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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)

Alpleben, Triptychon

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Alpleben, Triptychon
signed, titled and inscribed 'E L Kirchner Alpleben links' (on the reverse of the left side panel); signed, titled and inscribed 'E L Kirchner Alpleben Mitte' (on the reverse of the centre panel); signed, titled and inscribed 'E L Kirchner Alpleben rechts' (on the reverse of the right panel)
oil on canvas
Left panel: 27½ x 235/8in. (70 x 60cm.)
Centre panel: 27½ x 315/8in. (70 x 80.3cm.)
Right panel: 27½ x 235/8in. (70 x 60cm.)
Painted in 1918
Dr. Friedrich Bauer, Davos
W. Grohmann, E.L. Kirchner, New York, 1961 (illustrated p. 151)
D. E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cambridge Mass, 1968, no. 527 (illustrated p. 343).
L. Grisebach, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880-1938, Cologne 1996 (illustrated in colour, p. 156/57)
Winterthur, Kunstverein Winterthur, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, June-July 1924, no. 38.
Nürnberg, E. L. Kirchner: Gemälde + Graphik, Sammlung Dr. F. Bauer, Davos, 1952, no. 15 (illustrated). This exhibition later travelled to Munich, Haus der Kunst; Freiburg, Mannheim and Berlin, Haus am Waldsee.
Bremen, Kunsthalle, Meisterwerke des deutschen Expressionismums, 1960, no. 33. This exhibition later travelled to Hannover, Kunstverein; The Hague, Gemeentemuseum; Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum.
Grenoble, Musée de Grenoble, Le sentiment de la montagne, Feb.-May 1998, no. 107.
Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna della Città di Lugano, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, March-July 2000, no. 49 (illustrated p. 113).
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No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.
Sale Room Notice
Please note the painting has also been included in the following exhibitions:
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Passions Privées, November 1995-April 1996 (illustrated in colour).
Essen, Museum Folkwang, Farben sind die Freude des Lebens - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Das innere Bild, April-June 2000 (illustrated in colour).

Lot Essay

One of the first major oils to be painted by Kirchner after his departure from Berlin in 1917, Alpleben ("Life in the Alps") is a highly important work that stands at the crossroads of Kirchner's art and marks its transition from the neurotic expressionism of his Berlin years to the bold pastoral realism of the works he created in Davos. A large panoramic painting presented in the format of a triptych, Alpleben expresses the spiritual vitality of rural mountain life in a way that deliberately echoes, and to some degree parodies, the artist's earlier paintings of the streets of Berlin.

Clearly reflecting the artist's powerful emotional response to the splendors of the Swiss mountain landscape, Alpleben is a warm and enriching work that was executed in the period when Kirchner first began to recover from the severe existential crisis that had resulted in his mental breakdown and temporary discharge from the army two years earlier. Tormented by fears of being recalled to enlist and of the horrific cataclysm of the First World War as a whole, Kirchner's chronic neurasthenia had led to the artist being interned in a number of German and Swiss sanatoria and an addiction to morphine that would plague him until 1921. The severity and precise nature of Kirchner's condition during these years is personified in two of his most famous paintings, Der Trinker of 1915 and Selbstbildnis als Kranker of 1917.

Kirchner first visited Stafelalp near the village of Frauenkrich above Davos in 1917 and was allowed by his doctors to return there permanently in the summer of 1918. Stafelalp was clearly the place where Kirchner felt most at peace with the world and it was from there that he wrote to Nele Van de Velde of how the Alpine life and landscape had exerted its power over him and begun to alter his painting. "I longed so much to create works from pure imagination, the kind one sees in dreams, but the impression of reality is so rich here that it consumes all my strength." (letter to Nele Van de Velde, Oct. 13 1918. cited in Gordon p. 114.) In particular it was the intensity of colour that moved Kirchner. "There below you will probably still be having summer," he continued, "while our sun already gilds the mountains and the larch trees become yellow. But the colours are wonderful like old dark red velvet. Down below the cabins stand out the boldest Paris blue against the yellow fields. For the first time here one really gets to know the worth of individual colours. And in the bargain, the stark monumentality of the rows of mountains" (ibid, cited in Gordon p. 107.)

Alpleben is the largest and most important works undertaken by Kirchner before the war and was evidently intended as a testament to the artist's love for and new-found belief in the spiritual richness of life in the mountains. The strong warm colours and harvesting peasants clearly suggest an autumnal theme and the triptych format conveys upon the work a sense of spiritual and universal significance which is echoed by the seeming progression throughout the three panels of scenes of dawn, noon and dusk in a way that is reminiscent of Giovanni Segantini's celebrated "Alpine Triptych" of 1896-99. Yet, despite this almost mystical sense of the spiritual richness of Alpine living, what is perhaps most interesting is the way in which this very different painting echoes earlier works from Kirchner's Berlin period.

Not only is Alpleben executed with the same sharp, swiftly executed and almost neurotic brushstrokes, but its formal content and composition also recall much of the frenetic energy and allegorical sense of drama of Kirchner's Berlin paintings. The three little men depicted in the left hand panel of the triptych have been deliberately juxtaposed with the tall dominant female figure returning from the fields on the right in a way that is characteristic of much of Kirchner's art. This use of three small male figures to balance one large female figure parallels particularly closely the way in which Kirchner's large coquettish prostitutes are juxtaposed by several surrounding drab little men in so many of his Berlin street scenes.

In those celebrated paintings the tall painted ladies with their magnificent plumage of decadent fashion dominated both the picture space and their entourage of admirers in a way that seemed to celebrate the sexual vitality of the prostitute and at the same time criticise the uniformity and greyness of metropolitan life. In contrast to these works, in Alpleben an overriding sense of harmony has been established between the men and the woman, and between the three panels as a whole, so that the mood of the work directly opposes the dramatic angularity and strong sense of disassociation of the artist's Berlin street scenes. The figures in the left and right hand panels have been cleverly used as a harmonious, rather than a disjunctive, balance. Together they frame the overall composition and convey a sense of shared purpose and communal enterprise that adds a cohesive unity to the work. In this way this powerful triptych seems to assert a strong sense of Kirchner's new-found belief in the spiritual superiority of his new way of life over that of the disjunctive dynamism of the city he had left behind.

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