Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)

Strassenszene

Details
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Strassenszene
signed and dated 'E L Kirchner 13' (lower right); signed and inscribed 'E L Kirchner Strassenszene' and with the purple Nachlass stamp numbered 'Be/Bb1' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
27 5/8 x 18 in. (70.2 x 45.7 cm.)
Painted in 1914/1922
Provenance
The artist, sold from the artist's estate in 1950 at the Kunstverein St. Gallen.
Private collection, Switzerland; sale, Christie's, London, 9 October 1997, lot 203.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
The artist's photo archive, vol. II, no. 26.
W. Grohmann, Das Werk Ernst Ludwig Kirchners, Munich, 1926 (one of only four works illustrated in colour pl. 3, dated 1913).
B. Myers, 'E.L. Kirchner and 'Die Brücke'', in Magazine of Art, vol. XLV/1, Washington, 1952, p. 24 (illustrated p. 23, dated 1913).
B. Myers, Die Malerei des Expressionismus, eine Generation im Aufbruch, Cologne, 1957, p. 129 (illustrated fig. 132, dated 1913).
B. Myers, The German Expressionists: A Generation in Revolt, New York, 1957, pp. 129-130 (illustrated fig. 132).
D.E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1968, no. 365, p. 94 (illustrated p. 319).
M.M. Moeller, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Die Strassenszenen 1913-1915, Munich, 1993, no. 68, p. 182 (illustrated in colour).
Exhibited
St. Gallen, Kunstverein, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938, October - November 1950, no. 15 (dated 1913).
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, March - May 1952, no. 21 (dated 1913).
Frankfurt, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, February - March 1970, no. 29 (illustrated p. 43, dated 1914-1922).
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Lot Essay

Strassenszene is one of the famous series of Berlin street scenes or Strassenbilder which Kirchner painted in the years immediately before the First World War - a series of paintings that are widely recognised to be among the foremost pictorial achievements of early Twentieth Century art. In these hauntingly memorable paintings of nocturnal Berlin street life Kirchner for the first time gave iconic pictorial form to man's pervasive anxiety about modern life and his ambiguous relationship with that new creature of modern industrialised society: the city.

Centring on the subject of the coquettish streetwalkers touting for business on the illuminated streets of night time Berlin, Kirchner's Strassenbilder were disturbingly modern, frank and provocative portrayals of city life as a new and vital way of being. Berlin, the fastest growing city in the world at this time and Germany's new Weltstadt, was, like most cities, often regarded as a monstrous mechanical enslaver of man and as something of a cauldron of vice and corruption. The epitome of all that was modern, at night it was the brightest city in Europe illuminated by all the latest attractions, from cafés and cabarets to cinemas, nightclubs, theatres and race tracks. Above all, Berlin was known for its prostitution, with the practice of streetwalking being preferred there over the more usual and discreet use of registered brothels practiced in other European cities. As a result of the high visibility and large number of its prostitutes, Berlin - this paradoxical shining new temple of modernity and sprawling ugly product of industrial progress - soon gained an added reputation as Die Hüre Babylon (The Whore of Babylon).

Kirchner moved to Berlin in the autumn of 1911 joining fellow Brücke members Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller in the city. By early 1912 with the addition of Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, all the leading members of the Dresden-based group were now living in Berlin. Lured by the attractive opportunities offered by life in the Grosstadt, the competitive life in Berlin provoked inner rivalries between the members that by 1913 had brought about the group's end. It was at this time that Kirchner turned to the theme of the city in his art, seeking both to distinguish it from the collective aesthetic of Die Brücke with its invocation of primitive harmony and pastoral idylls and to engage with the problematic spirit of modernity that he had discovered in Berlin.

From 1913 until his induction into the army in early 1915 Kirchner concentrated his painting on a series of imposing street scenes of cocottes confronting the viewer at the epicentre of the metropolitan crowd. The culmination of numerous sketches and studies of the activity and choreography of the crowd as it moved through the city streets, these paintings were in part an attempt to capture the unique atmosphere and dynamism of Berlin street life and the effects it had on the disposition of the human form. Kirchner wrote of his work at this time that he 'discovered that the feeling that pervades a city presented itself in the qualities of lines of force (Kraftlinen). In the way in which groups of persons configured themselves in the rush, in the trams, how they moved, this is how he (Kirchner) found the means to capture what he had experienced. There are pictures and prints in which a purely linear scaffolding with almost schematic figures nevertheless represents the life of the streets in the most vital way' (E.L. Kirchner, Davoser Tagebuch: Eine Darstellung des Maler und eine Sammlung seiner Schriften, ed. L. Grisbach, Cologne, 1968, p. 86).

At the same time, the provocative and ambiguous subject matter of these paintings, tall exotically clad streetwalkers sexually attracting the attention of bland nondescript bowler-hatted everymen, portrayed the metropolis as an erotic arena in which sex, like everything else, had been commodified and put on display. The towering dominance of these figures over their lesser male counterparts, their feather boas, bright colours and plumed hats all transform these women into modern urban birds of paradise enlivening the city streets with their presence. In this, they are in part the urban counterpart to the female nudes that Kirchner had painted in harmony with Nature on the shores of Fehmarn or by the lakes of Moritzburg. But in accordance with their urban environment, these women of the city also exude an ambiguous attraction and repulsion that echoes both Kirchner and many of his generation's ambiguous love-hate relationship with Berlin. Fascinated by the bright lights of the city and drawn to its famous night-life like moths to a flame, the Expressionists were also overwhelmed by the city's submerging of the individual into an anonymous collective of types.

Part bird of paradise, part gothic femme-fatale, the women of Kirchner's street scenes appear as mantis-like creatures that reflect and embody these dual feelings of attraction and repulsion. The personification of the city's populist image as Die Hüre Babylon, they are also very much the Expressionist face of Berlin. Kirchner, like many of his generation and as his letters from this period attest, had, on his arrival in Berlin been excited by the opportunities offered by the Grosstadt, but he was also soon overcome and oppressed by the hardship and reality of urban life, its artifice, and brutish indifference to him and his creative struggle. Infused with a reverberant nervous energy not seen in painting outside of Edvard Munch's neurotic turn-of-the-century masterpieces, Kirchner's street scenes are the pictorial embodiment of this deeply ambiguous emotion towards the city. It is this essentially psychological response to the frenetic strange and often alienatory nature of life in the metropolis that has led to these works continuing to remain enduringly modern.

With its two central cocottes confronting the viewer amidst a crowd of window-shoppers and passers-by, the composition of Strassenszene is one that recurs throughout several of Kirchner's street scenes from this period. With only slight modifications its composition is the same as that of the Museum of Modern Art's Die Strasse and the Dresden Gemäldegalerie's Strassenszene. Its central depiction of two women surrounded by the bustle of a predominantly male crowd also relates it closely to the Berliner Strassenszene on loan to the Brücke Museum, Berlin and to the largest and greatest of Kirchner's street scenes, the Berlin Nationalgalerie's monumental Potsdamerplatz of 1914. Like all these works the depiction of two women surrounded by window-shopping male admirers reinforces the sense of sex as a tradable commodity of the Grosstadt as well as being a true reflection of the flirtation rituals that actually took place between streetwalkers and their clients on Berlin's streets. Berlin's streetwalkers were forbidden by law to solicit openly - a situation that prompted a variety of subtle flirtation codes and rituals between woman and client of which prolonged and feigned window-shopping was the most common. These mating rituals of the big city and the elaborate street ballet that resulted from them would evidently have appealed greatly to Kirchner's 'primitivist' eye and his sociological interest in the interaction of modern man with his urban environment.

Kirchner evidently thought much of his Strassenbilder, feeling that they not only distinguished his work from that of the other Brücke members but also that they made a significant contribution to modern art. In 1919 at an important exhibition of modern art at the Berlin Nationalgalerie, Kirchner, fearing that Heckel as a member of the selection committee may have influenced the choice of works to Kirchner's disadvantage, instructed his lawyer to insist that two of his landscapes be replaced with a Berlin street scene. He also sought every opportunity to have these works published, asked Gustav Schiefler to write about and promote the print cycle that accompanied these paintings and when Karl Osthaus saw several examples in Kirchner's studio in December 1917, he urged him to seek out the others that were then with Ernst Gosebruch in Essen and Dr Carl Hagemann in Leverkusen. Kirchner wrote to Osthaus that these paintings were the ultimate expression of his artistic aim 'to be able to totally dissolve one's person into the sensations of the surroundings in order to be able to transform this into a united painterly form' (Letter from Kirchner to Karl Osthaus, 23 December 1917, cited in S. Simmons, 'Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Streetwalkers', in Art Bulletin, March 2000, vol. 82, Issue 1, note 51).

It is not known exactly when Kirchner began to paint the Strassenbilder even though several works are dated 1913. Werner Gothein, a painter friend of Kirchner's who had been a student in the MUIM Institute, recalled in 1960 that 'the street series originated primarily in February, March, and April 1914'. This is a view that accords with that of Kirchner scholar Douglas Gordon, who also dated the present Strassenszene to the spring of 1914 along with the Strassenszene in the Gemäldegalerie Neumeister, Dresden, Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), Strasse mit roter Kokotte (Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid) and Leipziger Strasse mit Electrischer Bahn; Kleines Stadtbild in the Museum Folkwang, Essen. The present work was also later worked on again by Kirchner in 1922 as was the Thyssen-Bornemisza's Strasse mit roter Kokotte in 1925. The signature and the date of '1913' were, Gordon suggests, subsequently added by Kirchner at this time.

Strassenszene remained in Kirchner's possession until his death in 1938. It was then sold from the artist's estate at the Kunstverein St. Gallen exhibition in 1950, where it was exhibited alongside the Thyssen Strasse mit roter Kokotte.
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