That’s what one of the pair of old, white-haired German women said across the gallery to the other while standing before the pink and blue scribbling of Zwei Badende. Shortly after, she snorted at Max Liebermann in seinem Atelier, offered the faintest of praise for Sängerin am Piano, and as we tacked our separate ways through the exhibition continued her derision, as if she was a good jury member for Entartete Kunst. I’d like to think she was unaware of the irony, but this is Germany at the end of 2016 and even in the heart of Berlin there are Nazis who tell themselves and each other they’re not Nazis.
So, me at Neuen Galerie im Hamburger Bahnhof seeing Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen, and also my first museum visit where I arranged to bring my camera. Most of the special exhibitions in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are No Cameras Allowed. Without photographing plus subsequent blogging there isn’t much point to my museum trips, thanks then to the Kommunikation department for making it easy (even though it turned out cameras were anyway allowed).
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is one of my favourite artists. Maybe an easy choice, but my favourites tend to be six hundred years or so earlier. Twentieth century art, particularly the earlier part, and the pervasive white male bias doesn’t hold so much attraction for me. I’m happy to write off entire movements (Impressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, several other –isms, for example), but Expressionism, I keep coming back to this and him. I’ve seen him in Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, at the huge Alte Nationalgalerie exhibition Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende, in Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister where I was mad for his Eisenbahnüberführung Löbtauer Straße in Dresden. Works like Potsdamer Platz I never tire of seeing; others like Nackte Mädchen unterhalten sich (Zwei Mädchen) or Unterhaltung; Liegende Frau (both in Dresden) stun me every time with their colour and movement, it’s so fucking radical. Oddly I haven’t made it out to the Brücke Museum yet.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen presents the 17 works in Berlin’s currently closed for renovations Neue Nationalgalerie collection, plus works from Kirchner Museum Davos, Brücke Museum, and private collections. Besides the core paintings, there are sketches and works on paper, wood sculptures, photographs from Kirchner’s various ateliers, books, and some dancing. It’s not a huge exhibition, if you were slamming Hamburger Bahnhof you could whip through in 15 minutes. I spent an hour there and could have easily used up another. These works and the accompanying text deserve contemplation.
Kirchner used the word Hieroglyph himself in articles published under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle, to describe how he worked with a symbolic language in his work as part of “the radical abbreviation and reduction of his imagery.” The exhibition starts with this text, and an essay in a book, accompanied by the sketch Tanzduo. Which I thought looks exactly like Dasniya, down to the face and bloomers under tutu.
In this first section are works I’m most familiar with of his, Haus unter Bäumen, Badende am Strand, both from Fehmarn, up on the Ostsee north-east of Hamburg. It then returns to dance. He, like many artists then, frequently painted dancers, possibly the influence of Ballets Russes who blew away the ballet world in 1909.
Opposite the dance section is Davos, where he moved after having a breakdown and while dealing with drug addition and alcoholism. There was a beautiful, huge tapestry hanging on the wall, unfortunately under perspex and unphotographable — the only work to suffer this, all the other artworks were under that magical unreflective glass — and probably the pick of the exhibition. His style changes here too, the late-’20s, early-’30s of Wiesenblumen und Katze or Sängerin am Piano flatter and with Cubist elements, almost alien to his earlier frenzy.
Berlin forms its own section, with some of my favourite pieces I would love to steal. The incredible Potsdamer Platz is here, as is Rheinbrücke in Köln and Der Belle-Alliance-Platz in Berlin. These form yet another distinct style, at first glance not different from the Fehmarn works, but they’re far lighter, faster, almost like watercolour on paper. Erna Schilling also arrives, his life partner from then on. These aren’t easy works. Kirchner populates the cityscape with what he called ‘Kokotte’, coquettes, sex workers, and the men, always diminished figures on the sides carry an anonymous menace.
Around the next corner, and one of the contextually most interesting for me. But first, Sitzender Akt mit erhobenen Armen, which I cannot help look at and see a nice plate of two fried eggs, sunny side up beside the naked woman. I know they’re supposed to be flowers in vases, but it’s all eggs to me. What’s more pertinent here is his use of colour on the shadows outlining her body. They’re a turquoise that contrasts the apricots and light salmon colours of her skin. When I look at this and compare it to Zwei weibliche Akte in Landschaft, with the hallucinogenic greens, yellows, pinks, blues of their bodies, it becomes clear how the latter in no way denotes a non-natural skin colour, nor do the greens and yellows of the Potsdamer Platz women or other portraits.
This painting was in the section called “Signs of Other Worlds” and discusses the influence of non-European art and culture on his and other Brücke artists’ work and life. Both African and Oceania form influences, and both were sites of German Colonialism until the end of World War I. It’s difficult for me to know where Kirchner sits in this. On one side he was horrified by the treatment of Jewish Germans even in the early-’30s, and was expelled by the Nazis from the Prussian Academy of Arts when they came to power in 1933, yet he also saw what he and the Brücke artists were doing as encouraging “truly German art, made in Germany”. So there’s this tension between radical aspirations and uncritical nationalism and colonialism.
Carl Einstein’s (a German Jewish writer, art historian, anarchist and critic) book Negerplastik is described as an important influence, and two copies are presented alongside Kirchner’s work. This influence is immediately apparent in his sculpture, even without prompting, but I like that this connection was explicitly made.
There’s also one photo that achieved the glorious down-the-rabbit-hole I love about museums. All the photos are postcard-sized, and being a hundred years old, not sharp or clean at all. This one, from Kirchner Museum Davos was captioned “Die Artisten Milly und Sam in Kirchners Atelier, Berliner Straße 80, Dresden” from circa 1910/11. It’s set in a chaotic room, artworks, hangings, and sculpture propped up against walls, littering the floor. There are two naked figures, Milly, in the bottom-left corner, and Sam, standing, one arm on his hip, the other stretched along the top of a painting. Both of them are black. They have names, are called ‘artists’ (Artisten), so what were they doing in Berlin in 1910?
For a start, this isn’t the only work they appear in. Milly is the subject of Kirchner’s Schlafende Milly in Kunsthalle Bremen, both were the subjects of numerous sketches by Kirchner, and Milly probably appears in more than one work without being named. Both of them are said to have also modelled for Erich Heckel. An alternate title for the photo is “Sam und Millie vom ‘Zirkus Schumann’”, and they are variously described as ‘circus’, ‘jazz dancer’, and ‘Black American’ artistes in sources cited in Face to Face? An Ethical Encounter with Germany’s Dark Strangers in August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century. So there’s this whole history of early-20th century Afro-Germans, colonialism, immigration in this one small, easily missed photo, which is a lot to put on a naked man and woman, about whom not much is known. It’s these traces though that history is all about. A single photo, a name, and a world opens up.
A little note on the nudity: Kirchner and friends were all down with getting naked and running around. Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture) was and is a deeply German thing. There were several photos of “naked but for a cigarette” in the exhibition. It might be this one was only one of a series, though how comfortable they were with nudity, whether they felt objectified, how Kirchner and the other artists regarded them, I can’t speculate.
A final note: Shortly after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss, Kirchner, living in Switzerland and fearing a similar invasion, killed himself.