Berliner Strassenszene (Berlin Street-scene) is one of the finest examples of the famous series of Berlin street scenes or Strassenbilder that Kirchner painted in the years immediately before the First World War. This series of paintings, now widely recognized to be among the foremost pictorial achievements in early twentieth-century art is centered on the subject of the city's famous streetwalkers touting for business on the illuminated nocturnal streets of Berlin. Disturbingly modern, frank and provocative portraits of life in the metropolis, these paintings are the first psychological paintings of the twentieth-century to express a pervasive anxiety about modernity and man's ambiguous love/hate relationship with that new creature of an industrialized society: the city.
Berlin, in the first years of the 20th Century was the fastest growing city in the world. A paradoxical shining new temple of modernity and of the ugly sprawl of industrial progress, Germany's Weltstadt was both feared and admired 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, lit up by all the latest attractions, from cafés and cabarets to cinemas, nightclubs, theatres and race-tracks. Above all, the city was known for its prostitution. The practice of streetwalking was preferred in Berlin over the more usual and discreet use of registered brothels common to other European cities. As a result of the high visibility and large number Berlin prostitutes on the city streets, the German capital soon gained the reputation of being a modern-day Sodom or Gomorrah earning itself the memorable nickname Die Hüre Babylon (The Whore of Babylon).
It was these independent streetwalking women of the night that Kirchner fastened upon as icons of his age. Forming the thematic and compositional centre of his paintings these mantis-like temptresses epitomize the fear and allure of the metropolis and provoke a complex range of emotions in the viewer. A strange but mesmeric combination of gothic and primitive form, adorned in the outlandish headwear of the very latest fashion, the faces he gives these women are both attractive and frightening and seem to encapsulate the whole paradox of modern experience in a startling and unforgettable single visage. Haunting and memorable these magnificent creatures are majestic specters of the city night, their gaudy mask-like features, the Expressionist face of Berlin.
In Berliner Strassenszene Kirchner presents two cocottes wandering languidly in the midst of a bustling city crowd made up of relatively anonymous bower-hatted men busy walking in a multitude of directions. Behind these two flamboyant and colorful figures a crowded number 15 tram (which ran via Hallesches Tor, Postdamerplatz and the Anhalter Bahnhof) identifies their location as being right in the heart of the city centre. Kirchner had first moved to Berlin in the autumn of 1911 where he joined fellow Brücke members Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. By early 1912 with the addition of Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, all the leading members of the Dresden-based group were living there. They were drawn to the city by the attractive opportunities it offered, but the fiercely competitive life in Berlin provoked inner rivalries and by 1913 these had led to the dissolution of the group. Somewhat alienated and alone and now questioning his identity in the face of the great anonymous collective of the metropolis, it was at this point that Kirchner began to paint the city, seeing in it both a reflection and a cause of his own growing sense of neurosis and isolation.
It was a decision that also suited his immediate purpose of distancing his work from that of his Brücke counterparts whose subject matter remained largely unaltered by their move to the German capital. 'Let's paint what is close to us, our city world!' Ludwig Meidner was to write in 1914, responding to the inspiration of Robert Delaunay and the Italian Futurists apotheosis of the city as a mechanical paradise. By the time Meidner wrote these words Kirchner was already painting the Berlin streets in a way very different from these artists seemingly unbridled optimism for anything new. Unlike their celebrations of the metropolis, the Strassenbilder that Kirchner painted at this time were made from his nerve-ends and depict urban reality in a truly Expressionist fashion. Kirchner's Berlin streets are depicted as an edgy and ambiguous emotional experience--an almost electric mixture of fear and exhilaration. In paintings like Berliner Strassenszene with its infectious depiction of the hurly-burly atmosphere of the metropolis, Kirchner articulates the fascinating, hectic and disorientating rhythm of big city life with such accuracy and force of expression that it prompts an equally uncomfortable feeling in the viewer.
Kirchner achieved this unique mastery of expression by physically immersing himself in the life of Berlin's streets, repeatedly making frantic sketches of figures on street corners and at tram stops as the people passed by him. In numerous schismatic and rapidly executed drawings made from stolen glances and swift observations he 'developed' a sense of the choreography of street life, how the crowds formed into groups on street corners and how to express the rhythm, pace and pattern of human behavior in the metropolis using only a few directional graphic strokes. In this way his work 'developed' he recalled, 'from the observation of movement that gives a form which rests on the persistence of light impressions in the eye. The click of moving feet, for example, remains a moment longer in the eye than the heels, which move constantly, so they become bigger in the picture. I move myself about, and single point perspective is cancelled out.' (cited in Jill Lloyd, German Expressionism, Primitivism and Modernity, New Haven, 1991, p. 152).
Through such observations in which Kirchner, immersed in the life of city streets, caught both the electric sense of movement and the nervous energy of people constantly on the move, Kirchner 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 works 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. Lothar Grisebach, Cologne, 1968, p. 86).
Of all of the magnificent Strassenbilder that emerged from these intense sketches and observations of the city on the move, Berliner Strassenszene is the work that remains closest to the dynamic sense of constant and simultaneous movement that Kirchner sought to evoke in these works. Traditionally thought of as being the second work in the series after Fünf Frauen auf der Strasse in Essen (fig. 2) (though exactly when it was painted remains unknown), it is in this work more than any others that the dynamic energy and constantly shifting movement of Berlin's city streets is best captured and expressed. This effect is achieved primarily through the radical composition of the work which, with its cut-off male figures at the bottom of the picture, appears like a hastily taken snapshot taken of the crowd as it passes. The composition is, however, not nearly as random and immediate as it first appears, but the product of numerous sketches (figs. 16 and 17). Other than the two central cocottes, each figure walks along a different line of direction. In addition every figure is shown looking in a different direction. This has the effect of creating a maze of directional force-lines throughout the picture; lines that intersect and keep the eye constantly on the move as it would do in a crowd. This effect is compounded by Kirchner's sharp angular brushstrokes which also add a constantly alternating pattern and sense of shifting surface to the whole work. Seeming to carve the figures, the constant intersection of planes and sharp angles lends the painting the edgy nervous quality that both captivates and unsettles the viewer.
At the heart of this virtuoso painterly performance demonstrating Kirchner's complete mastery of his subject and medium, the two colorful streetwalkers stand like modern-day idols or creatures from another planet prowling the streets, flamboyant and seemingly self-assured. Brightening what would otherwise be a drab and mundane cross-section of nondescript be-suited businessmen wandering like black ants through the city centre, these two fantastic and seemingly larger-than-life characters proclaim themselves to be the birds of paradise of this asphalt jungle. Honey-pots of the metropolis, whores of Babylon incarnate, these exotic city flowers advertising themselves for the collective male insect are, nevertheless, in this work, ultimately symbols of the city's failure to satisfy and fulfill. Their black eyes and African mask-like painted faces in the end only reflect the façade of urban existence and its shallowness. Despite the proximity of all the figures in the painting, there is no interaction, no union. No single gaze meets another. Each individual, though a part of the crowd remains isolated and alone. For Kirchner this disjunction represented his own experience of the city and the cultural essence of the metropolis as a whole.
Kirchner evidently thought much of his Strassenbilder feeling that these eleven paintings 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 one of his Strassenbilder. He also sought every opportunity to have these works published and asked Gustav Schiefler to write about and promote the print cycle that accompanied these paintings. When Karl Osthaus saw several examples of these works 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. The Strassenbilder Kirchner wrote to Osthaus, 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' Dec. 23, 1917, cited in Sherwin Simmons, "Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Streetwalkers," Art Bulletin, 2000, Vol. 82, Issue 1 n. 51).
(fig. 13) Pablo Picasso, Les demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 06322496
(fig. 14) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Strassenszene, 1913-1914. the present work
(fig. 15) Edvard Munch, Evening on Karl Johan Street, 1892. Bergen Art Museum, Bergen. BARCODE 06322502
(fig. 16) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Strassenszene. BARCODE 06322557
(fig. 17) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Strassenszene. BARCODE 06322588