‘The great mystery which lies behind all events and objects of the environment sometimes becomes schematically visible or sensible when we talk with a person, stand in a landscape, or when flowers or objects suddenly speak to us. We can never give it concrete verbal expression, we can only express it symbolically in forms or words…’ (Kirchner, in a letter to Dr. Eberhard Grisebach, 1 December, 1917, quoted in D. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1968, p. 110).
‘I believe the colours in my paintings are taking on a new mien. Simpler and yet more luminous.’ (Kirchner, in a letter to Nele van de Velde, August 23 1918, quoted in K. Schick and H. Skowranek (eds.), ‘No one else has these colors.’ Kirchner’s Painting, exh. cat. Davos, 2012, p. 42).
When Ernst Ludwig Kirchner first arrived in the small town of Davos in the Swiss Alps during the opening weeks of 1917, he was a shell of his former self. Suffering from a severe nervous breakdown and general ill-health following his military service in the First World War, he had been sent to the resort town by his doctors to convalesce, in the hope that the clear mountain air and tranquillity of the Swiss countryside would allow the artist to recover his sanity in peace. The move proved revelatory for Kirchner, not only providing him with a mental clarity that allowed him to emerge from his deep depression and return to his painting once again, but also opening his eyes to an entire spectrum of new subjects. In a letter to his friend Nele van de Velde, composed shortly after his arrival, Kirchner described the ways in which Alpine life had exerted its power over him, and begun to alter his paintings: ‘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’ (Kirchner, letter to Nele van de Velde, 13 October, 1918, cited in D. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1968, p. 114). In particular, it was the intensity of colours within the landscape which seemed to move Kirchner most: ‘There below you will probably still be having summer, 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 in the valley the cabins stand out in 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’ (Kirchner, quoted in ibid., p. 107).
As his health returned and he reached a calmer state of mind, Kirchner’s art also began to respond to the serenity of the majestic Alpine landscapes, and he began to work with increasing frequency on views of the landscape surrounding the village of Frauenkirch. Indeed, by 1921, the year of the present composition’s creation, his output was so prolific that it led him to exclaim: ‘I am working so intensively on pictures that I could sketch them in my sleep’ (Kirchner, quoted in ibid., p. 119). His visions of the majestic landscapes focused not on any views that would have graced tourist postcards, but rather were rooted in his direct experience of the landscapes and way of life in the high-lying villages of the mountainside. In the autumn of 1918, Kirchner had moved to a small Alpine cottage on the Stafelalp above Frauenkirch, which he called ‘In den Lärchen,’ where he spent his days surrounded by local farmers tending to their livestock on the mountain pastures. As a result, the life of the farming community, governed by the natural cycle of the seasons, became a principal subject of his art, their diligent toiling on the unforgiving lands of the mountainside and stoic acceptance of the harsh weather conditions inspiring Kirchner to devote himself to recording their activities.
Filled with an intense warmth and serenity, Bergheuer, Heuer auf der Alp clearly reflects the artist’s powerful emotional response to this idyllic, bucolic place. Kirchner’s art typically sprang from his own experiences, and it is likely that the current composition was based on the artist’s personal encounter with harvesters on the mountainside. The annual cutting, drying and turning of the grass during the warm summer months was an important event each year in the rural mountain communities of the Swiss Alps, creating essential provisions needed to feed livestock during the snow-filled winter months. Here, Kirchner portrays a small group of men and women working in unison to reap the bountiful crops of grass and store them for later use. Together, they convey a sense of shared purpose and communal enterprise that not only reflects the sense of camaraderie Kirchner witnessed amongst the people who lived in these remote villages, but also the harmonious coexistence of man and nature which seemed to underpin life in the Swiss Alps.
In contrast to the narrow perspective of the seascapes of Fehmarn executed during the artist’s Die Brücke period, the views captured from the Stafelalp focus on panoramic vistas, which celebrate the scale and drama of the majestic mountainscapes. In the present composition, the peaks are rendered as simplified planes of colour, their exaggerated profiles progressing rhythmically into the distance in a manner which disregards traditional perspectival techniques. Executed in bold swathes of vibrant, saturated colour, the mountains evoke a sense of the dramatic play of light and shadow which often captivated the artist. The nervous agitation which had dominated Kirchner’s work during his years in Berlin steadily receded through the 1920s, and his painterly explorations attained a greater sense of balance and composure. Kirchner himself spoke of a ‘tapestry style’ of painting, by which he meant that his compositions began to resemble weaving designs, in which the subject is built up from component areas of vivid colour. While the beginnings of this simplification and stylisation of forms is evident in Bergheuer, Heuer auf der Alp, elements of the artist’s expressionistic style remain, particularly in the fluid, visceral brushstrokes used to compose the mountain range. Through his subjective vision of the alpine scenery, Kirchner elevates his landscapes into the realm of personal expression, fusing a feeling for the sublimity of nature with a small sign of human endeavour in a manner that aligns his art with the great tradition of Romantic landscape painting.