This work is listed in the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archives, Wichtrach/Bern, vol. III, under no. 297.
We would like to thank Prof. Dr. Gilbert Lupfer of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and Mr Andreas Hueneke of the Forschungsstelle 'Entartete Kunst', Frei Universität Berlin, for their kind assistance in researching the provenance of this lot.
Formerly in the collection of the Statlische Gemäldegalerie, Dresden Strassenbild vor dem Friseurladen is the finest of a rare and important group of street-scenes that Kirchner painted in the spring of 1926, recalling his recent visit to Germany.
Between December 1925 and March 1926 Kirchner returned to his homeland from his more recently adopted Swiss mountain home near Davos, for the first time since his mental breakdown and evacuation from Germany on medical grounds during the First World War. Returning to the cities of his youthful beginnings and also of his greatest artistic successes Kirchner visited Frankfurt, Berlin, Dresden and Chemnitz. In all these cities, but especially the industrial centre of Chemnitz, Kirchner observed and became enthralled by the massive industrial change that had overtaken modern Germany in his nine year absence, resolving, as one diary note recalls, to paint Chemnitz's impressive forest of factory chimneys on his return to Switzerland. In Dresden, home of Die Brücke and more particularly Berlin, where he had first grappled with the subject of modernity in his work, Kirchner returned to the scenes of the best-known and most provocative of his early paintings, - the series of Strassenbilder that he had produced from 1913 right up until his fateful induction into the army in 1915.
This brief return visit to his homeland and to the locales where his first great body of work had been created and then, seemingly cut-off by the war and his ensuing mental collapse, was, ultimately, to instigate another dramatic change in Kirchner's art. Strassenbild vor dem Friseurladen is the finest of a group of nine street-scenes from this period that return to the theme of the great Strassenbilder of the 1910s and re-invent them through new eyes and with new painterly means.
Because of the artist's reliance on the observation of life and nature as the source material of his art, Kirchner's return to the German metropolis inevitably prompted a re-engagement with the themes of modernity and metropolitan living that had been wholly absent from the art he made high up in the Swiss mountains. The nine street-scene paintings that he produced in 1926, though made after his return to Switzerland, all derive from sketches Kirchner made on the spot in Germany. These were made, as was his manner, entirely spontaneously, almost blindly, and at great speed, while in front of the subject. As he had done years before on the streets of Berlin, Kirchner returned to the practice of jotting down numerous impressions of the hustle and bustle of the city streets, attempting to delineate in a few forceful and expressive marks -('kraftlinien', or 'lines of force') - the unique movement of a crowd as it passed through the city streets. Observing the flow and atmosphere of the passing crowd while his hand moved swiftly and almost automatically below Kirchner's fierce and unwavering gaze, the artist worked like a photographer attempting to catch the telling moment of truth in the passage and flow of the people passing before him.
Travelling alone for much of the first part of his journey, in Frankfurt and Berlin, Kirchner was, as his diary records, extremely isolated and alone, feeling the oppressive, impersonal and alienating force of the big city intensely. It was only when the artist reached Dresden and his many friends there, that he re-engaged with the richness of social activity that city life has to offer, greatly enjoying his stay with the Grohmanns, re-uniting with his old Brücke colleague Karl Schmidt-Rotluff and visiting the dancer Mary Wigmann's studio on a daily basis. While his stay in Dresden encouraged Kirchner to contemplate more frequent returns to metropolitan life and even a professorship in one of Germany's painting academies, it was more the atmosphere of collective isolation and loneliness he had experienced while traveling alone in Berlin that came to be expressed in the street-scenes he made on his return to Switzerland.
Executed in a manner that incorporates the shift in style that Kirchner's work had undergone during his time in the Alps, his 1926 Strassenbilder display none of the Futurist-inspired nervosity, feverish intensity or gothic distortion of his early street scenes. Rooted in the bolder, more simplistic style he had developed in Switzerland, the 1926 paintings present a more dispassionate, and objective view of urban life that seems to capture a calmer energy within the city streets but investing the passers-by with a more existential sense of isolation and loneliness. Writing shortly before his departure for Germany in December 1925, Kirchner had written, 'My present works are not fruits of former ones, but completely new things.
The style, too, is new. Naturally it is built on the former style, but without using earlier works or motifs. I see so many things and I am so engaged in new problems that the old drawings are still unused today. I have the feeling that my real work still lies ahead of me.' On his return to Switzerland and the creation of the new Strassenbilder Kirchner wrote again to Will Grohmann explaining that now he was 'on the road to new means and am again experimenting a lot. In comparing my work with the street sketches from 1912-1914 I realize that my present work has gained a much greater maturity. I am using the picture plane with greater intensity; each spot of colour has its own compositional measuring... I am now back at work and in full swing putting down experiences from abroad. I arrived in a rather exhausted state but feel better now. Because of the great tranquillity it is never a burden resurrecting on the canvas the visions of the past months ...there are hardly any finished things yet, only a portrait after Wigman and a few street pieces. I have time to let it grow.' (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Letter to Will Grohmann, April 9, 1926, quoted in W. Grohmann E.L. Kirchner, New York, 1961, p. 74).
Among the largest and most successful of this series of paintings, Strassenbild vor dem Friseurladen is one of only two of the 1926 Strassenbilder that seem to refer obliquely to the earlier 1912-15 street-scenes, (the other work being Nuachtliches Strassenbild). With its depiction of two woman strollers, window-shopping in the midst of a collective group of bowler-hatted men, this work recalls the depiction of the coquettish games of flirtation and seduction played out between prostitutes and clients in the earlier Berlin paintings of the city's streetwalkers. Here, in this 1926 painting however, there is little hint of the vampiric danger or indeed the sexual undertones that characterized these earlier urban street parades. While the Berlin of 1926 was even more the Hure Babylon that it had been in 1913, Kirchner's paintings of it do not articulate a sexually-infused street ballet between erotically empowered women and drab lesser men, but rather a kind of sexual lethargy. Strassenbild vor dem Friseurladen is one of the more sexually-charged works from this series, but even here, the predominant mood is one of existential ennui. On the one hand this may reflect the fact that Berlin's streets were, in the new sexual openness of the golden twenties, no longer the precious almost closeted arena of flirtation and sexual excitement they had been in the pre-war years under the repressive Imperial regime of the Kaiser. The calmer, more ordered, even more sedate nature of these later works may also be to do with the more mature, distanced and balanced quality of Kirchner's new painterly style and manner of composing.
Although in its content, Strassenbild vor dem Friseurladen seems to refer back to earlier Strassenbilder and perhaps to a more contemporary work like Drei Dirnen auf der Strasse by Kirchner's then rival for the professorship of the Dresden Academy, Otto Dix, the pervasive atmosphere of this later painting is very different. Its subtle assertion of the commodification of sex through the association of women on the street and female dummies in a hairdresser's shop-window is a technique that harks back to earlier Strassenbilder such as Die Strasse or Fünf Frauen auf der Strasse of 1913. But, what was in 1913 a new and provocative eroticizing of the city's streets is here, in this painting, belied and rendered almost passé by the apparently weary and sickly-faced disinterest displayed on the faces of the bowler-hatted men who seemingly wander past, seemingly oblivious to this erotic presence on the street and more worriedly preoccupied with their own thoughts. In this respect, this painting indeed reflects a more accurate depiction of the Berlin of these years, when, after the rampant inflation years and its accompanying flood of all manner of sexual promiscuity, many of the citizens of the industrialized Grosstadt had grown weary of the decadent life 'without boundaries' and, in fact secretly, sought a return to order. As Stefan Zweig recalled of these years, 'It was unmistakable that this (state of) over-excitation was unbearable for the people, this being stretched daily on the rack of inflation and that the whole nation, tired of war, actually only longed for order, quiet, and a little security and bourgeois life. And secretly it hated the republic, not because it suppressed this wild freedom, but on the contrary, because it held the reins too loosely (Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, New York, 1943, pp. 313-4).
At the centre of Strassenbild vor dem Friseurladen a modish female dressed in the manner of a ‘half-silk’ or part-time prostitute, seems to approach three bowler-hatted figures who, in a close tripartite succession of the kind displayed by Kirchner’s depictions of alpine herdsmen, appear to be trying to slink past unnoticed. Rendered in bold garish and nocturnal colours that hint at an underlying unity and order to world, in this and other street-scenes from this important series, it seems that Kirchner is depicting the same old sexual games going on on the streets of the Grosstadt, but in an atmosphere where their novelty and excitement has worn off.