This work is listed in the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive, Wichtrach/Bern, vol. II, under no. 161.
Bahnhof Königstein is a major painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner deriving from the artist’s very last truly expressionist period shortly before he left Germany for good, in 1917, to convalesce in Switzerland. One of a rare but important group of paintings that Kirchner made in and of the landscape around Königstein in the Taunus region near Frankfurt, where he had been ordered to enter a sanatorium after being discharged from the army in September 1915, Bahnhof Königstein has until recently hung on loan to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.
Depicting the Königsberg and the town station of Königstein below, the painting was executed in the spring or summer of 1916, during a period when Kirchner was regularly travelling between Königstein and his home in Berlin, and is one of the artist’s finest and most important landscape paintings from this unsettled and also transitional period during the height of the First World War. Comprising of a composition centred on a dark vortex that is the town railway station, the painting is an expressive landscape that evokes a strong sense of Kirchner’s unsettled state of mind at this time. Feeling himself to be under imminent threat of a recall to the military, and anxious in general about the future of mankind, Kirchner’s vibrant depiction of a provincial railway station, with its two trains cutting diagonally through the centre of the composition and its lone figure standing on the platform, is one that articulates a vision of the idyllic local landscape as a temporary stopping-off point - a fragile world through which people and things from a darker elsewhere pass.
Bahnhof Königstein is also one of the first of Kirchner’s paintings to have been bought by Carl Hagemann, an important friend, patron and life-long supporter of the artist and his work. Indeed, priced originally at 600 marks, this painting was the most highly priced oil that Kirchner sold to his new patron in 1916. In addition to several earlier works, Hagemann also bought the Städel Museum’s Frankfurter Westhafen, also of 1916. A letter from Kirchner to Hagemann written in September 1916 reveals how the artist’s nervous condition, brought about by his military experience and his ongoing horror of the continuation of the war, led to him being paid for this work in monthly installments. ‘The picture Bahnhof Königstein I gladly give to you,’ Kirchner wrote to Hagemann, ‘and the monthly payment is also right for me, so that I only have the possibility to suddenly take out a larger sum in an emergency. One never knows what is coming and I live, particularly now, in constant anxiety and it is my only escape. That Osthaus was drafted you probably know. Brutality rules more and more, and humans become ever fewer, what will it seem like in a year’s time. Soon the uniformed devil will crawl towards me and then I myself must leave this rich life that has taken a hundred other human lives to create’ (E.L. Kirchner, ‘Letter to Carl Hagemann’, 11 September 1916, in H. Delfs, M.A. von Lüttichau & R. Scotti, eds., Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, Nay…Briefe an den Sammler un Mäzen Carl Hagemann 1906-40, Ostfildern, 2004, p. 65).
Bahnhof Königstein is one of a series of evocative landscape paintings that Kirchner painted during this difficult period. Although Kirchner had seen no direct combat during the war, he suffered a nervous breakdown during mere training for the front and upon being discharged returned to Berlin. Landscape painting often served as a calming influence upon the artist, reminding him of happier times before the war and taking his mind away from the rupture in life caused by the conflict. From 1913 onwards throughout 1914 and 1915, Kirchner’s nervous, edgy style of painting had grown more pronounced in his work, echoing the artist’s increasing anxious and agitated state of mind. It was to culminate in 1915, in his neurotic street scenes and his self-portraits as an alcoholic and a mutilated soldier. Bahnhof Königstein is, by contrast, a work that shows the calming influence of landscape upon his nerves while at the same time still expressing the inner instability and persistent threat of rupture that the artist clearly felt at this time.
Indeed, Kirchner himself evidently considered the painting highly, not only pricing it amongst his most expensive works in 1916, but also drawing it again to Hagemann’s attention after a visit to this patron ten years later. In two letters to Hagemann, he repeatedly recommended that his patron replace its black frame with a gold one. ‘For The Railway Station, The Freeport and the third picture in the back room I would have gold frames,’ one letter reads, ‘because the severe black which is there now overwhelms the subtle colours, and in the Railway Station for example, it competes too much with the black which occurs in the rail area. This picture has something almost ghostly about it, and has a stronger effect on me now than 10 years ago, when I made it. Now we are better able to express what one perceives in the faces of the pictures’ (E.L. Kirchner, ‘Letter to Carl Hagemann’, 17 January 1926, in H. Delfs, M.A. von Lüttichau & R. Scotti, op. cit., pp. 146-7).