Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fallen Bridges

When the Post-Impressionist work of Van Gogh and Gauguin raged across Germany in the early twentieth century, young artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner lapped up the primitivism and expressive color of those artists, helping make Germany the center for Expressionism up through the end of World War I. Born May 6, 1880, Kirchner literally copies Gauguin in works such as his Bathers at Mortizburg (above, from 1909), which lifts Gauguin’s native Tahitians and resets them in a European environment. Along with Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Erich Heckel, Kirchner founded Die Brücke or "The Bridge," which pledged to build a bridge from the past in art to the present by introducing a whole new way of expressing the soul through art. Sadly, like so much else of European culture, the Great War shattered the bridgemakers’ dream.

Kirchner volunteered for the German Army in 1914. By 1915, the stress of combat broke him psychologically and he was discharged. Kirchner’s Artillerymen (above), painted in his discharge year of 1915, shows another scene of bathers, but here in the context of men united in a struggle they themselves struggled to understand. The nakedness of the bathers, free of the uniforms that would clearly identify them as artillerymen, symbolizes the psychological nakedness Kirchner himself felt as the conflict laid his mind bare. While recovering in sanitariums in Switzerland, Kirchner found a group of aspiring artists gathering around him as their leader. The “Red-Blue” group propagated many of Kirchner’s ideas about painting and sculpture and helped expand the scope of Expressionism beyond Germany.

Kirchner’s international profile as an artist expanded between the wars. Unfortunately, when the Nazis rose to power in 1933, they labeled Kirchner, along with many others, a "degenerate artist" and banned him from many arts organizations in Germany. Kirchner’s 1928 Self-Portrait (above) shows the artist at the peak of his powers and reputation, yet still a disjointed, conflicted personality. In 1937, the Nazis removed most of Kirchner’s works from German museums, destroying many others. Kirchner himself destroyed unknown numbers of his own sculptures and paintings in his despair. As the Nazi war machine approached his home in 1938, Kirchner took his own life rather than fall into their hands. The man who dreamed of bridging the gap between Old Masters such as Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald and modern masters such as Van Gogh and Gauguin became an early victim of the mayhem that was World War II. For all the power of his works, Kirchner himself remained a sensitive soul, crushed by the violent world he tried to depict.

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