- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

In July 1915, artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner proudly photographed himself in his World War I military uniform.
A volunteer who trained as a horseman in the field artillery, Kirchner (1880-1938) became disillusioned, like many of his contemporaries, with the seemingly bottomless and futile human carnage of trench warfare.
In Berlin in November 1915, after discharge from the army "pending recovery" from an illness, Kirchner painted his harrowing "Self-Portrait as a Soldier." Dressed in uniform, he holds up his right arm, his painting arm, cleanly sliced off at the wrist. The symbolic "amputation" of the soldier's artistic imagination might seem hackneyed to present-day sensibilities, but the image is complicated by the rendering of the uniform. A rich satiny blue with red trim and epaulettes and shining gold buttons, it is a sleek advertisement for the romance of military service, the kind of invitation to which young men are particularly susceptible.
If indeed Kirchner intended here an ironic warning against deceptive surfaces, the image could serve as a convenient metaphor for the aesthetic of this artist who sought, in typical German fashion, to strip away surfaces to expose the essences they concealed.
The National Gallery of Art's "Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880-1938," organized by the National Gallery with London's Royal Academy of Arts, is the first important international exhibition of Kirchner in more than 30 years and the first to focus on his most creatively successful years, 1908 to 1920.
"Many of the younger generation have never heard of Kirchner, and this is a chance to get to know him," says the National Gallery's Andrew Robison, the exhibit curator.
The son of engineer and chemist Ernst Kirchner, the artist grew up in a prosperous, middle-class family with two younger brothers. The family moved from city to city in Germany, as dictated by his father's professional positions, before settling in 1890 in Chemnitz, where the senior Kirchner was named Chair in the Science of Paper at the College of Commerce.
Ernst Ludwig attended primary and grammar school in Chemnitz. He read omnivorously and showed early artistic talent that his father encouraged. The future artist earned diplomas in architecture and engineering in Dresden at Ernst Kirchner's direction all the while creating woodcuts and paintings.
His was an intellectual, as well as emotional and expressive, approach to art. In cultivating both of these complementary sides, Kirchner explored the artistic imaginations of Rembrandt, van Gogh and Gauguin as well as the art of Africa, Oceania and India.
As early as 1903, after traveling to Nuremberg to see the original printing blocks of Albrecht Durer's woodcuts, Kirchner said he wanted "to revive German art." Critics view Kirchner's art as quintessentially German in its subjective striving for the expressive and extreme (think Matthias Grunewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder, as well as Durer). "The German artist looks … for the mystery hidden behind external form. He or she is interested in the soul of things, and wants to lay this bare," Berlin Brucke-Museum Director Magdalena M. Moeller writes of Kirchner in the show's valuable catalog.
Kirchner began his artistic career in Dresden, where he and fellow artists founded Die Brucke (The Bridge) to declare their break with older forms of art. Freed from the need for literal accuracy, Kirchner used a free-wheeling style to evoke Dresden's streets, parks, circuses and cabarets and his new love, the voluptuous Doris Grosse. In 1909, the artist employed Paul Gauguin-ish patches of brilliant colors intense mauves and oranges to depict a popular local dance hall in "Dresden Buildings (Dance Hall Bellevue)."
In 1911 the artist moved to Berlin to taste life in the rapidly growing city. He had become interested in expressing motion from seeing Rembrandt's drawings. An admirer of the Dutch master's rapid, abbreviated sketches of life around him, Kirchner found in Berlin a perfect laboratory for experimentation in the representation of change and motion. With its cafes, cabarets, nightclubs and bordellos, Berlin was always in flux and always awake. Working feverishly, Kirchner captured the frenzy of the streets in his crowded groups of tall, slender and stylishly dressed women and men on the go.
Distorted proportions and elongated figures characterize Kirchner's elegant "coquettes" of the famous Berlin street scenes. Sharp lines and nervous zigzags a calligraphic style based on his drawings are characteristic of Kirchner masterworks like the extraordinary woodcut-on-blotting-paper, "Five Women on the Street" (1914), the brilliant fuschia-and-lavender-hued "The Street" (1913) and the agitated "Friedrichstrasse" (1914), in which faceless, interchangeable figures seem to follow one another out of the painting in endless succession.
A favorite Kirchner theme was urban womanhood, for which he has sometimes been called a pre-feminist. In his masterpiece "Potsdamer Platz," (1914) two towering, Vogue-magazine-skinny women in elaborate hats stand on a street traffic island, as if they were modeling the latest fashions for the somewhat furtive male pedestrians scattered nearby. The redheaded female turns sharply left, chic in a very broad feathered and veiled hat. The other, with an even taller feathered chapeau, looks impassively at the viewer.
In his effort to win a discharge from the army during World War I, Kirchner simulated a "nervous breakdown." Ultimately, he would become a prisoner and victim of his own performance by becoming addicted to the morphine and sleeping pills he took to treat his "illness." A serious automobile accident in 1917 increased his dependence on morphine, and alcohol further exacerbated his debilitating addiction. He disturbingly expressed his physical and mental pain in his quivering "Self-Portrait During Illness" (1917), drawn during a stay at the Binswanger Sanitorium in Kreuzlingen. The fragile artist faces viewers frontally in a drooping hospital gown. His head is enlarged to twice its normal size, and his hair stands on end.
As physically and emotionally destructive as Kirchner's experience with war and illness was, he managed, says Mr. Robison, to turn it to his artistic profit in a series of portraits and self-portraits. Consider the artist's two woodcuts titled "The Sick Man (Self-Portrait)" of 1917. One is black-and-white, the other a woodcut printed with monotype (single-printed) colors. Kirchner is obviously ill. His otherwise handsome, aquiline nose has been pulled down to accent the lower parts of the nostrils. His lips, once sensuously full in his "Self-Portrait as a Soldier," are shrunken and pursed, like an old man's. His face is a disgusting, discolored olive-gray. In their self-loathing, these self-portraits echo the anguished and alienated work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and French postimpressionist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).
After further medical treatment in Switzerland and travel through Germany's major art centers, a largely recovered Kirchner settled near Davos, where his style underwent a profound change. The "Self-Portrait with a Cat" (1919/1920, oil paint on commercially printed cotton fabric) shows his later, more tranquil broad patches of brilliant color and blocky forms. He depicted surrounding Alpine landscapes with ecstatic evocations of nature in "Winter Landscape by Moonlight" (1919, woodcut and oil) and in his funneled, vertically writhing color woodcut "Fir Trees."
Kirchner connoisseurs used to look down on this later period, but this is considered old hat by today's scholars. "I am establishing a new Kirchner. Art is continual transformation…and to grow old in an accustomed manner is craft, not art," he remarked in 1927.
Through the 1920s, Kirchner drew increasing recognition. He was admitted to the Prussian Academy of Fine Art. Major exhibitions of his work were held in Berlin, Frankfurt and Dresden. American museums began to exhibit and buy his work.
But the interval of happiness and success proved to be a short one. The Nazis labeled Kirchner "a degenerate artist." In 1937, they confiscated more than 600 of his works from German museums, either destroying or selling them. Following the German annexation of Austria in 1938, Kirchner feared Hitler might hunt him down in Switzerland. He shot himself on the morning of June 15 and is buried in the forest cemetery at Davos.

WHAT: "Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880-1938"
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through June 1
TICKETS: Free
PHONE: 202/842-6453

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