhere to this.
Artistic revolutions are made by a few key individuals. At the heart of every revolution is an artist who achieves originality. A novel theme, a fresh subject, or the inventive use of composition, figure, or color marks the beginning of a new era. Artists truly are gods: they create a world in their work, and they contribute to the creation of our cultural world.Throughout the history of art it seems that a any new artistic movement is born of a rebellion against its predecessor. have seen many artists in recent years seemingly create for the shock value. Many times it comes across as simple disrespect and disdain, perhaps revealing the insecurities and psychological devils of the creator. I have always had a problem with a select few dictating what is art and what isn’t art, when it is a very personal thing. The Greek said: beauty cannot be evil. Keats said it: beauty and truth. What to move on to next? Perhaps the pendulum will always swing back. This world could use more focus on beauty and truth at the moment. And no, it’s not a celebrate beauty. And we should have expectations of art. Art is future coded in symbols.
As always, pictures if not indicated otherwise are mine but can be used giving proper credit.
- Kirchner Museum Davos
- The Brücke Museum, Berlin
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Mountain life, Kunstmuseum Basel
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner,in Berlin, Brücke Museum Berlin 2009
- Expressiv, Albertina Wien
- Expressionisten, Sammlung Bucheim, München
- The Museum og Modern Art, New York
- The Expressionists, Thames and Hudson
- Farbenmensch Kirchner Link