Painted during the summer of 1919, Drei Hütten am Hügel, Rote Hütten illustrates the profound renewal that occurred in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’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: ‘Here, one learns how to see further and go deeper than in so-called “modern” life, which is generally so very much more superficial despite its wealth of outer forms’ (letter to H. Spengler, 3 July 1919, quoted in L. Grisebach, Kirchner, Cologne, 1995, p. 153). 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’ (letter to Nele van de Velde, 13 October 1918, quoted in D. E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Massachusetts, 1968, p. 107).
As a note in the artist’s diary states, Drei Hütten am Hügel, Rote Hütten was begun on the 28th of August 1919, and takes as its subject a cluster of three brightly coloured alpine huts, nestled amongst the rolling hills and peaks of the Swiss Alps. Looking upwards at the dwellings from the pathway that snakes up the mountainside, Kirchner conjures a sense of unity and togetherness in the close grouping of the huts, perhaps channelling the sense of community and camaraderie he himself had discovered in this idyllic locale. Recording the dramatic play of light and shadow in the mountains that he found so captivating, 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 his highly expressive, pre-war style. Along with the bright-hues of the three alpine huts, the entire landscape seems alive with rich colour, from the bold pink swathes of pigment that fill the sky, to the golden hues of the mountainside, and the shades of terracotta and mauve visible in the banks of soil that line the pathway. By allowing his own subjective vision of the alpine scenery to determine the composition, Kirchner captures an impression of the almost spiritual connection to the landscape he had rediscovered in the tranquil setting of the mountains.