Painted in 1913, the year that the Die Brücke group finally disbanded, Badende am abendlichen Strand an der Flensburger Förde is a highly important painting that embodies many of the group's key aesthetic aims. An extremely rare work from the height of the artist's maturity, it is one of only relatively few not to have been lost or destroyed and was only recently discovered on the reverse of a 1917 painting by Heckel entitled Leuchtturm. As was the practice of many of the Brücke artists during the war years, on account of the austerity of the period and a lack of canvas, the artists were often obliged to paint on both sides.
This work is one of several important paintings of that Heckel made during the summer months of 1913, including Gläsener Tag (Bayerishe Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich) and Frauen am Meer (Willelm Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg) that repeatedly depict a naked figure set against a dramatic landscape background. The naked human figure was for Heckel and his fellow artists of Die Brücke a potent symbol of a state of innocence and naturalness that they wished to use their art to exalt. After years working both alone and together directly from nature in the open air around the lakes at Moritzburg and at various towns on the Baltic coast, the subject of bathers in nature had become a staple of Die Brücke art.
In this work the figure standing against the undulating rocky shoreline of Flensburg Sound near Osterholz on the Baltic coast is most probably Siddi, a dancer then called Sidi Reha, who was Heckel's girlfriend and favourite model at this time and whom he was later to marry in 1915. According to her, Heckel had set out at this time to explore the Schleswig-Hollstein peninsula with the express intention of finding a specific stretch of countryside in which he would be able to work over the following years. During the course of a boat trip, which took the couple up Flensburg Sound and around the island of Alsen, Heckel identified the undulating countryside around Osterholz as the location he had been looking for. Following the advice of the ship's captain, he rented an old barn from a shipwright and in 1918 was even able to purchase the property together with the adjoining house.
Concentrating on the bold angular forms of a single figure stooping slightly before entering the sea, while framed by the jagged forms of the sea the rocky landscape, Heckel visually suggests a direct correlation between the naked girl and her natural surroundings through a universal use of bold planes of colour and sharply angular forms. Recalling the keen angularity of many of Heckel's carved-wood figure sculptures in the manner in which he has defined the girl's physique, this correlation is further enhanced by Heckel's subtle use of colour gradation to lend the work an abstracted but overall sense of union and harmony, wholly appropriate to his primitivist championing of nature as a pastoral idyll.
Leuchtturm in contrast, was painted while Heckel was stationed in Flanders as a paramedic. A dramatic seascape, centred on the lone isolated figure of a lighthouse against the sea and sky, this work, executed at the height of the World War, seems to reflect on the hubris and impotence of man in the face of nature, directly contrasting a small phallic lighthouse with the glorious radiance of sunlight bursting through the clouds above.