by Scholes, Robert
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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880 - 1938)
From Stephanie Barron, Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany
Kirchner entered the Technische Hochschule (Technical College) in Dresden in 1901 to study architecture. In 1903-4 he studied painting in Munich, attending art classes at the school of Wilhelm von Debschitz and Hermann Obrist. His visits to the museums and exhibitions in Munich and a short stay in Nuremberg, where he saw Albrecht Dürer's original woodblocks, made him decide to become a painter. After his return to Dresden he formed Die Brücke on June 7, 1905, with his new friends Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Theirs was a polemical program, calling on all youth to fight for greater artistic freedom against the older, well-established powers.
In November 1905 Die Brücke exhibited their work - watercolors, drawings, and woodcuts - for the first time as a group at the Galerie P. H. Beyer & Sohn in Leipzig. They worked together in rented storefront studios and sought other artistic companions as well as supporters, called "passive members." Emil Nolde joined the group for a short time; among the other artists who joined were Cuno Amiet, Axel Gallen-Kallela, Otto Mueller, and Max Pechstein.
The idealism and enthusiasm of Kirchner and the other young Brucke artists can be measured by their extraordinary production. The rapid development of their personal styles was partly a result of their frenetic activity, including life drawing and painting at the Moritzburg lakes near Dresden, at the island of Fehmarn, and in their studios, as well as the production of woodcuts, lithographs, and an incredible number of drawings. In his search for an increasingly simplified form of expression, Kirchner was strongly influenced, as were his colleagues, by the art of the Oceanic and African peoples. When the group relocated to Berlin in 1910-11, Kirchner 's response to the confrontation with the metropolis resulted in the bold works that epitomize the hectic life in Berlin.
Die Brücke continued to exhibit as a group in the major German cities (Berlin, Darmstadt, Dresden, Dusseldorf, Hamburg and Leipzig) and in traveling exhibitions to smaller communities. The group's fifth annual graphics portfolio (1910) was devoted to Kirchner's work. In 1912 Die Brücke was invited to participate in the Sonderbund Exhibition in Cologne, where Heckel, Kirchner, and Schmidt-Rottluff were also commissioned to create a chapel. In that year they also exhibited in Moscow and Prague, at the second Blaue Reiter (Blue rider) show in Munich, and in Berlin at the Galerie Gurlitt. Kirchner was regarded as the leader of the group, but when in 1913 it was suggested that he compose a history of Die Brücke, the others took offense at his egocentric account, and the group broke up.
At the outbreak of the First World War Kirchner volunteered for the army, but he could not stand the discipline and constant subordination. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was temporarily furloughed and moved to a sanatorium, where he was able to complete several important paintings and the color woodcuts to illustrate Chamisso's story of Peter Schlemihl (1916). A growing dependency on Veronal (sleeping pills), morphine and alcohol did not hinder him from painting frescoes for the Konigstein Sanatorium and a number of other works.
In 1917 Kirchner moved to Switzerland, where he was supported by the collector Dr. Carl Hagemann, the architect Henri van de Velde, and the family of his physician, Dr. Spengler. He slowly recovered, while continuing to work on paintings and woodcuts. His works were exhibited in Switzerland and Germany. In 1921 he had fifty works on view at the Kronprinzenpalais (Nationalgalerie) in Berlin, which were praised by critics and established his reputation as the leading Expressionist. In 1925-26 he made his first long trip back to Germany. He stayed for a while in Dresden with his biographer, Will Grohmann, and visited the dancer Mary Wigman. His intense work on paintings, woodcuts, and sculpture expanded to include designs for the weaver Lise Guyer and, more importantly, for the decoration of the great hall of the Museum Folkwang in Essen: work never to be completed, since the Nazis seized the museum in 1933.
From 1936 onward Kirchner was increasingly disturbed by news of the Nazis' attack on modern art, occupation of Austria, and ban on the exhibition of his work in Germany. The stress of these circumstances and the onset of illness led him to destroy all of his woodblocks and some of his sculpture and to burn many of his other works. On June 15, 1938, he took his own life.