Die Strassenbilder: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Berlin Street-scenes
The series of eleven paintings of Berlin street-scenes, known as the Strassenbilder, that Kirchner painted in the months shortly before the First World War rank among the finest pictorial achievements of early twentieth-century art (figs. 2-12). Marking the highpoint of Expressionism, these paintings are also, in many ways, the first truly modern works of twentieth-century painting in that they are among the very first to attempt to portray the modern life of the city as a state of mind. Following on from where the first psychological painter of the twentieth century, Edvard Munch (fig. 15), had left off, Kirchner's Strassenbilder are extraordinary powerful psychological expressions of that strange mixture of exhilaration and alienation caused by modern urban life which was felt so keenly during the first years of the century. Painted in a unique, raw, spontaneous and schismatic style with its sharp angles and elongated primitive-gothic forms echoing the sense of dislocation and bustle induced by city life, these memorable works express the essence of the ambiguous love-hate relationship that Kirchner and his generation felt towards the new sprawling monster of modern mechanisation--the Grosstadt of Berlin. Like the other great masterpieces from this period of early modernism--Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon (fig. 13), de Chirico's Mystery and Melancholy of the Street, or the metamechanical portraits of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia--Kirchner's Strassenbilder also use sex to invoke and express this troubling and relatively new emotion.
It was a popular tenet of much nineteenth-century thinking that the health, and more specifically, the sickness, (or what was then medically described as the 'degeneration'), of a society could be gauged by the nature and pattern of its sexual behaviour. The rapid changes being wrought by industrialisation and the sprawling growth of the big cities seemed to the Imperial establishments of Europe to premise a dangerous slide into degenerative cultural chaos. By 1900 Berlin had gained a reputation across Europe for being Die Hüre Babylon (The Whore of Babylon). Up-to-the-minute portraits such as Kirchner's Strassenbilder of the infamous and fashionable street-walking prostitutes that had made Berlin famous struck at the very heart of this debate by representing this human drama as the vortex of city life.
Seeming to merge the identity of the city with the practice of prostitution, Kirchner's Strassenbilder are time-capsules of that unique by-gone age of innocence and decay that existed shortly before the First World War. They serve the purpose now as they did then, of being fascinating seismometers of their time, reflecting the anxieties, cracks and faultlines of the Berlin demi-monde and of an Imperial society unknowingly marching towards catastrophe.
Kirchner first began painting his street-scenes of Berlin streetwalkers sometime between the end of 1913 and the beginning of 1914. After moving to the city in the autumn of 1911, he was at first enamoured of and subsequently deeply disheartened by the hard, unfeeling and commercially orientated nature of life in the Grosstadt. After the dismissal of Max Pechstein from Die Brücke in May 1912 and this group's eventual break up in January 1913, Kirchner was searching eagerly to assert his own independence from the artists' collective that he had essentially founded. Indeed, Kirchner's decision to concentrate on modern urban subjects at this time may well have reflected his desire to move away from the group aesthetic of Die Brücke and its atavistic portrayals of man and nature existing in a primitive and unfettered state of harmony and grace.
Turning towards his new urban environment, Kirchner began to paint the Berlin cityscape and the impact this mechanised creature of modernity was having upon the life of its citizens. In particular it was the life and vitality of Berlin's streets and ultimately the figure of the street prostitute as a fascinating vortex around which much of modern street life seemed to radiate that captured his imagination. Time and again, in the series of paintings and drawings of streetwalkers and their clientele that took over his work and dominated it right up until the outbreak of the First World War, Kirchner seems to champion this female product of the modern city as the quintessential symbol of the times.
One of the most radical features of these paintings is that in them he presents a wholly unjudgmental image of the Berlin whore in all her coquettish glory. Kirchner neither celebrates nor denigrates this imposing and decorous female figure but merely presents her as a vital and invigorating fact of street life. Indeed Kirchner's streetwalkers are so absent of any of the usual titillation or moralising critique that normally accompanies the portrayal of prostitutes that doubt has sometimes been cast on whether these paintings actually represent prostitutes at all. It is a question seemingly reinforced by the deliberately vague titles that Kirchner gave most these works; Fünf Frauen auf der Strasse, Berlin Strassenszene, Friedrichstrasse, Potsdamerplatz, etc. The elaborate and coquettish fashions worn by Kirchner's women in these paintings alongside the fact that areas such as the Friedrichstrasse and Potsdamerplatz were well-known parts of Berlin where prostitutes plied for business, clearly suggests that these women are indeed prostitutes. Later in life Kirchner clearly identified these figures as such, but a vital element of these pictures has always been that, as was in fact the case at the time, one can't be certain. As Hans Ostwald recalled in his memoirs of Berlin in the years before the war, the presence on the street of the city's Moral Police force--the Sittenpolizei--who had been charged with enforcing the state's regularised codes of morality and street behaviour, meant that it wasn't at all easy to discern who was 'available' and who wasn't at the time either. The result was that a whole specialised and intricate street game of smiles, signals, nods and winks was demanded between the often exotically dressed but not vulgar street-walking prostitute and her client in order to establish a clear understanding.
Kirchner not only closely observed this modern commercialised courtship routine but presumably also took part in it. Not only does he seem to have frequently engaged the services of Berlin's prostitutes as 'models', even writing to Erich Heckel about the ease with which women could be found in the metropolis, but he also later claimed to have made an in-depth study of them. In a letter to Henry van de Velde sent from Switzerland in 1919, he somewhat pompously recalled that in Berlin he had 'allowed myself to be sufficiently pervaded by the whole inner manner of these types, in order to know them from the inside out and to be able to abandon them' (Ernst L. Kirchner, Briefe an Nele und Henry van de Velde, Munich, 1961 p. 100).
Kirchner's titling of his Strassenbilder in either a purely descriptive way or by referring only to the Berlin locale in which the interaction between women and clientele takes place also emphasised this objective distance with which he approached his subject. These pictures, his titles suggest, represent nothing more than the everyday activity of the city streets, the formal and pictorial motion, the dynamism and counterpoint of the urban landscape. The fact that, at the same time, they document the commercialisation of sex and its transaction on the city streets seems a deliberate attempt to merge the identity and activity of these women and the ambiguity of emotion they provoke with that of the city as a whole.
In the same way that Kirchner rather patronisingly claimed to have only studied the Berlin streetwalkers in such depth in order to be able to 'abandon them', the viewpoint he takes in these paintings is also characteristically lofty. Looking down on his subjects with the moral distance of an anthropologist studying the courtship rituals of a strange new tribe, Kirchner apparently articulates the elaborate and fascinating urban dance of the two sexes from a position of apparent detachment or isolation. Unlike an artist like Ludwig Meidner for instance, Kirchner does not present the view of someone immersed in or overcome by the life of the city. He does not appear personally threatened by his subjects or by the streets on which they walk, nor does he have a Futurist temperament electrified by the mechanical monster in which he has come to live. Kirchner is ultimately no city dweller looking fearfully outwards towards the ominous portents of a vengeful night sky nor is he in love with the dynamic mechanical energy and simultaneity of experience in city existence. He and his perspective on the metropolis remains that of a stranger and an outsider looking in at what he perceives to be the erotic beating heart of this urban monster. Kirchner is clearly fascinated, but ultimately remains personally and morally removed. The Strassenbilder represent the artist's perception of the city (and its mating habits) as if it itself were a creature newly discovered to science.
Like many artists of his generation, Kirchner saw the nature of sexual relationships within the metropolitan environment as one of the key features of the modern urban experience. Sex was, of course, a major theme of Kirchner's work long before he came to Berlin and it is therefore not too surprising to find that the complex sexual street ballet that took place on the city's streets every day was the vital aspect of metropolitan life that most appealed to him. But in this respect, Kirchner's street scenes are not as much of a radical break from his earlier work with Die Brücke as is sometimes suggested. In his earlier Brücke period paintings Kirchner had sought to weave a potent sense of a spiritual and primitive harmony between life, art and nature through the nude. Whether depicting the female nude immersed in nature or set against the exotic, vibrant and vital forms of the mock primitive decorations of his and other Brücke members' studios, Kirchner used the female figure as an icon symbolising his aim of bringing art and life into harmony.
In some ways Kirchner's Berlin street scenes can be seen as a simple pictorial reversal of this technique. In place of the naked female in nature or surrounded by the exotic pseudo-primitive decoration of a studio, the Strassenbilder present one or more elaborately clothed women looking like birds of paradise and set against a deliberately bland urban backdrop of buildings, streets and faceless male admirers. In reversing this tendency of setting the female nude into a natural, idyllic or supposedly harmonious environment, these city-based paintings do not seem to point to the apparent disharmony of modern urban life so much as to reveal the modern metropolis as an arena wherein such simple harmonious and primitive values have been inverted. In the city it is solely the figure of the female that seems to embody all the vital energy and colourful radiance of nature, while man has been subsumed into a generic and faceless automaton-like creature of the asphalt jungle.
Confronting the viewer in this way with an up-front series of new and powerfully modern images of flamboyant, almost decadently dressed women commanding the urban arena with autonomy and independence, these paintings also expose and articulate the way in which the Grosstadt had enveloped, transformed and commodified sexual relations reducing them into a mechanical tingle-tangle. In this respect, Kirchner's Strassenbilder are the complete opposite of a painting like Max Beckmann's Battle of the Amazons painted in 1911. Beckmann's almost classical painting of a physical battle between the sexes was interpreted at the time as a modern allegory of prostitution in Berlin. The complete reverse of this, Kirchner's street-scenes show the contemporary dance of urban prostitution taking place on the busy streets of the city as if it were a modern rendering of this ancient battle and its timeless theme. It is in this way that the Strassenbilder not only invoke and articulate the ambiguous attraction/repulsion that the metropolis held for many of the Expressionist generation but also, like Meidner's Apocalyptic Landscapes and many Expressionist city poems of the same period, perpetuate a tradition of depicting the Grosstadt as a metaphorical battleground of the human soul.
The genesis of Kirchner's Strassenbilder lies in his 1913 painting Judgment of Paris--a work on a classical theme that Kirchner translated into a contemporary setting. As in this work with its strange beauty parade, there is a strong sense running through many of the Strassenbilder of the prostitutes being elaborately packaged commodities on display. Kirchner goes to some lengths to depict these coquettes decked out in the very latest fashions as decorative and saleable a commodity as anything to be found in a shop window. Indeed, the very first Strassenbild, Fünf Frauen auf der Strasse is a work whose structure closely mimics a shop window display. Bestowing on the viewer the role of Paris it presents a mannequin-like progression of five fashionable coquettes themselves depicted in the act of window-shopping on the kerb. Feigned window-shopping was itself often a part of the ritual of street flirtation that went on between customer and client and the fact that this activity forms such a significant part of several of the Strassenbilder can surely only be seen as underlining the commercial root of these urban flirtations.
In addition, in their overt depiction of the covert dialogue that took place between prostitute, street and client on a daily basis, Kirchner's Strassenbilder also articulate the very contemporary battle between censorship and personal freedom and between moral restriction and sexual liberty that was then being fought on Berlin's streets. These were issues central to much of the Expressionist revolt. On a more personal level however, the metropolis's subjugation of such a vital and natural force as sex into a mere commodity to be bought and sold on the city streets was a subject that would have been both intriguing and alarming for Kirchner. Throughout his life, Kirchner often drew on the connection between artistic creativity and the sexual impulse. In these paintings of prostitutes plying their trade, he may also have intended to draw a parallel with what he saw as the widespread moral prostitution that was taking place in the city, especially on the Berlin art market. The Strassenbilder were not only painted in the immediate aftermath of the break-up of Die Brücke but during an extremely difficult financial period for the artist. Set against this context, the parallels between the city's commodification of sex and the prostitution of art through the overt commercialism of the Berlin art market must have seemed glaringly clear.
In choosing to equate modern urban experience with the life and activity of the prostitute, Kirchner reveals his own dissatisfaction with modernity and more specifically with his life in Berlin. As he wrote to Heckel in November 1911 Berlin afforded more opportunity for the artist but competition was great and, 'the struggle to survive is very hard'. (Undated letter to Heckel cited in Jill Lloyd, German Expressionism, Primitivism and Modernity, New Haven, 1991, p, 138 n. 28). Although she is a profound and troubling icon of modern city life, the iconic persona of the prostitute is, ultimately, only a shallow facade, a symbol of dissatisfaction and of the lack of fulfilment that life in the metropolis affords. Indeed Kirchner is known to have discussed prostitution in these terms with his friend the writer and psychiatrist Alfred Döblin who at this time was engaged in revising his play about 'sacred' prostitution Countess Mizzi.
In drawing on the prostitute as a symbol of his own ambiguous emotional response to modernity and metropolitan life Kirchner not only reveals his own delicate state of mind in the Strassenbilder but also exposes a traumatic rift existing in the psyche of his generation. For Kirchner's neurotic and ambiguous response to the city was typical of its time and in these essential psychological insights to the metropolis, Kirchner strikes right at the heart of Imperial Europe's difficult, and soon to be violent, transition into the new realities of life in the twentieth century.
Although Kirchner continued to paint Berlin's street-women right up until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the Strassenbilder cannot be said, like Meidner's apocalypses or Georg Heym's premonitions of cosmic destruction for example, to be prophetic of the coming of the war. Nonetheless, through what Jill Lloyd has described as these 'emblems of urban psychology in the modern age' (ibid., p. 147), an important aspect of the deep rupture and division of society is hauntingly expressed in these works. In asserting their own enigma and in presenting the city as a ideological battleground against which these provocative images aimed at pricking a moral response from the viewer are set, these extraordinary works do anticipate and inform many of the grittier and more overtly aggressive images that were produced after the war.
The Strassenbilder were the first works of the twentieth century to present the Janus face of modernity in a way that truly encapsulates the darker, nocturnal side of modern life--the emotion and fearful allure of life in the big city. In getting beneath the surface of his subject Kirchner exposes the troubled and turbulent inner life of Berlin and its inhabitants with a neurotic mastery that transforms these paintings into haunting and revealing portraits of a society and an entire age caught in a vast machine beyond its control, anxious and unsure, slowly stumbling its way towards oblivion. 'The war itself started before the war started', Wilhelm Hausenstein wrote, recalling the pre-war years in Germany, 'by sending out feelers and anticipating, art is among the effects that can exist before their own causes, indeed, which must do so' (Wilhelm Hausenstein, Die bildende Kunst der Gegenwart, Berlin, 1923, p.367).
(fig. 1) Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, photographed in 1898. BARCODE 06322533
(fig. 2) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fünf Frauen auf der Strasse, 1913. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. BARCODE 06322571
(fig. 3) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Strassenszene, 1913-1914. the present work.
(fig. 4) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Die Strasse, 1913. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 06322595
(fig. 5) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Strassenszene, 1914-1922. Private collection. BARCODE 06322601
(fig. 6) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Strassenszene Berlin, 1913. Private collection. BARCODE 06322618
(fig. 7) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Strasse mit roter Kokotte, 1914-1925. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. BARCODE 06322625
(fig. 8) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, 1914. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. BARCODE 06322632
(fig. 9) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Leipziger Strasse mit Elektrischer Bahn. Kleines Stadtbild, 1914; Museum Folkwang, Essen. BARCODE 06322649
(fig. 10) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Zwei Frauen auf der Strasse, 1914. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf. BARCODE 06322656
(fig. 11) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Potsdamerplatz, Berlin, 1914. Nationalgalerie, Berlin. BARCODE 06322663
(fig. 12) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Frauen auf der Strasse, 1915. Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal. BARCODE 06322670
Berliner Strassenszene (recto); Bäume (verso)