November 2008, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner @ MoMA

 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Berlin Street Scene Painting,
 courtesy Museum of Modern Art, NY  

Kirchner and the Berlin Street
Through November 10, 2008

In 1905, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Fritz Bleyl and two students named Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel founded the art group called “The Bridge”. The choice in naming was an interesting notion for an avant garde movement whose official motto was "…freedom in our work and in our lives, independence from older, established forces…” because the “bridge” represented a link between the art of the past and the art of the future. They maintained a deep respect for the early traditions of Durer and Cranach, while forging the essentials of what would become one of the great movements in the 20th century—German Expressionism. Kirchner was a leading painter of the expressionist movement and the forms and techniques seen in this remarkable collection comprise some of his greatest work with the female body. He twists this concept by turning most of these women into prostitutes on the streets of Berlin, but these paintings represent the darkest period in Kirchner’s life and perhaps an ominous prologue to the violence and anxiety of Germany on the brink of war.

 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Berlin Street Scene Ink,
 courtesy Museum of Modern Art, NY

 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Five Cocottes Woodcut
 courtesy Museum of Modern Art, NY

This MOMA show has managed to gather seven large canvases (completed between 1913-1915) as well as 60 works on paper. It’s a remarkable accomplishment that these paintings were reunited for this exhibition, and it’s perhaps a one time opportunity to view them as a collective entity, the way Kirchner might have in his studio. The seven oil paintings, with the exception of the Dresden Street painting, are hung in one long central row of angled wall panels. On the encircling walls hang the works on paper, some of which function as preparatory sketches for the Berlin paintings, but mostly stand as major works in their own right, including a number of stunning woodcuts. The most obvious traits of Kircherner’s work at this time is the violence of his brush and pen strokes. This is not the same madness of a Dekooning, in that the faces and bodies are rarely deconstructed, but the chins taper into points, the women’s collars soar in giant arches, their necklines hang like daggers and the muted and the anonymous faces of black-suited men troll the backgrounds. There is an explosive quality to the composition of these works which is inherent in the brushstrokes and in the colors used. A canvas titled Two women on the Street unfolds from the center upward like a bomb going off. With their heads thrown back, their teeth are bared in what could be laughter or a shriek of terror. The blurred faces of men lined up in the background haunt the edges of the canvas and anyone who has walked down a European street in a red light district can testify to the desperate ugliness of the men gathered on street corners. No one knows who these men are in Kirchener’s paintings, but for me they represent the sickness of the world and the emptiness found in pleasure at a time when the world was on the brink of disaster. Ironically, these images are no less pertinent as reminders of the state of humanity in our own times. These are terrifying and deeply psychological paintings. Much has been written about these techniques, his hard lines, the jagged angles of the brushstrokes, etc. and these deeply psychological paintings are a reaction to his wandering the streets of Berlin at night, and a physical manifestation in paint of what must have been a violent sense of foreboding. The sexual element within this traumatic depiction of the metropolis adds to the sense of pure perversion in the images. These are paintings onto which a thousand messages and meaning can be attached, the most obvious being the alienation and sexual violence of Berlin before the war, the prostitutes as a symbol of the degeneration of love, the plight of women, the rapaciousness of men, and so on. But these are facile interpretations and can be reconstructed or destroyed in countless ways. The purely aesthetic triumph of these pictures is what is most interesting—the fact that Kirchner translated a visceral reaction to his time in Berlin through his paintings, that he managed to subvert the traditional depiction of the female form without betraying his gift and traditions, that his work was revolutionary because he found himself in a historical and personal moment which left no other alternative—not because he felt that would bring him fame or money. The subsequent labeling of his art as “degenerate” by the Nazi party and its inclusion in the infamous Degenerate Art show of 1937, was a devastating event for Kirchner and eventually led to his suicide the following year.

 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Potsdamer Platz Painting
 courtesy Museum of Modern Art, NY

Kirchner’s first major exposure to the American public was at the legendary 1913 Armory show, the same exhibition that essentially introduced modern art to America and left it changed thereafter. The fact that his work has come full circle and is now back in the same city that was so deeply influenced by the European expressionists is an interesting footnote to what is certainly a major exhibition by one of the great artists of the 20th century. I urge you to visit this exhibition because it reminds us of certain things we may have forgotten—that art is the product of imaginative, unconventional, and sometimes suffering minds. Our current obsessions with conceptualism and consumerism, mass culture and fame, fall flat before these paintings that speak to us of something far more crucial to the human condition. I was struck by the durability of these images, as well as the honesty in execution, something that I find increasingly lacking in contemporary art, yet immediately recognizable by art experts and complete laypersons alike.

Stephanos Papadopoulos


Stephanos Papadopoulos was born in North Carolina and raised in Paris and Athens. Educated in the and Edinburgh, he holds a degree in classical archaeology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He was invited to the Rat Island Foundation by Derek Walcott in 1998.  His work has been published in periodicals such as The Yale Review, Poetry Review, Stand Magazine, The New Republic and many others. He has translated works of the Greek poets, Yiannis Ritsos and Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke. he is editor and co-translator of Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems, 2007.  Lost Days, his first collection, is published by Michael Hulse with Leviathan Press in London and Rattapallax Press in New York. His second book Hotel-Dieu is forthcoming and he is at work on a book about the Black Sea Greeks.

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