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The Melancholy Condition of the World: The Art of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Nude in Orange and Yellow - Oil on canvas - 91 x 71 cm - Kirchner Museum Davos (public domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner knew that melancholy arises from our longing to connect with the world and our knowledge that it continually slips from our embrace.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Thorsten Sadowsky


Jan 2018


Not forgotten but not especially prominent in the minds of most lovers of 20th century art, the German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner haunts the edges of Modernism, his melancholy presence lurks behind many of the most striking developments of Expressionism and its progeny. His Straßenszenen (Street Scenes) from 1913-1915 are widely recognized as essential works and the Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915) is undeniably a masterpiece.

The latter was painted in the midst of turmoil. Kirchner, in order to exert some control over where he would be placed during World War I, volunteered in July 1915 for service rather than awaiting the draft. By September he was discharged owing to a mental breakdown and in December he entered Dr. Kohnstamm's sanatorium, having been diagnosed with "alcoholism, [and] addiction to sleeping pills and morphine."

We discover Kirchner neatly dressed in uniform in the Self-Portrait, but if his crisply pressed coat speaks of military regimentation, his sickly pallor, tired eyes, and the gangrenous stump from his amputated hand reveal his mental and physical exhaustion. The missing hand is a troubling symbol. Kirchner suffered no such physical wounds in the service and his avatar in the Self-Portrait pays this desecration of his body no particular attention. One's initial instinct when considering a painter portraying himself with a fictional amputation of the limb he employs in his craft is to assume that the gesture intends to communicate the impossibility of communication or a faltering faith in one's ability to create.

And yet no such crisis of confidence is evident here. Kirchner surrounds himself with two examples of his work—one on the wall behind him and a portrait of a nude supported by an easel beside him. The latter is positioned almost as a second face for the artist. It is so present within the painting that one might be forgiven for mistaking it for a second figure, and not merely a painting within a painting. This nude (a subject matter closely identified with Kirchner's emergence as an important artist) bespeaks the assurance of an unbridled talent, not a man cut off from his means of expression.

By 1915, much of Kirchner's art (such as the street scenes) treated the seedier side of life, the sickly atmosphere of the demi-monde, the pale garishness of the city night. Perhaps the gangrenous stump in the Self-Portrait represents the connection of the painting hand with the putrid decay of decadent modernism. The fact that the hand is missing may indicate a severance between Kirchner the man suffering addiction and depression and Kirchner the still-thriving artist. Indeed, as Kirchner continued to pursue treatment for his illnesses, he lamented the fact that getting well (attending to Kirchner the man) so often came at the expense of his work (his role as Kirchner the artist). That missing hand and its gangrenous remainder register what I believe to be the key to Kirchner's vision: wherever he looks, he finds decay, melancholy, and death. And yet, this is not life-negating work. The world bears the mark of sadness in Kirchner not because the world is to be rejected but as the sign of our love for it; melancholy arises from our longing to connect with the world and our knowledge that it continually slips from our embrace.

File:Kirchner - Selbstbildnis als Soldat (WikiMedia Commons)

In 1917, Kirchner retreated to Davos, Switzerland for treatment. This artist, so identified with the urban, was now ensconced in a rural, mountainous environment far from the bustling crowds and neurasthenic city dwellers he so famously portrayed. At this point, modern reception largely loses interest in Kirchner, even though the artist himself maintained a healthy career until nearly the end of his life—when his ability to show his work was completely derailed by his condemnation by the Nazis. The subject matter, of course, shifted considerably. In place of the prostitutes and the daring nudes of his more celebrated period, Kirchner explored imposing mountainscapes, the mysterious luminosity of the rising moon, mountain dwellers disporting themselves with archery and hiking. In one sense, Kirchner's approach remains constant. The counterintuitive employment of often-garish color, the nervous energy of the brushstrokes, the flattened perspective, the simplified and primitivist approach to the depiction of figures and faces—all of this carries over from the earlier period to his tenure at Davos.

And yet, something significant emerges in this later work, something rather difficult to articulate—the melancholy of the earlier work found its centripetal weight within the figure or figures being portrayed but the later work treats melancholy as a centrifugal force, projecting itself out onto the world at large. For all of the bucolic peace ostensibly exuded by a work such as Nude in Orange and Yellow (1929-30), there remains a surplus of sadness, a lingering lament for a world that offers up such beauty underwritten by a fundamental lack, a wellspring of loss that turns out not to be the contradiction to our enjoyment but rather the source of it. While it is true that Kirchner can be considered a painter of immediacy (as he expressly viewed himself in those early, heady days of discovery and innovation), he also invites more considered rumination, a careful examination of the secrets whispered by these cryptic canvases.

Nude in Orange and Yellow presents a young woman strolling naked through a forest, holding a fern or some other green frond in her hand. She is little more than a silhouette. Kirchner articulates one eye (she looks off to the side, thus occluding the other eye from view), her hair, navel, and breasts. All other details, aside from the outline of her body, are left out of account. What appears to be a deformity of her right hip is more likely to be a transposed view of her behind—a gentle reconsideration of Cubism. Her left arm punctures any illusion of perspective by twisting onto itself, like a flat sheet of paper folded over. The young lady provides a peculiar image. For all of her charm and seeming presence, her artificiality, her constructedness is emphasized. This is not the tour-de-force of echt Cubism; we feel far closer to this subject than we do to Braque's and Picasso's portraits at the height of Analytical Cubism (roughly 1908-12). That earlier body of work provides puzzles for the mind to solve and as intriguing as they are they create an emotional barrier by foregrounding technique over connection. This is not a criticism of that work, but rather a means of getting closer to understanding Kirchner's achievements in the '20s and '30s.

In those Analytical Cubist masterpieces such as Braque's Woman with a Mandolin (1910)—a piece worth continual reassessment—one marvels at the careful parsing of space into contiguous planes, the reduction of three-dimensionality onto a flat surface. If Renaissance artists employed perspective to reconcile the canvas to our experience of the world, then Braque as done violence to that experience to reconcile it to the canvas. Empty space, in its reduction to the plane, takes on a palpability we don't often associate with it. This "thickening" of space may tell us quite a bit about the assumptions under which we operate in the world. What it doesn't do, however, is provide us access to the mandolin player as such. Her subjectivity is reduced to the status of "subject under consideration" rather than the Subject as Other whom we might encounter, who makes demands upon us, who appeals to our humanity. Braque's woman is a surface to be dissected, not an integral person with whom to engage.

Kirchner's Nude in Orange and Yellow, despite its mild allusions to Cubism, offers a very different experience. That folded arm belies the repletion of her presence before us but doesn't negate it. The flatness indicated by that folded arm doesn't derail our connection with her; moreover, she maintains the sovereignty of her subjectivity, refusing to submit to becoming merely "the subject under consideration." Kirchner's work here is starkly anti-analytical. The key component here is one we have yet to mention. As she walks toward the viewer, the nude is partially enveloped (or covered) by a strange orange aura.

Starting in the mid-20s, with works such as Department Store in the Rain (1926-27), Kirchner began studying lighting effects in a manner that produced these penumbrous, hovering suffusions around his figures. In Department Store in the Rain this is Kirchner's attempt to capture the lurid effect of neon lighting filtered through the rain. In Woman Walking across the Street at Night; Night Woman (1928-29), the amoeba-like greenish blob that seems to illuminate the central figure represents the head of a male observer (perhaps a stand-in for Kirchner himself). Soon these lighting effects came to be something more, something revelatory of Kirchner's view of the world.

Notice that in the case of Nude in Orange and Yellow the title itself indicates that this hovering presence is not alien to the figure of the nude. The only orange in the painting is the amoeba. The title implies that this suffusion is somehow a part of her, not some hazy mist through which she moves, not some intruding force. At the same time, the amoeba strikes the viewer as a surplus—its removal would not alter our sense of the silhouette, and yet removing it would diminish the painting in a deeply felt if intangible manner.

The amoeba is clearly not her shadow. It "covers" the majority of her body but that arm emerges through it right at the point of the fold. It is somehow a part of her and yet stands apart. It also has a strange effect upon our relationship to the woman—the amoeba seems as though it should act as a veil, separating us from the woman and yet the warmth of the orange hue simultaneously seems to draw her forward toward us. That orange aura is the emanation of some aspect of the woman, a shadow self that always accompanies her. There is something strangely sad about it—the surplus of the encounter with the Other, whatever it is that is indispensable to the person we meet here without being reducible to her form or even her character. The detached observational acumen that Kirchner displayed in his early Street Scenes is here transformed into an existential understanding of the world. Whereas in the earlier works, the street walkers (women reduced to the status of commodity) exuded a certain melancholy in their defiance, now Kirchner seems to see melancholy as a condition of the world itself, the price we pay for encountering the Other in all of her rich presence.

As part of its "Great Masters of Art" series, Hirmer Publishers has just released a thin monograph on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The small book contains an essay, "Journey into the Mountains", by Thorsten Sadowsky, the Director of the Kirchner Museum Davos; a schematic biographical overview of Kirchner's life and career; and a brief "archive" of some sketches, watercolors, and letters. There are numerous fine reproductions of many of the most celebrated and intriguing of Kirchner's paintings, woodcuts, and etchings throughout the book. The biography section includes several photographs of Kirchner, his models, some of his sculptures, and his home in Davos.

Sadowsky employs the figure of the flaneur (the urbanite who rebels against the constrictions of modernity while simultaneously reveling in its varied opportunities for experience) to assess Kirchner's early work and then describes a stark transformation in the painter's approach once he moves to Davos. The essay is a short but intriguing foray into Kirchner's development and life as an artist. I would say that Sadowsky may overplay the distinction, however, between Kirchner's early output and the Davos period. Rather, it seems to me, the key to understanding Kirchner is in his gradual externalization of the quality of melancholy. As the flaneur he seems to see it as a characteristic of modernity, but in Davos (and as a maturing artist and thinker) he comes to view it as an existential condition of the world. The world bears the mark of sadness and in capturing that sadness in all of its allure, we discover beauty.


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