Born on May 6, 1880, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was one of the most prolific of the German expressionist artists. From 1901 to 1905, Kirchner studied architecture at the Dresden Technische Hochschule, and pictorial art in Munich at the Kunsthochschule. He also studied at an experimental art school established by Wilhelm von Debschitz and Hermann Obrist.
In 1905, Kirchner, along with several other students, formed Die Brücke (The Bridge) as an opposition to the academic art that they encountered. From 1905 to 1910, Kirchner was influenced by the works of Matisse, van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, and Edvard Munch, as well as by Japanese prints and African and Oceanic art. “Kirchner himself denied the influence of any other artist on his development and took great pains to prove the contrary. He claimed that his work was not connected with that of Edvard Munch and Henri Matisse in particular, who were frequently linked with him by critics. He later dated many of his paintings and drawings from the years between 1908 and 1911 to before 1905, and in his chronicle and his notebooks he moved the date of foundation of Die Brücke to 1902, as evidence that their works were precursors of the Fauvist paintings of Matisse.”
Kirchner moved to Berlin with the Brücke group in 1911. In 1913, Kirchner wrote Chronik der Brücke (Brücke Chronicle), which led to the ending of the group. Thereafter, his relationship with the former members was strained and he strongly rejected any links between his art and the Die Brücke group.
Between 1913 and 1917, Kirchner experienced a high point in his career. “The theme of the human being in the large city took on greater importance for Kirchner in his new environment. In particular, from 1913 to 1915, he produced his series of 14 street scenes. They represent a new picture type in which the meeting of men and women, cocottes and their beaux, in the anonymous bustle of the city street is invested with extreme erotic tension.” In 1913, Kirchner exhibited in the Armory Show in New York, and had his first solo shows in Germany at the Museum Folkwang Hagen and the Galerie Gurlitt, Berlin.
Kirchner joined the German army at the beginning of World War I, but suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged in 1915. In 1918, he moved to Davos, Switzerland, and lived in a farmhouse in the Alps. Despite ill health, he continued to produce major paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture. Through the 1920s, major exhibitions of his work were held in Berlin, Frankfurt, Dresden, and other cities.
Between 1925 and 1929, Kirchner made several trips to Germany, wanting recognition for his artistic importance in his native country. From 1927 until 1934, Kirchner designed unexecuted murals for the Museum Folkwang Festival Hall project. In 1931, he was admitted to the Preussische Akademie der Künste in Berlin. By this time, all of the important museums of modern art in Germany had acquired his works.
However, the acknowledgement of his work was not to last. The National Socialists in Germany put an end to Kirchner’s official recognition. In the campaign of 1937 against so-called entartete Kunst (degenerate art), more than 600 of his works were confiscated from German museums and were either destroyed or sold. In that same year the Berlin Academy of Arts demanded his resignation.
Tragically, the combination of official rejection in Germany and other illnesses resulted in his suicide. On June 15, 1938, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner shot himself in front of his house near Frauenkirch.
Kirchner’s works are held in major museums and galleries around the world. In November 2006 at Christie’s, Kirchner’s Street Scene, Berlin (shown below) sold for a record $38 million.
Sources: National Gallery of Art, Wikipedia, Guggenheim, MoMA