Painted in 1909, Im See badende Mädchen, Moritzburg (Girls Bathing, Lake Moritzburg) is one of the first and finest in a series of seminal works that Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painted over the course of three glorious, golden summers at the lakes in Moritzburg between 1909 and 1911. A vivid, contemporary arcadia, the present work depicts a scene of the idyllic union of man, nature and art that was at the very heart of the Brücke group’s aesthetic. It was in Moritzburg in 1909 that Kirchner, along with his artistic comrade, Erich Heckel, immersed himself in an artistic idyll, as the two artists worked side by side in the landscape, depicting their girlfriends and models, as well as each other, as they all frolicked naked amidst the unspoiled nature of these secluded lakes. This summer was a crucial turning point in the development of the Brücke group, allowing the artists for the first time to realise their collective aims by expressing a direct, unadulterated response to nature with a shared and radical aesthetic. In this way, works such as Im See badende Mädchen, Moritzburg occupy a principal position not just within Kirchner’s oeuvre, but also in the development of German Expressionism as a whole. Painted with a bold spontaneity and striking vibrancy as streaks of bright, unmixed blue, green, red and orange erupt across the large canvas, as pulsating with a vitality and rawness of expression that characterizes the greatest of Kirchner’s work from this these joyous and defining summers. Im See badende Mädchen, Moritzburg was acquired directly from the estate of the artist and has remained in the same collection ever since.
Four years before he executed Im See badende Mädchen, Moritzburg, Kirchner had, in Dresden in June 1905, along with his fellow students, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and later Max Pechstein, founded the Brücke movement. United by a passionate desire to break free from bourgeois convention and stale artistic tradition, these artists sought to capture the raw essence and vitality of life with an intuitive and unadulterated directness and subjective spontaneity. As they stated in their co-authored manifesto published in 1906: "With faith in evolution, in a new generation of creators and appreciators, we summon together all young people who embody the future, we seek to acquire space and freedom in the face of the well-established older forces. All those belong with us who directly and honestly reproduce whatever urges them to create" (quoted in U. Lorenz and N. Wolf, ed., Brücke, Cologne, 2008, p. 11). Escaping from the bounds of industrialized, rationalized modern society, they sought a simpler, more primitive existence and a harmony between art and life. Painting with a new freedom of expression, they sought to render their subjective experiences, as what Kirchner described as, "free drawing of free human beings in free naturalness" (Kirchner quoted in ibid., p. 8).
While the Brücke artists worked intensely in their shared studios in Dresden, which they had painted and decorated with an array of exotic fabrics and objects, they also ventured, in the spirit of Gauguin and his voyages to the South Sea, into the landscape surrounding the city. It was here that these men found the setting that best embodied their Expressionist pursuits. In the summer of 1909, Kirchner and Heckel travelled to Moritzburg, a rural town to the northeast of Dresden. Here, amidst its secluded lakes the artists recreated a bohemian lifestyle, stripping off their clothes and living a blissful, primitive existence at one with nature, freed from the constrains of the modern metropolis of Dresden. Art and life coalesced as the artists and their girlfriends, who also served as models, lived, slept, bathed and played together. A year later, the artists, enthused by their revelatory summer, returned, this time with Pechstein. Pechstein recalled of this idyllic period, "we had luck with the weather, not a single rainy day... We painter folk set out early every morning heavily laden with our gear, the models trailing behind with pockets full of eatables and drinkables. We lived in absolute harmony, working and bathing. If we found ourselves short of a male model, one of us stepped into the breach... Each of us was producing many sketches drawings and paintings" (Pechstein quoted in Max Pechstein: Erinnerungen, Wiesbade, 1960, pp. 42-43).
Kirchner and Heckel set up their easels side-by-side and painted directly from the landscape, depicting the nudes–symbols of an unfettered, primitive civilisation–and their surroundings with an extraordinarily energetic vigour and rapidity, as encapsulated by Im See badende Mädchen, Moritzburg. Depicting a group of three nude women who are languorously bathing in and around the vivid blue waters of the lake and its sun-drenched shoreline, Kirchner has executed the scene with arrestingly gestural streaks and explosive splashes of bright, unmixed color. As the standing woman glances over her shoulder in an instinctive, instantaneous movement, her face greets the viewer with a startling potency, rendered in violent shades of orange, red and green tempered with strokes of blue, all framed by a swathe of black hair. There is a sense of immediacy and primitive vitality in Im See badende Mädchen, Moritzburg, as the figures and the surrounding landscape glow under the summer sun of this Arcadian idyll. Only the most essential elements of the composition are painted, with parts of the bare canvas still visible, a manifestation of the direct and vigorous impulse of the artist as he rapidly conveyed a direct experience of the scene that unfolded in front of him.
Traditional modes to convey compositional space and pictorial structure are dispensed with in Im See badende Mädchen, Moritzburg and instead, Kirchner has rendered the scene with a simplicity and flatness, imparting depth only through the varying poses of the three bathers. Likewise, color is no longer descriptive but is liberated from its traditional role, becoming, as in the work of Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin, a potent means of expression: the green bodies of the nudes, highlighted in places with flaming strokes of orange, yellow and red, burn against the vivid blue of the lake, expressing a raw, unmediated sensuality. Conveying the nude and the landscape with a new and vital visual power, Im See badende Mädchen, Moritzburg illustrates the wholly radical and pioneering aesthetic that Kirchner developed at this time.
Due to the unparalleled working relationship between the artists, and their communal experiences in Moritzburg, a collectively shared style and radical pictorial language emerged. Depicting similar subject matter, Kirchner and Heckel conveyed the scenes in front of them in the same way, capturing a direct, highly subjective expression of their surroundings with a visual intensity and primal power that was unique to art at this time. Heckel’s Badende im Teich presents an almost identical composition as Im See badende Mädchen, Moritzburg: the same standing woman dominates the expressively rendered and hastily executed composition, glancing backwards to meet the eyes of her viewer, while her companions bathe and swim in the water. "We were just working for the sake of working", Heckel later recalled of their unmediated approach to painting developed during this summer sojourn, "That the optical result was also powerful was not necessarily our intention, it was something that came out of the laws governing the way in which we were working. With regards to the external conditions–landscape, people, fluidity–all this stimulated the eye for colour and contributed to a pictorial vision that ran counter to that of the Impressionists and concentrated on the essential elements of picture-making–things more important than just the motif, the viewpoint or the momentary conditions" (Heckel, 1966, quoted in Die Badenden Mensch und Natur im deutschen Expressionismus, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Bielefeld, 2000, p. 36).
Throughout his life Kirchner vehemently denied being influenced or inspired by the French avant-gardists and was deeply suspicious of comparative critiques or claims of his involvement with his contemporaries across Europe. Though he never travelled to Paris, in the early years of the 20th Century, the Brücke artists were exposed to a variety of exhibitions of their French contemporaries’ work. In January 1909, just a few months before he painted the present work, Kirchner had seen an exhibition of Henri Matisse’s work held at Paul Cassirer’s gallery in Berlin. The Fauvist’s complete rejection of traditional pictorial techniques–tonal shading, perspective and descriptive color–and use of heightened, often unnatural and unmixed color applied with loose brushstrokes had a definite effect on Kirchner’s own artistic vocabulary, enabling him to develop and further his own pictorial explorations. Indeed, Im See badende Mädchen, Moritzburg demonstrates the way in which Kirchner took the developments from across the continent and used them to forge his own style. The simplification of form and primitive immediacy with which he has constructed the composition of this painting are more extreme than Matisse’s own work from this period. Although painted in 1909 Kirchner pre-dated the present work to 1907, attempting to discredit and falsify claims that he had been influenced by the great Fauve and instead maintain that he was working completely independently in the development of his own style.
Just a few months before Kirchner travelled to Moritzburg, he had also seen one of Paul Cézanne’s monumental series of nude bathers at the 1909 Berlin Secession (The Large Bathers, 1900-1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art). This large work, in which a group of nudes are arranged within the landscape, encapsulated Cézanne’s explorations into this theme, as he sought to attain a harmonious relationship of forms within space. While some of the paintings in Kirchner’s series of Moritzburg bathers have been likened to Cézanne’s monumental painting, works such as Im See badende Mädchen, Moritzburg recall not an antique classical era, nor an exotic, foreign idyll, but are by contrast, unequivocally contemporary, a vital and immediate encapsulation and expression of the symbiotic relationship between artist, model and setting that all coalesced in perfect accord during the idyllic summer of 1909.