Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Living through paint at Neue galerie

Ernst Ludwig Kircher, through January 13, 2020; at the Neue Galerie (Fifth Ave. at 86th Street):

Kirchner’s painting, Dresden Street (1908-1919; MoMA) was one of the earliest and pronounced influences on my life in art. We’re talking Age of Aquarius when I first encountered it – the hot neon flourishes across the fashionable crowd seemed oddly adjacent to the blacklight-and-florescent palette of psychedelic rock posters that dominated popular visual culture at the time.  What a magic, even even pretty, bubble-gum pink city street, not to mention the fierce little girl with her dark halo-shadow at the center of the scene with whom I identified distinctly.  Through a course of later pilgrimages informed by increasing familiarity with the artist’s oeuvre, I came to look at it very differently – the pink turned more Pepto-Bismol, the complimentary lime green and vermilion contours more jarring, the parade of trussed up women more ghoulish, and the anxious, animated child, clutching her doll upside down, seeming right in path of the rushing background streetcar. What has never changed is my attraction to its palpable psychic energy, autonomous, physical brushwork, and exploitation of expressive, brilliant color. 

Sans this painting (currently featured in the MoMA’s re-opening installation), its implicated pleasures and perils of art and society in Kirchner’s day are well fleshed out in the Neue Galerie’s copious spread across two floors of the bonus-appropriate period townhouse venue. The full range of his thematic and stylistic diversions as well as his extensive, impressive experimentation in print-making are covered. Arranged mainly (not exclusively) chronologically, I started in a large gallery on the second floor with a triumphant display of post-war landscapes near Davos, Switzerland, where Kirchner went to recuperate from his late WWI nervous breakdown; he continued to work and live in the region intermittently for the rest of his life.  The blend of gestural rhythms and searching primitivism in these personal interpretations of “pure” rural life call up Van Gogh’s discovery and depiction of Arles in light of his own grim view of modern urbanity and discomfort among its “sinners”–after his failed attempts to join this hipster coterie. There is plenty of related debauchery here from Kirchner’s breakthrough Die Brucke years (a short-lived artist group he spearheaded, c. 1905); prostitutes, performers, implied male voyeurs including himself when it came to prepubescent female models – many angular and aggressive not unlike Picasso’s pre-war women denizens of the demi-monde.  A collective simultaneous (and later) antidote are scenes of Kirchner’s Bohemian cohorts frolicking nude in watery nature, the fragmenting figuration almost anticipating those underpinning much of Willem De Kooning’s abstractions.  In other nudes and portraits we see the rounded simplicity of Matisse, whom, like Picasso, Kirchner admired and assimilated early on.

Although somewhat superficial (in terms of context), a broad comparison with Van Gogh stuck with me throughout.  Both artists suffered from mental ailment/s–exacerbated by drinking (though specifics are debated) and ultimately lost their struggles to find inner peace (suicides; in the case of Van Gogh, generally accepted although debated recently).  Kirchner self-visualized his excruciating trauma in a now famous self-portrait in military uniform with an imagined, gruesome severed hand (he was not physically injured in the war)—one of the most disturbing well-known small-scale paintings in the history of 20th-century art, here displayed in a darkened room among a suite of medievalizing color woodcuts based on a literary work in which a man becomes a shadow.   

If you start where I did, once through the suite de visit, circle back up to the grand Swiss landscapes and imbibe the undeniable joie de peintre that enveloped Kirchner (like Van Gogh) when it came to nature. This kind of compulsion to just pour on the paint superseded Kirchner’s committed intellectual and professional art aims, including a concerted effort to be accepted as a leader of German if not pan-European painting in his time, as well as the apparent emotional turmoil that haunted him. One has to wonder how the rise of the Third Reich affected his ongoing attempts at recovery and acclaim, and the devastating irony of his condemnation by the Nazis just as he was receiving wide critical attention in Germany and elsewhere shortly before his death (1938).

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