Ernst Ludwing Kirschner

Every now and then the art world often gets marked by tragedy, and it doesn’t get any more tragic then the legendary and loner artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Having a life marked with tragedy often overshadows the glorious work this artist did before he took his own life. Today he is remembered as the tortured soul who created some beautiful art before leaving the world too soon. Kirchner was one of the founding members of the Die Brucke or The Bridge group, which focused on laying down the foundation of Expressionism in the 20th century. He is regarded as one of Germany’s most influential and talented artist today. The German painter and printmaker was a bit of an enigma, he had conflicting feelings about the past, present, spirituality and authenticity. Caught right in the middle of the Nazi occupation Kirchner also feared for humanity’s soul in general. Kirchner was instrumental in reviving the old tradition of wood-cut art and at the same time he rejected the old styles of woodcutting and was more attuned to modern ideas.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was born in 1880 in Aschaffenburg in Germany. Kirschner’s family’s moved around a lot during his childhood before eventually settling in Chemnitz. Kirchner started off studying architecture in Dresden, where he produced his first woodcuts and the form of graphic art. For Kirchner woodcutting and painting were on the same par. Kirchner formed the Die Brucke group in 1905 along with five other Dresden students. The group was interested in experimenting with new styles of painting, the aim of the group was to bridge the gap between the past and present. Despite painting landscapes and street scenes the human figure remained the main subject matter of most of Kirchner’s art. Apart from the central human figure there was also a strong flair of bohemian life in the paintings, and for Kirchner the human figure’s movement was more important than the face. Kirchner was of the opinion that the human body had a better form of expression and vitality then the face.  


Formation period, where he defined his style, the influences of contemporary artists and the German tradition were noticed and the important group Die Brücke was formed, which would mark German expressionism and be one of the first avant-garde movements of the s. XX.


 Expressionism is usually understood as the deformation of reality to express nature and the human being in a more subjective way, giving primacy to the expression of feelings over the objective description of reality.

 With its violent colours and its theme of loneliness and misery, Expressionism reflected the bitterness that invaded the artistic and intellectual circles of pre-war Germany, as well as the First World War (1914-1918) and the interwar period ( 1918-1939).

 Expressionism defended individual freedom, the primacy of subjective expression, irrationalism, passion and forbidden themes – the morbid, demonic, sexual, fantastic or perverted.

 He tried to reflect a subjective vision, an emotional deformation of reality, through the expressive character of plastic media, which took on a metaphysical significance, opening the senses to the inner world.

 It should not only be understood as an art movement, but as a way of making art.


“We want to achieve freedom for our hands and our lives, against the will of the old established forces.”

Die Brücke Manifesto, 1906

On June 7, 1905, Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Fritz Bleyl and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, colleagues from the faculty of architecture, formed Die Brücke. Later, Emil Nolde, Otto Müller, among others, join. The artistic association would last until 1913.

The name “bridge” was chosen to make a call to other young artists to work for greater artistic freedom and to touch bases with the German tradition. A bridge between tradition and the avant-garde.

 Kirchner wrote Brücke’s manifesto and organized many collective activities among its members: “Anyone who directly and without falsification reflects what impels him to create belongs to our group.”

 The artists of Die Brücke sought to express extreme emotion through crude lines, an artificial and vibrant colour palette. His representations were oriented to the art of primitive peoples, with simplified forms, and a bright colour.

 They sought to innovate, but also to protest against academicism and certain “softening” that were experienced with the Belle Époque.

 Favourite subjects: the big city, the landscape, and especially the human figure and the nude in the middle of nature or inside the workshop, naturally and freely.

Kirchner greatly admired the art of the German goths such as the crucifixion of Matthias Grünewald. Also the graphic art of Dürer, whom he always considered a great influence.

His work with the artists of the Jugendstil movement and the dynamism and strength of the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch, would also mark him, although he never admitted his debt to the Norwegian.

 This way of simplifying the forms and intensifying the colour, would be what would lead him later to discover and admire the primitive art of Africa and Oceania.

His work with the artists of the Jugendstil movement and the dynamism and strength of the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch, would also mark him, although he never admitted his debt to the Norwegian.

 This way of simplifying the forms and intensifying the color, would be what would lead him later to discover and admire the primitive art of Africa and Oceania.

Crisis  Period (1915 – 1917)

Coinciding with the beginning of the First World War, Kirchner suffers a personal crisis. Overworked, disorganized life is compounded by excessive consumption of alcohol and sleeping pills, due to the growing fear of being called to the front.

He tried to avoid joining the army and entered as an “involuntary volunteer”, as an artillery driver.

He suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to various sanatoriums in Germany and Switzerland.

Despite this, he has great social and artistic success and continues to participate in various exhibitions.

From this moment are some of his most surprising works. In them the fear and anguish of the war conflict is perceived. The various portraits of doctors, nurses and patients in the Kreuzlingen sanatorium constitute one of the sets.

The heaviest burden of all is the pressure of war and increasing superficiality. It gives me the impression of seeing of a bloody carnival.

FIRST STAY IN DAVOS (1917 – 1925)

Kirchner arrived, for the first time at a sanatorium in Davos in 1917. The following year he fixed his permanent residence in the small Alpine town.

He is moved by rural life in the Alps and this motif is the central theme in his production of this phase.

These will be the years where you will appreciate the true dimension of colour. The intense chromaticism with a nervous trace will give way to flatter, calmer compositions, with lighter and smoother colours. His nervous brushstroke gradually calms down.

He exercises a style called “tapestry.” It is based on the technique of rural embroidery and weaving and consists of the superposition of coloured spots.

Every time he is leaning more towards a more abstract style.


Imminence of the second world war (1925 – 1938)

Despite his retirement, he remains informed and in touch about international artistic trends with magazine subscriptions, visits to exhibitions and trips around Germany.

 Familiar with the art of Bauhaus members, Picasso, Fernand Leger, and Le Corbusier. They inspire his work.

 Innovative workmanship, reduction of shapes: abstract, ornamental, static language dominated by the power of color. A stark contrast to the frenzy of his work in Berlin. Always experimenting and looking for new ways to express yourself.

 He used to work his works for a long time and in parallel several at the same time. During this time he retouched some paintings in Berlin

 As of 1933, he followed with growing concern the developments of political events in Germany and the rise of Nazism, as well as frustration at not considering that his work was taken into account as it should.


the National Socialists confiscate more than 16,000 works as “degenerate art” that they will exhibit in a traveling exhibition until 1941

639 of his works were confiscated and removed from collections and museums.

Austria’s annexation to Germany in 1938 leads him to suspect a possible invasion of Switzerland.

Kirschner suffer from personal and health problems.

In 1938 Destroyed numerous engraving plates and some of the sculptures that surrounded his house.

June 15, 1938 commits suicide with a gun.

His grave is in Davos, where they have made a museum in his name.

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