Shortly after Ernst Ludwig Kirchner…was conscripted to fight in World War I…he suffered extreme nervous agitation brought on in part by the horrors of war and in part by alcohol and drug abuse. The artist was discharged from military service and hospitalized in several German asylums. By 1917 Kirchner had become increasingly unstable and was admitted to the respected Bellevue Sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, where he remained until July 1918. After this stay, his health improved – for a time – and the artist continued to live in Switzerland, where he painted, sculpted, and made prints until he committed suicide in 1938.
During and immediately following his time in the Swiss sanatorium, Kirchner made a group of monumental portrait woodcuts that document the doctors and nurses who tended to him, as well as artists, dealers, collectors, and writers who came to see him. One of his first visitors was Willem van Vloten, son of Dutch émigrés who resided in Switzerland. A garden designer and flower enthusiast, van Vloten purchased Kirchner’s painting Yellow Flower (1918; private collection), as well as several woodcuts. In the Gecht print, the abstracted still life to the left of the sitter’s head in fact may be a floral piece or a potted plant. The emphasis on the sitter’s hands may refer to his career as a writer. While the seventeen portrait woodcuts Kirchner created during his stay in Bellevue are often described as calmer and softer than the work from his years in Berlin before the war, the artist’s woodcut technique and style, as evidenced in this portrait, are not so far from his pre-war production. The jagged lines of van Vloten’s face, nervous energy of his hands, and nearly abstracted interior elements in the background retain much of the raw energy of Kirchner’s 1914 street scenes. The artist dedicated this impression to one of his patrons, Dr. Eberhard Grisebach.
Jay A. Clark, Graphic Modernism: Selections from the Francey and Dr. Martin L. Gecht Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago with Hudson Hills Press, 2003, pp. 68.