Executed in bold swathes of vibrant, saturated color, Waldstück/Bergwald mit Haus is an important double-sided canvas that provides a window into two key moments in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s career. Dating from 1906, the composition on the front of the canvas, Waldstück, is an extremely rare early work that embodies the highly ambitious and experimental nature of Kirchner’s first forays into art making. Focusing on a small copse of trees in a verdant wooded landscape, Waldstück immerses the viewer in the awe-inspiring beauty of the German countryside, emphasizing the rich fecundity and enveloping atmosphere of the forest. Displaying a bold sense of bravura, the entire composition is constructed using raw strokes of pure color that appear to swirl and quiver before the viewer, lending the painting an intense visual drama.
The richness of the color contrasts along with this animated brushwork owe a clear debt to the late painterly style of Vincent van Gogh, whose passionate personal responses to the French landscape stood as a key touchstone for Kirchner during this period. While Kirchner and most of his associates in Die Brücke were likely familiar with Van Gogh’s work thanks to the extensive writings of the art critic Julius Meier-Graefe, it was an exhibition of Van Gogh’s paintings at the Galerie Ernst Arnold in Dresden during the autumn of 1905 that left such an indelible mark on the young artist. The experience of encountering Van Gogh’s paintings first hand set Kirchner on a decidedly new path, one rooted in the personal expression of an inner force or spirit, often sparked by the direct encounter with the natural world, a concept which would continue to inspire the artist for the rest of his career.
Kirchner revisited the painting at the beginning of the 1920s, at a time when he was living in the Swiss Alps while recovering from a debilitating illness. Inspired by his new surroundings, the artist began to radically reassess his earlier work and gradually developed a completely new style of painting. Impoverished, short of canvas, and believing that his new works marked a significant improvement on the paintings he had previously made in Dresden and Berlin, Kirchner set about re-working several of the earlier paintings still in his possession and using the backs of others as the supports for new works. In 1921, Kirchner re-purposed Waldstück so as to begin the work that would become Bergwald mit Haus on its reverse. While this painting, not fully completed until 1923, embodies the more joyous and colorful style of Kirchner’s Davos paintings, it simultaneously illustrates the artist’s ongoing fascination with the natural world, reveling in the grandeur of the mountains and the peaceful pastures and thick woods that surrounded his modest cabin.