Nacktes Mädchen vor grünem Sofa (Nude model in front of a green sofa) is one of the first of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s celebrated Brücke group paintings of naked models in the studio. Painted in either late 1908 or early 1909, the picture is one of the artist’s first attempts to create a heightened sense of reality through an aesthetic fusion of flattened colour, simplified form and raw subject matter. Standing free, unclothed, unposed and at apparent ease and in harmony with her richly coloured and decorated environment, the naked figure in this work stands, like Kirchner’s later wooden sculptures of similar figures were to do, as a totem of the vitality of life and the intensity of direct experience.
These were also Kirchner’s stated aims in making a painting like Nacktes Mädchen vor grünem Sofa. From the beginnings of the Brücke group in Dresden in 1905, it had been Kirchner and his fellow artists, Erich Heckel, Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff and Max Pechstein’s aim to reinvigorate painting and its stale academic roots in the practice of nude and anatomical studies, by creating a new art of raw, intense and spontaneously felt experience and expression. Towards this end, Kirchner and his friends, working together as a group, sharing models and working spaces, attempted to record the most vital and essential aspects of the human form in a series of quickly-executed and direct studies of the nude made as swiftly as possible. ‘We pounced onto nature as we found it in the girls’, Kirchner recalled of this exciting period. (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, ‘Davos Journal’, 1923, quoted in U. Lorenz, Die Brücke, Cologne, 2008, p. 46). ‘Regularly, once a week we met,’ wrote Fritz Bleyl, ‘to start with at Kirchner’s place.
The desire to draw from life was realized and executed on the spot, not in the traditional academic manner, but as a “fifteen-minute nude”… Soon we got as a model, an enchanting young thing... A lively, exceedingly comely little person who cheerfully and in her lissome way applied herself to our artistic demands. We worked for an hour with true enthusiasm, and got down on paper, flung down on paper, quite a number of nude and motion studies…We were intoxicated by this downright splendid work mania’ (Fritz Bleyl, quoted in U. Lorenz, op .cit., p. 9). Together, the young Dresden-based artists produced what Kirchner recalled was ‘hundreds of sheets a day, interspersed with talking and play (where) the painters became models too, and vice versa…All the moments of daily life were in this way incorporated into our memory. The studio became the home of the people who were painted there: they learned from the painters, the painters learned from them. Directly and abundantly, the pictures absorbed life’ (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, quoted in ibid, p. 9). A drawing on a postcard of Nacktes Mädchen vor grünem Sofa exists and bears a stamped date of May 1909, but this work appears to be a sketch drawing after, rather than prior to the painting itself, which, for its part, demonstrably appears to eschew almost all use of line.
To enhance the uninhibited, natural and free feeling of these communal enterprises, the Brücke painters began also to decorate their studios with colourful faux-exotic furnishings, batique hangings and later, self-made primitive artifacts. Creating self-made worlds out of their studios using the techniques of primitive societies from the South Seas, whose artifacts they knew from the Dresden Ethnographic Museum’s extensive holdings, the Brücke artists were seeking to create a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) in which the artist, model and environment all played their part. Towards this end, the idea of pictorially integrating the figure of the model into its environment in their paintings also became important and Nacktes Mädchen vor grünem Sofa is one of the first of Kirchner’s paintings to attempt this holistic sense of unity and integration.
Depicting a nude model (perhaps Isabella), standing on an exotic carpet in front of Kirchner’s green sofa and another of his paintings of two standing naked figures, the painting is a deliberately colourful portrait of a nude figure and studio interior depicted as one, coherent, rich and continuously stimulating visual entity. In order to emphasize this uniformity of appearance between figure and environment, Kirchner has flattened the planes of his colour into
broad and distinct sweeps in the manner of Fauvist painting and, in particular, that of Matisse, whose work he had recently seen in an exhibition of Fauvist painting held in Dresden in September 1908 and was also to experience again in an exhibition devoted solely to the artist in January 1909.
With the colours of the figure’s body reflecting, in places, those of the room around her, and with the picture on the wall reflecting the corporality of the figure and the painting’s image as a whole, Nacktes Mädchen vor grünem Sofa is a work that emphasizes also the environment of the studio as an equal arena of creativity and communal living and practice to that of the model. This aspect of the work is most strongly reflected in the painting’s universal use of rich, vibrant and strongly contrasting colour in a way that is equally forceful and pronounced throughout all areas of the painting.
Executed in swift strokes of colour applied directly to canvas without the appearance of drawing or line, the painting suggests a vigorous and immediate response from the artist on both an emotional and visual level to the scene before him. The languid, natural pose of the nude, seemingly lost in contemplation, but relaxed and enjoying her nakedness and bohemian surroundings is something that clearly reinforces this sense of communal idyll.
Such natural, unstaged body language was something that Kirchner always sought from his models, observing that it was ‘only at home’ that he felt he ‘had complete freedom in (his) work’ (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, ‘Davoser Tagebuch’, 1923, quoted in L. Grisebach, Kirchner, Cologne, 1999, p. 38). For these reasons and others, as he was keen to point out, it was studio nude paintings like Nacktes Mädchen vor grünem Sofa that effectively formed the core of the Brücke group’s collective aesthetic and practice throughout the many years of their development. The path of this ‘development...from the first appliqué ceiling in the first Dresden studio to the perfectly harmonious space in each of our Berlin studios’ Kirchner later wrote, ‘is an uninterrupted logical progression, which went hand-in-hand with the painterly developments of the pictures, the graphics and the sculpture… The love that the painter showed the girl who was his partner and helper washed over on to the carved figure, was ennobled by the environment as it was transferred to the image, and in its turn conveyed the particular form of the chair or table from its basis in the lifestyle of the human exemplar. That is a simple example of the road to the creation of art. That was the Brücke’s view of art’ (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, quoted in U. Lorenz, op. cit., pp. 10-11).