EXPRESSIONISM AND THE CITY
and Berlin 1905–1918
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) is widely acknowledged as the greatest artist of German Expressionism. Compelling and emotive, Kirchner's work is characterised by bold, energetic use of colour and a primitive vitality. Focusing on Kirchner's most creative and innovative years between 1905 and 1918, the exhibition explores how the celebratory, dynamic spirit of his Dresden paintings develops into the complex, dramatic mood of the Berlin scenes, ending with a selection of works from the beginning of the First World War. Including over 100 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, this is the first major exhibition of Kirchner's work in this country, introducing visitors to one of the greatest artists of the early 20th century.
Born in 1880, Kirchner originally studied architecture in the baroque town of Dresden. In 1905 he founded the artists' group, Die Brücke ('The Bridge'), with Nolde, Heckel and Schmidt-Rotluff. Inspired by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and African art, the group shared radical ideas and a bohemian studio space, creating a thriving artistic community. During these years, Kirchner depicted dynamic cabaret and circus scenes using brilliant, vivid colour as exquisitely as his contemporary, Matisse. In the summer, Kirchner escaped the studio to capture the freedom and primitivism of nude bathers in the lush landscape of Dresden's surrounding countryside.
Kirchner, along with other members of Die Brücke, moved to the rapidly expanding capital city of Berlin in 1911. The crowds and excitement of Berlin had a striking effect on Kirchner, and his paintings during this period depict the intensity and urgency of city living. In the competitive atmosphere of the Berlin art scene, Kirchner became increasingly isolated and his work became darker and more complex. His fascination with modern life culminated in the outstanding series of Streetwalker paintings, which vividly convey the tension and fear beneath the elegant façade of the crowd. Five of these masterpieces are on display at the RA.
1915 Kirchner was conscripted into the army and billeted to Halle, where
his deepening personal crisis led to a physical and psychological breakdown.
During his recuperation at a Swiss sanatorium Kirchner created some of
his most powerful graphic work. This included a series of woodcut illustrations
for the folk tale The Wonderful Story of Peter Schlemihl, which confirmed
his position as one of the great printmakers of the 20th century. The
exhibition ends with the haunting Self-portrait as a Soldier, depicting
Kirchner with a severed hand, an imaginary amputation which is a striking
metaphor for his personal and historical crisis. Kirchner's work was never
again to achieve the brilliance and intensity of the Dresden and Berlin
years. Labelled a degenerate artist by the Nazis, Kirchner was expelled
from the Berlin Academy of Arts and his work was exhibited in the Degenerate
Art exhibition, 1937. His rejection in Germany subsequently led to his
breakdown and suicide in 1938.
This major exhibition of Kirchner's work continues the Royal Academy's series of exhibitions on outstanding German artists of the 20th century, which has included The Berlin of George Grosz (1997) and Kandinsky: Watercolours and Other Works on Paper (1999).
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Academy of Arts
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