Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner loved naked women, and the Nazis made him feel very guilty for it. Earlier in his artistic career, his bohemian studio was apparently a regular Sodom and Gomorrah, with models on standby for candid poses and more realistic renditions. He led a lifestyle that purposely broke from social conventions, with frequent nudity, casual sex, and I’d like to think there was some absinthe in there somewhere, just to complete the bohemian fantasy. But his later disillusionment with “modern life”,
precipitated by his experiences in war, seemed to develop a more existential self, a view of the beauty of the world in more forms than bars, boobs, and a raised middle finger. And towards the end of his painting career, he painted mostly mountain scenes, snowy landscapes, and other enthralling subjects.
Expressionism is characterized by its tendency to exaggerate and accentuate ideas and reality for emotional effect. And it has been, by the way, at least a loose label of some of the icons of humanity: Nietzsche, poet Walt Whitman, Dostoyevsky, Edvard Munch (The Scream), Van Gogh, and Sigmund Freud. Kirchner helped, if not founded, the development of German Expressionism with his group of intellectuals called Die Brücke, or “The Bridge.” Their manifesto was built around the idea of dismissing tradition (“older, established forces” ) as restraints on humanity and creativity. Their first collective exhibition was, surprisingly, on the theme of the female nude.
It may be no surprise that such a progressive, yet sensitive pleasure seeker returned from his military service in the first World War in the throes of a nervous breakdown. He was discharged early and spent two years in sanatoriums. He painted a dark self-portrait with an amputated hand. But his reputation grew in the circles that mattered, i.e. art connoisseurs and studios in Germany and Switzerland, and he seemed to come into his own after he stopped painting his best work. But in the 1930’s, under the laughable moral authority of the Nazis, he was labeled a degenerate, and was “asked” for his resignation from the Berlin Academy of Arts. Over 600 of his paintings and prints were confiscated (a euphemism for destroyed. This kind of thing happened a lot then). In 1938, he killed himself.
I can only interpret his suicide as a default response to the unexpected trauma of war, coupled with the destruction of his art. I can think of fewer worse things to happen to a person.
* * *
Fundación MAPFRE is holding Kirchner’s exhibition until 2 September.
Where: Fundación MAPFRE Recoletos: Paseo de Recoletos 23 – Madrid – 28004
Metro Line 4 (Colón) and Line 2 (Banco de España)
When: Monday 14:00- 22:00
Tuesday – Saturday 10:00 – 20:00
Sunday and Holidays 11:00 – 19:00
How much: FREE