This work is listed in the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive, Wichtrach/Bern, vol. III, under no. 108 (Die Schlittenfahrt) and vol. IV, under no. 9 (Badende am Meer).
Badende am Meer/ Die Schlittenfahrt is a highly important double-sided canvas sporting very different images from two pivotal moments in Kirchner’s career - his summer visits to the isle of Fehmarn between 1912 and 1914 and the genesis of the new direction in his art that began in the Swiss Alps in the early 1920s. Painted in 1913 and between 1922 and 1926 respectively, the work depicts bathers on the Fehmarn coastline on one of its sides, and on the other, a winter sleigh ride in the mountains near Davos in Switzerland where Kirchner moved in 1919 to recuperate from the psychological trauma of the Great War. Kirchner’s Fehmarn paintings are widely regarded as being among the finest of all the artist’s creations, while his work in Davos in the early 1920s reflects upon a new maturity and the artist’s new-found joy in the simple pleasures and isolation of mountain life during this time of artistic rehabilitation. Spanning the years that were to have such a defining impact on the style and manner of the artist’s work, this double-sided picture is therefore not only one that brackets this crucial period in the artist’s life but also one that illustrates, through its two strikingly different images from two of the most influential and important locations and times in the artist’s career, the dramatic evolution in Kirchner’s work.
The painting first came into being in the summer of 1913 as part of Kirchner’s summer work on the island of Fehmarn on the Baltic Coast between Germany and Denmark. Between August 1912 and the summer of 1914 when his visit was cut short by the outbreak of the war, Kirchner reveled in escaping the frenetic hurly-burly of his metropolitan life in Berlin by spending time on what he once referred to as his South-Sea-like idyll of Fehmarn. There, living on the remote island with his companion Erna Schilling and her sister Gerda, and often visited by artist friends such as Erich Heckel, Otto Mueller or Hans Gewecke, Kirchner would spend the summer months painting the island landscape and what he once described as the ‘beautiful, architecturally structured, rigorously formed bodies’ of his two female companions.
It was there, on Fehmarn, Kirchner later recalled, ‘I learned how to create the ultimate oneness of Man and Nature, and completed what I had begun at Moritzburg … There I painted pictures that are absolutely mature, insofar as I myself can judge. Ochre, blue and green are the colours of Fehmarn, and the coastline is wonderful. At times with a South Sea opulence, amazing flowers and thick fleshy stems’ (Kirchner, ‘Letter to Gustav Schiefler’, Summer 1912, quoted in L. Grisebach, Kirchner, Cologne, 1999, p. 92).
Marking the beginning of a style which would also come to underpin the edgy cocottes and streetwalkers who were to dominate Kirchner’s art from late 1913 until his enrolment in the army in 1915, in Fehmarn Kirchner began to employ a rough hatching technique in the delineation of both his women and the island landscape. This frenetic, raw, spontaneous and angular technique, most visible in works such as Badende am Meer and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart’s Im Meer Schreitende of 1912, lent the already rough-edged, elongated and sculpture-like figures of the naked Erna and Gerda a powerful and dynamic sense of energy and motion. In such paintings, the vivacity and strong verticality of these figures is often echoed by that of the landscape, so that, like his city studies, Kirchner’s Fehmarn scenes, with their radically pared-back colour, appear to be vivid portraits of the fierce vitality of nature in the same way that his city scenes seem to capture the nervous momentum of Berlin. As here, in Badende am Meer, in Kirchner’s Fehmarn landscapes, all the power and energy of the wind, the rocks and the waves, as well as that of the lush, vigorous growth of the island’s vegetation, seems to find a totemic echo in the tall, thin and angular figures of the female nudes shown striding through it. In addition, the energy and spontaneity of Kirchner’s hatched brushstrokes express more than just the energy of the scene before the artist, it also appears to convey something of the excited enjoyment and nervous energy of the artist’s response to his subject matter. As Kirchner wrote to Gustav Schiefler from Fehmarn in the summer of 1913, he had come to the island ‘to regain my strength and to paint. The events of last winter have worn my nerves thin. My real pictures are coming now. I didn’t expect it but the colours suit my palette well’ (Kirchner, ‘Letter to Gustav Schiefler’, Summer 1913, quoted in the film by M. Trabitzsch, The Life and Art of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Zurich, 2000).
Kirchner’s joy in the radical achievements of his Fehmarn pictures was to be short lived however. Although these works inaugurated the greatest period of his career, this was also one that was to be dramatically cut short when Kirchner was obliged to enlist in the army in July 1915. Horrified by the war and by the dehumanising nature of military life in general, Kirchner suffered a complete mental collapse in 1916 from which he took several years to recover. Moving first to a sanatorium in Switzerland and later into a house above Frauenkirch near Davos, the artist was unable to work regularly again until around 1919. A combination of his illness and his new life in the mountains led to a radical reassessment of his earlier work and the gradual emergence of a completely new style. Impoverished, short of canvas and believing that his new works marked a significant improvement on the frenetic, edgy and sometimes neurotic 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 work. In 1922, Kirchner re-stretched Badende am Meer so as to begin the work that would become Die Schlittenfahrt on the other side. This painting, not finally completed until 1926, typifies both the more sedate, joyous and colourful style and subject matter of Kirchner’s Davos paintings.
As Kirchner wrote of this new style, the more vibrant, flat form colour of such works is ‘evoked by the clear mountain air. The pictures enable us to trace a very gradual process of development. Heightening of graphic conformation goes hand in hand with a definite change in proportions … These serve to create a great and incisive spiritual impression … The colouration is not found in Nature, but born of the painter’s creative intention. In conjunction with the other colours in a picture, it strikes a specific note expressive of the painter’s personal experience. The visible world suggests the shape and colour, but is modified to such an extent that an entirely novel pictorial form comes into being’ (Kirchner, quoted in L. Grisebach, ed., Ernst Ludwig Kirchners Davoser Tagebuch, Ostfildern, 1997, p. 230).
Depicting a couple (that may well represent Kirchner and his ever faithful companion Erna Schilling) enjoying a mountain sleigh ride up a winding path, outlined by telephone pylons of the kind that Kirchner was later to photograph, Die Schlittenfahrt is a particularly joyous painting. The winters in Davos could be both confining and depressing for Kirchner and especially Erna, but in this work, it is the simple pleasures, bright colours and peaceful harmony of the Alpine winter that is evoked. ‘Something new is expressing itself here’, Kirchner wrote of such works to Georg Reinhart, ‘something quite different from the beautiful, refined French art you have so graciously cultivated and promoted. People are always frightened at first by the novel and unwonted: doubtless that is why the people of Winterthur are so horrified by my work’ (Kirchner, quoted in L. Grisebach, ed., Ernst Ludwig Kirchners Davoser Tagebuch, Ostfildern, 1997, p. 249).
On completion of Die Schlittenfahrt Kirchner signed and dated the painting in black paint over the top of Badende am Meer. This signature remained visible until only recently when it was removed to allow the previously unexhibited 1913 painting Badende am Meer to be returned to its original state.