Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Painted 20th Century As Terrible Bridge

The group of young Germans who, in 1905, proudly called themselves Die Brücke (“The Bridge”) derived their name from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, one of the radical philosophical tracts of the period. (The key passage reads: “What is great about a man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.”) Die Brücke was thus a name meant to serve as a symbol for a gloriously emancipated future, yet the art that Brücke artists actually produced was anything but optimistic: It was dominated by remorseless turbulence and social alienation. Indeed, as a social phenomenon, Die Brücke was what we would call a counterculture-a cry of protest against a suffocating status quo.

The founder of the group-Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)-was a gifted painter and draftsman who, at the age of 25, set himself the task of radicalizing the moribund conventions of the contemporary German art scene. In the service of this ambitious mission, he gave a nod to the German past-especially medieval German woodcuts-but a more imperative influence on Kirchner were the post-Impressionist audacities of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Edvard Munch.

As a result of these heady influences, which were just then beginning to make themselves felt in Germany, Kirchner turned to producing an art of extreme pictorial distortion combined with a large dosage of erotic imagery, graphic allusions to primitive tribal art and a topsy-turvy rendering of the observable world, all of which are vividly represented in an exhibition of the artist’s drawings at the Michael Werner Gallery.

Historically, these drawings mark the emergence of the German Expressionist movement, but in this respect they are secondary in importance to the artist’s paintings. What the drawings illuminate isn’t so much the history of a period as a biography-even, it can be said, a psychobiography-of the artist himself. He had a history of nervous disorders, and these were exacerbated by his frequent recourse to drugs. He also suffered from an exaggerated sense of his own stature as an artist, believing himself to be the greatest living German painter.

It was still another of Kirchner’s misfortunes that Adolf Hitler took such a keen interest in the contemporary art of his time-so keen, indeed, that he lavished immense resources upon a mad campaign that condemned all of modernist art as “degenerate.” The first of the exhibitions designed to ridicule modernist art came in 1933; Hitler’s first speech condemning “degenerate art” came a year later. The climax in Hitler’s campaign against modernist art took place in Munich in 1937 with an enormous exhibition called Degenerate Art, which included more than 700 works out of a total of about 16,000 confiscated from the museums. Kirchner was, of course, well represented in this horrific event, as were other members of the Brücke Group.

This was more than Kirchner’s fragile psyche could deal with, and upon hearing that his work had been publicly condemned as “degenerate,” he committed suicide.

It was not to be expected, then, that an exhibition of Kirchner’s drawings would offer us as much in the way of luxe, calme et volupté. He himself described his work as an art concentrated on “movement,” though “frenzy” or even “hysteria” would be a more accurate way of describing the governing impulse in his drawings. So emphatic is the whirligig character of his draftsmanship that it amounts to an involuntary response to every aspect of his experience. None of the subjects in his universe of observation is seen vis-à-vis. Everything, from mountain landscapes to grazing cows to nude female bathers, is seen to be in a state of perpetual tumult. This vision of a world in perpetual eruption achieves a really bizarre apogee in a 1914 still-life drawing in which a crowded tabletop occupied by a teapot and some crockery is depicted as if it were a violent scene of battle. The date is, of course, significant, for 1914 marked the beginning of the First World War. For Kirchner himself, alas, that “Bridge” to the future remained beyond his reach.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Drawings remains on view at the Michael Werner Gallery, 4 East 77th Street, through May 7; it’s accompanied by a large-format, well-illustrated catalog.