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

Der Wasserfall (recto); Mondaufgang auf Fehmarn (verso)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Der Wasserfall (recto); Mondaufgang auf Fehmarn (verso)
signed, titled and with the Nachlass stamp 'E.L. Kirchner Der Wasserfall Da/Aa 30' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
59 1/4 x 47 1/2 in. (150.4 x 120.5 cm.)
Painted in 1919 (recto); Painted in 1914 (verso)
The artist's estate.
Roman Norbert Ketterer, Stuttgart & Lugano (no. B-4813), by 1959.
Acquired from the above, in 1965, and thence by descent to the present owner.
Letter from E. L. Kirchner to Mrs H. Spengler, 3 July 1919 ('Ich versuchte mich am großen Wasserfall').
The artist's diary, 8-9 July 1919, p. 7.
E. L. Kirchner, Photoalbum, vol. III, no. 117.
W. Grohmann, E. L. Kirchner, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 99 (recto illustrated, titled 'The Waterfall (Kientobel)').
L. Grisebach, ed., Maler des Expressionismus im Briefwechsel mit Eberhard Grisebach, Hamburg, 1962, p. 110.
D. E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Massachusetts, 1968, nos. 566 & 566v, p. 348 (recto illustrated).
L. Walter, Zauberberge- zu Ernst Ludwig Kirchners Davoser Bergbildern, Zurich, 1988, p. 21 (illustrated p. 18).
L. Grisebach, Ernst Ludwig Kirchners Davoser Tagebuch, Stuttgart, 1997, pp. 30-31 & 279.
H. Delfs, ed., Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Der Gesamte Briefwechsel 'Die absolute Wahrheit, so wie ich sie fühle', Zurich, 2010, pp. 753, 1104, 1157, 1193, 1240 & 1242.
Exh. cat., Der doppelte Kirchner- Die zwei Seiten der Leinwand, Davos, 2015, no. D93 (illustrated p. 163).
Frankfurt, Galerie Ludwig Schames, Schweizer Arbeit von E. L. Kirchner, January - February 1922, no. 18, n.p. (dated '1918', titled 'Wasserfall (Kientobel)').
Berlin, Galerie Paul Cassirer, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1923.
St. Gallen, Kunstverein, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880-1938, October - November 1950, no. 30, n.p..
Bremen, Kunsthalle, Meisterwerke des deutschen Expressionismus, March - May 1960, no. 39, p. 26 (illustrated pl. 27); this exhibition later travelled to Hanover, Kunstverein, May - June 1960; The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, July - September 1960; Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, September - November 1960; and Zurich, Kunsthaus, May - June 1961.
Campione d'Italia, Galleria R.N. Ketterer, Moderne Kunst, 1963.
Lugano, Galerie Roman Norbert Ketterer, Moderne Kunst II, Gemälde, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen, 1965 - 1966, no. 71, p. 100 (recto illustrated p. 101; titled 'Der Wasserfall (Kientobel)').
Kunsthalle, Basel, E. L. Kirchner und Rot-Blau, September - October 1967, no. 66.
Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880-1938, November 1979 - January 1980, no. 300, pp. 248-249 (recto illustrated p. 249; titled 'Der Wasserfall (Kientobel)'); this exhibition later travelled to Munich, Haus der Kunst, February - April 1980; Cologne, Museum Ludwig, April - June 1980; and Zurich, Kunsthaus, June - August 1980.

Brought to you by

Keith Gill
Keith Gill

Lot Essay

‘The great mystery which lies behind all events and objects of the environment sometimes becomes schematically visible or sensible when we talk with a person, stand in a landscape, or when flowers or objects suddenly speak to us. We can never give it concrete verbal expression, we can only express it symbolically in forms or words…’ (Kirchner, in a letter to Dr. Eberhard Grisebach, 1 December 1917, quoted in D. E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Massachusetts, 1968, p. 110).

‘I longed so much to create works from pure imagination, the kind one sees in dreams, but the impression of reality is so rich here that it consumes all my strength’ (Kirchner, in a letter to Nele Van de Velde, 13 October 1918, quoted in D. E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Massachusetts, 1968, p. 114).

Painted during the summer of 1919, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s monumental composition Der Wasserfall illustrates the profound renewal which occurred in the artist’s work following the end of the First World War, as he emerged from a period of intense illness and personal crisis. The artist had suffered a complete mental breakdown shortly after his voluntary enlistment in the German army in 1915, and the following three years were spent in and out of sanatoriums in both Germany and Switzerland as he searched for a respite from his debilitating illness. By the autumn of 1918 he had finally reached a calmer state of mind, and could move to a small Alpine cottage on the Stafelalp above Frauenkirch near Davos, called ‘In den Lärchen'. The move proved revelatory for Kirchner, not only providing him with a mental clarity that allowed him to emerge from his deep depression and return to his painting once again, but also opening his eyes to an entire spectrum of new subjects. It was here, surrounded by the serenity of the majestic Alpine landscapes, that Kirchner entered one of the most productive periods of his artistic career, painting an array of richly coloured canvases which strove to capture the grandeur of the scenery he discovered in the Swiss Alps, from the awe inspiring vistas and dramatic topography of every peak, to the sheer vitality and fecundity of the local flora.

Describing the appeal of his new home, Kirchner proclaimed that ‘here you learn to see deeper and penetrate further than in the so-called "modern" life [of the city], which is so much more superficial in spite of its richer outer form’ (Kirchner, in a letter to Mrs. H. Spengler, 3 July 1919, reproduced in L. Grisebach, Maler des Expressionismus im Briefwechsel mit Eberhard Grisebach, Hamburg, 1962, p. 110). In particular, it was the intensity of colours within the landscape which seemed to move Kirchner most. In a letter to Nele van de Velde, whom he had met as a patient in the Bellevue sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, he described the richness of the landscape, the vibrancy of the hues he perceived, and the constantly changing atmosphere of the Swiss Alps: ‘There below you will probably still be having summer, while our sun already gilds the mountains and the larch-trees become yellow. But the colours are wonderful, like old dark red velvet. Down below in the valley the cabins stand out in the boldest Paris blue against the yellow fields. For the first time here one really gets to know the worth of individual colours. And, in the bargain, the stark monumentality of the rows of mountains’ (Kirchner, in a letter to Nele van de Velde, 13 October 1918, cited in D. E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Massachusetts, 1968, p. 107).

Writing to his close friend, Helene Spengler, on the 3rd of July 1919, Kirchner describes in detail the circumstances in which the present work was painted. Having spent several days confined to his lodgings due to illness, he finally felt well enough to venture out into the landscape, eager to exercise once again and explore nature first-hand. Trekking to the great waterfall not too far from his home, the artist was disappointed to see that the water was not at its fullest, but proclaimed that his imagination would allow him to convey the impression of its optimum power and speed in his painting. Capturing the energy of the cascading waterfall, Kirchner renders the scene in bold swathes of vibrant, saturated colour, using sharp, agitated strokes that zig-zag across the surface of the canvas in a manner that echoes the artist’s highly expressive, pre-war style. He was pleased with his progress and promised to show Spengler the freshly completed work when he saw her next. Helene had witnessed the devastation of Kirchner’s debilitating mental breakdown first-hand, having offered the artist a refuge in Davos in 1917 in the hope that she and her husband could assist with his recovery, and so the reports of his convalescence and gradual return to painting were no doubt encouraging news.

Kirchner’s recovery brought about a fervent urge to paint once more and, eager to translate his impressions immediately onto canvas, he set about re-working several of the earlier paintings still in his possession, using the backs of others as the supports for new compositions. The first shipments of his belongings from Berlin had reached Davos in January 1919, heralding the arrival of an abundance of canvases which he could recycle for this purpose. To create Der Wasserfall, for example, Kirchner re-stretched Mondaufgang auf Fehmarn, a 1914 painting focusing on an almost surreal moonrise above the island of Fehmarn where the artist had spent extended sojourns each summer in the years immediately preceding the war. Like Davos, Fehmarn had become a refuge for the artist, an escape from the frenetic atmosphere of life in the city, a place where, according to the artist, he ‘…learnt how to create the ultimate oneness of Man and Nature’ (Kirchner, quoted in L. Grisebach, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880-1938, New York, 1999, p. 92). Still visible on the reverse of the canvas, Mondaufgang auf Fehmarn captures an impression of this almost spiritual connection to the landscape Kirchner developed in Fehmarn, a feeling that he finally rediscovered in the tranquil setting of the Swiss Alps in the summer of 1919.

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