A Compelling Colorist: Kirchner at the Neue Galerie
By Bobbie Leigh
To begin your visit to “Ernst Ludwig Kirchner,” consider starting with the gallery devoted to Kirchner’s last years before exploring his earlier work. It may seem odd to start looking at extraordinary Expressionist paintings and tapestries created at the end of the artist’s life, but it is one of the best ways to focus on the culmination of his work with its shocking color palette. Kirchner is widely considered one of the greatest German artists of the early 20th-century. Color, as curators Jill Lloyd and Janis Staggs write in the catalog, is the “fundamental building block” of his work.
The exhibition is divided chronologically into four sections: paintings from Kirchner’s youth in Dresden, 1905-1911; Berlin, 1911-1915; World War One 1914-1918, and finally Davos 1918-1938, where he went to recuperate from a mental and physical breakdown after volunteering for the mounted artillery before the war broke out. Kirchner broke down during his military service, spent three years in sanatoriums, and eventually retreated to a small secluded farmhouse in Davos in 1915.
The Davos gallery is dominated by Kirchner’s 1926 “Cattle Drive into the Alps,” one of two extraordinary tapestries. Designed by Kirchner and executed by Swiss textile artist Lise Oujer, this riveting tapestry depicts Kirchner’s idealized vision of his Swiss farming community in the same brilliant, intense colors he used in his paintings. What is strikingly evident in the Davos gallery is that Kirchner is no longer the painter of Dresden cabarets and urban landscapes or street scenes of alienated Johns and prostitutes in Berlin.
No longer the carefree bohemian, his “Self- Portrait as a Soldier (1915)” depicts the artist in a Prussian-blue uniform with a severed right (painter’s) arm. In reality, he did not lose an arm in battle, but he used the image of a glaring red and green stump for powerful expressive effects.
In his last years, Kirchner was immersed in the pastoral life of neighboring shepherds tending their animals. The moon over the Alps is no longer just a spotlight as in previous works, but an energizing force, dramatizing and intensifying the colors in his dreams. “I dream … blue against blue, yellow, green, red, purple… moonlit mountains, olive green, pink, blue and black, purple brown shadow tones and ochre…” he wrote.
The Davos images are magnetic and totally captivating. Like Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” where the play unfolds in reverse, it is worthwhile to start at the exhibition’s last gallery rather than the beginning. To appreciate Kirchner’s enduring legacy, the viewer needs to absorb the intensity of his colors and how he combined dreams and reality. Suffering from an addiction to morphine and absinthe, Kirchner committed suicide at age 58 in 1938 after the Nazis denounced his art as degenerate. His life was unconventional; his work, exceptional, as this terrific overview of a hugely gifted artist demonstrates.
Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, through January 13, 2020
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently, she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.