One of my favourite works from Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden was in the Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Eisenbahnüberführung Löbtauer Straße in Dresden from 1910/26. It’s solid German Expressionism, not large next to other more formidable pieces, subdued in its colour palette, dominated by these pastel grey-blues, with slabs of orange and yellow cutting across and receding on a diagonal. I kept staring at it though, really fascinated with something in it. Those colours, the heavy weight of the iron railway bridge, the crudity of it yet total control of perspective, movement, how one’s eye moves about and over the figures.
As I was editing all those museum images down to something bloggable I saw the painting’s title, and as is my habit in such moments, I slobbed off to Google and Apple Maps. It’s reasonably uncommon to find the exact location of a painting — unless it’s a significant landmark. Small streets, cafés, the subjects of 19th and 20th century art and literature especially in Europe, especially in Germany (try following Walter Benjamin around Berlin), if they even exist are so unrecognisable I can often only get as far as, “Yeah, probably around there somewhere. Possibly.”
Kirchner’s Löbtauer Straße in Dresden exists. And so improbably so does that house on the corner of Roßthaler Straße. The steel train bridge doesn’t, replaced by concrete but following the same curve. Trams also, though they don’t feature in his painting. The buildings in the background though, all gone. In fact most of the triangular block it’s sitting on was until recently wasteland. The remaining set of apartment buildings at the opposite end were abandoned, trees growing out of the burnt and gutted roof. At the time of the painting, this whole block was packed with such homes. You can see the barrenness in the 3D Apple Map: most of the buildings in the left foreground are post-war East German and almost all the flat grassland and empty spaces would have been lined with typical 5-storey German Gründerzeit apartments. I find it harrowing to comprehend, every time I’m confronted with the total and utter destruction German rained upon itself, its own people, the people of Europe, its history — and the extremes of joyous communal destruction all of Europe and the world partook in. Language fails me.