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A tale of two psyches: Laura Gascoigne reports on an exhibition of works that reveals Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's development of style.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) 26 May-2 September 2012 Fundacion Mapfre, Madrid Catalogue (Spanish) by Karin Schick et al ISBN 9788415253532 (hardback) 49 [euro] (Fundacion Mapfre)

In Rogier van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross (c. 1435) and Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (1500-05), the Prado possesses two of the greatest masterpieces of Northern Renaissance art. But Northern European art of the modern era is less well represented in the Spanish capital--an imbalance that Fundacion Mapfre, the city's newest exhibition venue, addresses in its latest show.

The 180 paintings, prints, drawings, carvings and photographs that make up 'Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)'--co-curated by Fundacion Mapfre and the Kirchner Museum in Davos--do more than introduce the German Expressionist to a new public: they show his work in a refreshingly new light. Past shows, like the Royal Academy's 'Kirchner: Expressionism and the City' (2003), have tended to focus on the pre-war years in Dresden and Berlin when Kirchner was developing the signature style of the Brucke group he had co-founded. This exhibition, however, divides attention fairly between the artist's active periods of 1905-15, in Dresden and Berlin, and 1918-38, in Davos.

There was a period of crisis and reorientation in the middle: Kirchner's brief but traumatic army training as an 'involuntary volunteer' triggered a nervous collapse, compounded by a car accident two years later in Berlin which left him with a damaged painting arm and an addiction to painkillers. A long spell in and out of sanatoriums ended in Davos, where the artist gradually recovered his mental and physical strength in a succession of isolated Alpine cabins. In this totally new environment, the convalescent retrained his arm to paint and his eye to look. The fast-paced action of the Brucke paintings--the jostling crowds and jangling trolleybuses--had required a speedy, nervous response. But in Davos, the pace slowed to a crawl as trams were replaced by cows and cocottes by herdsmen; the frenetic pursuit of contemporary life gave way to the static contemplation of man's place in nature.

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Whether in the mountains or the metropolis, for Kirchner the 'great battle' was always 'to express the inner life in the pictorial forms' by whatever means. During the Brucke period, his means were constantly changing. In the exhibition's first rooms we pick up a trail of artistic influences: Vincent van Gogh in the bright stubby brushstrokes of Portrait of the Painter Heckel (1907); Edvard Munch in the moody lighting of the nude Child Artist (1909); Henri Matisse in the flat colour planes of Dodo Seated at the Table (1909); African tribal sculpture in the stylised figures of The Judgment of Paris (1912-13; Fig. 3); the Ajanta murals in the voluptuous modelling of Women bathing (1914-25), a life-sized triptych reunited for this show. Even in later works we glimpse reflections of other artists--in the calligraphic abstraction of Pair of Lovers (1930), for example, shades of Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer intertwine. But as Picasso himself noted, all artists are thieves, and the biggest thieves are often the greatest innovators.

As Kirchner's style shape-shifted, his native genius for colour pushed the expressive range of Fauvism into more emotionally ambiguous territory--the mix of dirty cobalt blue and lurid yellow ochre in the Berlin painting Toilette. Woman in Front of a Mirror (1913-20) is too edgy, even filthy, for Matisse. But the sharp mountain air cleansed his urban palette. 'For the first time here one really gets to know the worth of individual colours,' Kirchner wrote in 1918, while celebrating his new discoveries in the stained glass hues of the triptych Alpine Life (1917-19; Fig. 2). A fruitful collaboration with local weaver Lise Gujer taught him other lessons in colour and composition: patterned hangings and carpets had always featured in his interiors, but now whole paintings, such as the majestic Sertig Valley in Autumn (1925-26), acquired the vibrancy and stillness of carpet designs.

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This simple delight in colour is perhaps clearest in his prints. Kirchner's graphic output was prodigious, and woodcuts, etchings and lithographs are all well represented at the show. In the multiples market he maintained a personal touch by printing his own small editions by hand and colouring them individually. The six different-coloured versions of the woodcut Portrait of Dr Bauer (1933) reproduced in the catalogue--one of them is included in the show--Iook ahead to Andy Warhol. Yet some of the most striking images are in black and white, like the row of woodcut portraits of fellow sanatorium patients--including Klemperer--and the terrifying self-portrait The Sick Man (1918), with its twisted, bestial face and crippled hands.

In Kirchner's practice, printmaking and painting fed into each other. A third ingredient in the creative mix was sculpture, which he found eased the 'translation of spatial images into the plane'. The marvellously mobile wood carving Pair of Acrobats (1932) was preceded in execution by a watercolour and followed by an oil painting, Two Acrobats--Sculpture (1932-33; Fig. 1), an ebullient composition in which coloured shadows create a stroboscopic effect. Such graphic freedom only comes from years of drawing--nine sketchbooks in the exhibition bear vivid testimony to this. Life drawing for Kirchner was more than a discipline; it was a way of life. Even in Davos, as recorded in archive photographs, he managed to procure a supply of imported models and dancers who could be persuaded to frolic naked in the woods, like dryads, while he captured their untrammelled movements on paper. 'Our times are so frightfully poor in sensuousness,' he once lamented. Certainly he did his best to redress the balance.

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Davos was not Kirchner's first taste of the restorative powers of nature, during the Brucke years he had spent idyllic summers on the German island of Fehmarn, which he imagined as a sort of Baltic Tahiti, painting nude figures striding and splashing in the waves or draped over rocks in a Rousseauesque return to nature. The animist ideas informing those scenes expanded in the atmosphere of the Alps. 'How eternally happy I am to be here, and to receive only the last splashes of the waves of outside life through the mail,' he wrote to a friend in Berlin towards the end of World War I. But even those splashes were to prove capable of harm, following the Nazis' rise to power in Germany. In 1938 Kirchner, sick and depressed at having been labelled a 'degenerate artist' by the Nazis and fearful of another war, shot himself.

Laura Gascoigne is a freelance arts writer.
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Author:Gascoigne, Laura
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jul 1, 2012
Words:1084
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