New York is awash in Expressionism. Glitter and Doom, a grim parade of Weimar-era portraits, was at the Met earlier this year. From Berlin to Broadway, a collection of modern German and Austrian works on paper bequeathed by Cabaret lyricist Fred Ebb, is currently at the Morgan Library. Now, following its show devoted to Van Gogh and his Expressionist followers, the Neue Galerie adds to the angst-ridden mix with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Berlin Street Scene.
The exhibition centers on an iconic canvas acquired by the museum after a controversial restitution brought it from its namesake metropolis to ours. The claustrophobic gloom of the Neue Galerie’s new acquisition couldn’t be further in mood from the glimmering opulence of the museum’s other showstopper, Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer (also purchased after a complicated restitution).
Berlin Street Scene (1913-1914) is a sterling example of Expressionism’s indignation and stylizations. It isn’t as eye-popping as the Museum of Modern Art’s hallucinogenic Street, Dresden (1908), but it may well be as definitive. The introductory wall label informs us that Kirchner’s “social reality is not rendered … [it] is aestheticized, even eroticized.” The key word is “social”—German Expressionism was, in large part, a vehement and outraged response to a culture mired in dysfunction.
The loosely defined school had its forebears, including more inner-directed painters such as Van Gogh, Edvard Munch and James Ensor. Working directly from the fevered confines of their own psyches, these artists detailed nightmarish states of mind. The world outside was subservient to volcanic desires and unmet frustrations. Narcissism made public resulted in unseemly and unsettling art. Kirchner, along with George Grosz, Otto Dix and others, turned some of that psychological tumult outward as they observed their society’s malaise.
Berlin Street Scene is also inconceivable without the prior advances of Cubism. Kirchner’s street, a fractured field of brownish pink, is related to the shards of space in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) but lacks their tangibility. For Kirchner, pictorial space is primarily theatrical—it’s there to push the drama front and center.
Two men in blue suits occupy the foreground, cutting us off from the scene at hand. We see the man closest to the front cropped from the waist up; he stands with his back to us. The other figure, on the right, is possibly a self-portrait; he smokes an oversize cigarette and juts his jaw out with dismissive arrogance. Behind the men are two women clothed extravagantly in garish coats and floral hats—they are the composition’s focal point. Behind the women, clustered toward the top of the canvas, is a hodgepodge of figures and faces—two horses pull a carriage through the crowd, pedestrians rush by, a huddle of well-dressed burghers stop to chat. The painting is compressed like an accordion.
Individuality of character is secondary to mood. Kirchner was enthralled by the emblematic distortions of “primitive” art, and he superimposed masklike features onto his protagonists. With jarring concision, Berlin Street Scene captures the cacophony of urban life—you can almost hear the hubbub, the footsteps and clip-clop of hooves on cobbles and the murmur of furtive conversations. The latter are undoubtedly spurred by the two women—the Neue Galerie identifies them as prostitutes angling for clients.
Adjacent to the painting is another recent acquisition: Standing Girl, Karyatide (1909-1910) is a small, choppy sculpture carved from wood, a rare medium for Kirchner. It’s all too typical of modernism’s fascination with the arts of antiquity and non-Western cultures. Kirchner was only marginally inventive as a painter (the Expressionists may have gleaned some lessons from the avant-garde, but they were essentially conservative in aesthetic), and his efforts in sculpture follow well behind Brancusi’s totems and even Modigliani’s decorative takes on the primitive. Stiff and somewhat corny, this example fails to transcend its inspirations. Here Kirchner slums as a tribal ancestor.
The remainder of the show is filled out with paintings of varying import and quality. Time hasn’t been kind to many of them. Erich Heckel mimics Expressionism’s traits without embodying its anxious impulses. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff awkwardly poaches Cubism’s shuffling spaces. Otto Dix’s slick and icky realism, not to mention his barely obscured anti-Semitism, deserves a permanent place in the storage racks.
Then there’s the good stuff. George Grosz, ever a dependable source of bracing vitriol, seamlessly conflates sex and violence in the scabrous The Gold Digger (1916). Two assemblages by Kurt Schwitters encapsulate history and memory through the tender juxtaposition of everyday detritus. Lyonel Feininger’s stunning Gelmeroda II (1913) all but steals Kirchner’s thunder: A cityscape delineated in luminous variations on yellow, it’s an ecstatic take on Cubism and an evocation of religious longing and torment.
Given Expressionism’s relentless emphasis on ugly and troubling emotions, it’s a boon that the exhibition isn’t very extensive—too much of a bad thing is wearing. We leave these narrow and torturous visions with our appreciation intact.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Berlin Street Scene is at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, until Sept. 17.