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Oct. 16, 2021 | Saturday
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Eye for Art: Berlin Street Scene
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Berlin Street Scene, 1913, Neue Galerie, New York. (Supplied)

Penny-Lynn Cookson
Special to Niagara Now/The Lake Report

Berlin is back in the news with the German election requiring the formation of a coalition government and a future without the steady hand of Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

On reflection, has Berlin been out of the news in the 150 years since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 when a victorious Germany became a nation? The German Empire was on a fast track leading up to the First World War with all the instability of a society in rapid transition to urbanization and the conflict between conservative and progressive ideas. 

By 1913, Germany was an industrial, technological and scientific leader with the largest economy in Europe and third-largest in the world. Berlin, being the centre of government, the economy and culture, would experience momentous historic events including the Weimar Republic, Hitler’s Third Reich, Second World War destruction, the Cold War, the Berlin airlift, the Berlin Wall and now, once again, it is the most powerful economic nation in Europe.

Parallels to such uncertain times are to be found in an art movement, Der Brücke, that was a foundation for German Expressionism, which would greatly impact subsequent modern art.

In 1905, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, an architecture student at the Technical University of Dresden, initiated Der Brücke (The Bridge) with Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. 

They rejected a stultifying academic style of art with a goal to create a bridge between the Gothic and Renaissance art of Albrecht Dürer, Mattias Grunewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder, and the progressive art of the contemporary avant-garde. They were inspired by the emotional, expressive paintings of van Gogh and Munch, by Oceanic and African ethnographic works, and by the dynamism of the Italian Futurists. 

They revived woodcuts through which they developed a style of simple and flattened forms. In their paintings, garish colour, visible rapid brushstrokes and distortion were a means to achieve direct, authentic work that expressed immediacy and spontaneity. 

In their unconventional bohemian lifestyles and communal studios, they made life drawings from nude models, spent summers of love at lakes near Dresden and sought to bring life and art into harmony as part of a German youth movement protesting against urbanization and the conservative imperialistic German society. 

In 1906, they had their first group exhibition in Dresden. In 1913, the group disbanded and Kirchner was alone in Berlin making paintings of Berlin street scenes, capturing the cosmopolitan vibrancy of the fast-paced city with its overcrowded sidewalks, horse drawn wagons and new trams. 

Streetwalkers were his symbol for a place where anything could be bought, where an underlying current suggesting imminent danger existed in the anonymous crowd. In their feathered hats and fashionable garments, the prostitutes presented hardened faces to the voyeurism of the male gaze. His skewed perspectives and tilting angles capture the tension, isolation, alienation and psychological angst of pre-war Berlin.

In 1914, Kirchner volunteered for the German army. Within the year he had suffered a physical and mental breakdown and was discharged. The next years were spent in and out of sanatoriums and, though dependent on barbiturates, morphine and alcohol, he remained prolific, producing art for well-reviewed exhibitions. 

He settled in Frauenkirche, Switzerland, a village near Davos, where he painted increasingly abstract alpine mountain scenes. After 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany it was impossible to sell his paintings. The 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich included 25 Kirchner works.  Degenerate art was the official term for the modern art of the time but defined by the Nazi regime as not in line with its ideas of beauty.  

Over 600 of Kirchner’s works were removed from museums, dispersed, destroyed or sold to American collectors. Profoudly depressed with the situation in Germany and fearful of a Nazi invasion of Switzerland, Kirchner shot himself in front of his house in Frauenkirche on June 15, 1938.

Penny-Lynn Cookson is an art historian who taught at the University of Toronto for 10 years. She was also head of extension services at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  She is presently giving virtual lectures on ‘"he Germans – Art, Faith, War’" for the RiverBrink Arts Centre, Queenston on Thursdays until Oct. 28.