This work is an important double-sided canvas dating from two crucial periods in both the development of Kirchner's art and that of the Brücke group to which he belonged. The verso of the painting, Elbkähne vor gelben Haüsern, Dresden (Barges in front of Yellow Houses, Dresden) is a comparatively rare urban scene depicting tug boats and barges on the river Elbe. Executed in the first truly free, open and spontaneous painterly style adopted by die Brücke artists, it is an important document from the early phase of the movement which Kirchner painted in Dresden in 1909. Zwei nackte Mädchen in flacher Wanne (Two nudes in a shallow tub) on the other hand, dates from the last years of Die Brücke in Berlin. A studio scene depicting two women bathing, it is a taught, vibrant and masterful composition executed at a time when Kirchner was at the height of his creative powers.
Painted sometime in 1912 or 1913, Zwei nackte Mädchen in flacher Wanne combines several of the key elements of Kirchner's art and seamlessly fuses them into a deceptively simple and highly compressed studio scene. Looking down from above at the two women sitting and standing in the tub, the composition of the painting reveals Kirchner's masterful command and sly distortion of perspective, filling the left-hand part of the painting with the slender, elongated forms of the two women, and the right hand part with objects and furnishings from his richly decorated studio. In 1912 Kirchner had recently met the Schilling sisters, two dancers, Gerda and Erna, whose beautiful, architecturally structured, rigorously formed bodies soon became a staple feature of his art and an important influence on his constantly evolving style. Indeed, the slender naked forms of Gerda and Erna's bodies seems to have encouraged Kirchner to elongate the figures of his nudes into a more elegant if also distorted form, that has sometimes been compared to Gothic style. This, combined with Kirchner's newly developed interest in wood carving faux-primitive sculptures of nude figures led, in 1912, to the dramatic new figural style embodied by the two nudes in this work. 'It is so good for painting and drawing to carve figures', Kirchner wrote, 'It gives drawing more determination and it is a sensual pleasure' (Kirchner, 'Letter to Gustav Schiefler', 27 June, 1911, quoted in J. Lloyd, German Expressionism, Primitivism and Modernity, New Haven, 1991, p. 78).
A combination of the 'primitive' simplicity and elegance of form and line exhibited in his sculpture (as well as the Palau beams and Ajanta cave drawings that also greatly inspired him at this time), the poses and form of the two bathing figures in this work mimic closely those of several wooden figures made by Kirchner at this time. Of particular note in this respect is a 1912 sculpture of a dancing Gerda and a yellow and black painted sculpture of a seated nude, now in the Merzbacher collection. While a little of the frenetic dynamism and jagged neurotic roughness of Kirchner's mark-making from his Berlin pictures of this period have been deliberately refined and softened with painterly additions that Kirchner made in 1920, the original intensity, energy and coordinated flow of the composition has been maintained. Keeping much of its vibrancy, angularity and rawness of execution, the painting still displays the sense of freshness and spontaneity so intrinsic to the Brücke ideals of painting the real life of the world around them in a direct, immediate and emotionally intuitive way.
These ideals also inform the painting on the verso of this work, which Kirchner painted in Dresden three or four years later. A raw, vibrant and simplistic rendering of boats mooring on the Dresden shoreline, the painting reflects the direct and powerful influence that French Fauvism had on Kirchner and other Brücke artists at this time. Although Kirchner later over-protested that any such influence had ever existed, the paintings he made soon after visiting the Matisse exhibition at the Paul Cassirer Gallery in Berlin in January 1909 tell a very different story. In direct response to seeing this exhibition, the block forms of Kirchner's colour became larger, freer and more widely spaced out against a raw canvas daringly left bare. Indeed so impressed was Kirchner by this show, that he even urged that attempts should be made to recruit Matisse as a member of Die Brücke.
Depicting the Elbe bank in Dresden, Elbkähne vor gelben Haüsern, Dresden is one of a small but important group of early city paintings that Kirchner made in the Saxon capital. Painted outside, from life and in direct, impulsive and intuitive response to the view in front of him and the sensations it produced, Kirchner attempted, in these works, to translate the radical techniques of the Fauves into an emotive and personal record of the energized atmosphere of the modern city. Working in a swift and spontaneous manner that aimed to record the pulse and vibration of life as directly and unconsciously as possible, the Brücke painters, in works such as this, effectively fused the Fauve aesthetic with their own raw and 'primitivist' approach to modernity.
Eschewing all preliminary drawing and recalling in some respects André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck's riverside scenes in Chatou, Elbkähne vor gelben Haüsern depicts the busy industrial river life of Dresden in a sequence of swift, autonomous and radiant brushstrokes. Each one allowed to stand alone as a material record of the artist's direct interaction with his subject, the cumulative effect of these bold and free colourful marks here combines to convey a powerful sense of an energetic scene forged from life, not through the eye, but through the experience and sensation and of the artist.