‘If it were possible to convert suffering into creativity, the possibilities would indeed be incredible’ – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
(Kirchner, quoted in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Retrospective, exh. cat., Frankfurt am Main, 2010, p. 155).
Created in 1917, Bildnis des Dichters Frank emerged during one of the most tumultuous periods in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s life, as he struggled to recover from the devastating effects of the mental breakdown he had suffered while serving in the German army during the First World War. Painted while the artist was recuperating at the Bellevue sanatorium on the shores of Lake Constance in Switzerland, the portrait demonstrates the intensity and expressiveness of Kirchner’s painterly style at this time, as he emerged from the depths of his illness and began to experience the rich visual and intellectual stimuli of the world around him once again.
Kirchner had enlisted ‘voluntarily-involuntarily’ in the German army during the opening months of 1915, in the hope that he would be able to choose which regiment he served in and thus avoid the heaviest fighting of the conflict. However, the intense discipline of military life combined with the artist’s anxiety about being sent to the front caused him to suffer both mental and physical exhaustion, which ultimately led to a serious breakdown in September of that year. Writing to Karl Ernst Osthaus, Kirchner explained the toll his experiences in the army had exerted upon him, stating ‘I feel half dead from the mental and physical torments’ (Kirchner, quoted in U. M. Schneede, ‘In the Crisis, In Spite of the Crisis: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at the Time of the First World War’, in Vibrant Metropolis Idyllic Nature: Kirchner – The Berlin Years, exh. cat., Zurich, 2016, p. 64). Unable to fulfil his duties, the artist was granted an extended period of leave from his military service to recover, which was then converted into a provisional discharge at the end of November, under the condition that he place himself under a doctor’s care immediately. Kirchner spent the majority of the following two years in and out of various sanatoriums, desperately searching for a respite from his crippling illness. Gripped by a terrible fear of being summoned back to the army, he struggled with nightmares and insomnia throughout this period, which he attempted to ease with the use of veronal, a powerful sleeping draught. Subsisting almost solely on coffee, alcohol, cigarettes and this potent drug, Kirchner descended further and further into the depths of his illness, soon becoming completely incapacitated.
When Henry Van de Velde visited Kirchner in Davos during the summer of 1917, he found the artist bedridden, emaciated, paranoid, and suffering from paralysis in both his hands and feet, which left him unable to write or paint. Shocked by his condition, Van de Velde took it upon himself to reach out to Dr Ludwig Binswanger, one of the leading psychiatrists of the day who ran the Bellevue sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, in the hope that he may be able to help Kirchner regain his health. The artist was admitted to the sanatorium in September 1917, and spent ten months there, gradually recovering his strength under the careful guidance of Dr Binswanger. For Kirchner, Binswanger was a nurturing presence, whose teachings and theories of psychoanalysis not only offered him a different perspective on his illness, but also had an important impact on his painterly practice. For example, Binswanger promoted the belief that sickness enabled the sufferer to discover a deeper meaning of life, allowing them to reach a new depth of understanding and feeling in spite of their internal anguish. Under Binswanger’s treatment plan Kirchner resided in relative isolation at the sanatorium, ensuring him the peaceful, undisturbed space he required to regain his strength. After just three weeks, Kirchner reported a significant improvement in his condition and heralded the return of an intense desire to paint, requesting new stretchers and materials from Van de Velde. Within a month he had begun to create portraits of the doctors and nurses, patients and visitors he met at the Bellevue, each filled with an emotional intensity and visceral expressiveness not seen since before his illness had consumed him. Writing to Van de Velde, Kirchner reported that these paintings alleviated his anxiety, allowing him to temporarily forget the worries and fears that plagued him as he lost himself in his art.
Emerging during this pivotal period in Kirchner’s recovery, Bildnis des Dichters Frank focuses on the renowned Expressionist poet and writer, Leonhard Frank, a committed pacifist who had fled to Switzerland at the outbreak of the conflict and spent several short stays at the Bellevue sanatorium in search of solace. Although Frank was not registered as a patient during the winter of 1917, it is likely that he met Kirchner on one of his frequent visits to the sanatorium as Dr Binswanger’s guest, and subsequently agreed to sit for this portrait. At the time Kirchner began the painting, Frank had just published his revolutionary anti-war novel, Der Mensch ist gut, a collection of five interconnected stories which unflinchingly dramatise the brutality and senselessness of the First World War. Promoting the power of ordinary people to bring about change and an end to the conflict, the novel offered a powerful denunciation of the war and called for revolution, causing it to be immediately banned by the German authorities. Kirchner felt he had found a kindred spirit in Frank, an intellectual, artistic figure whose horror at the conflict threatened to overwhelm him, but who found a way to channel his feelings into his work. Capturing the sitter during a melancholic moment of introspection as he visits the artist during his convalescence, the painting highlights the overwhelming despair Frank harboured throughout the conflict, an emotion which must have resonated powerfully with Kirchner at this time. Resting his hand to his head, the writer stares off into the distance, lost in his own thoughts.
While Frank is captured in an array of cool blue tonalities, his surroundings are aglow with an assortment of brightly hued, abstract patterns that seem to float and dance around him in a riot of colour. Considering Kirchner’s mental state at this time, it would be tempting to interpret these mysterious designs as a sign of the hallucinations that threatened to engulf the artist at any moment. However, in reality, they reflect the exotic, colourful decorations that Kirchner adorned his room with during this period, which transformed the sterile world of the sanatorium into a luxurious, bohemian environment in which he could recover and work in comfort. Indeed, recalling her first visit to the artist, Nele Van de Velde evocatively described the ambient atmosphere of Kirchner’s room, explaining that it was ‘like a fairytale out of 1001 Nights. I entered a modest room and was hit by the warmth – not just the temperature, but the warmth of the man himself, of the many pictures on the walls, the paint pots, wooden boards, and the brushes’ (Nele Van de Velde, quoted in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Retrospective, exh. cat., Frankfurt am Main, 2010, p. 272).