Formerly owned by Morton D. May, the St Louis philanthropist and art collector whose outstanding collection of German expressionist paintings now forms the core of the St Louis Museum of Art, Erna am Meer, Fehmarn belongs to the celebrated series of paintings that Ernst Ludwig Kirchner made on the Baltic island of Fehmarn in the summer of 1913. Widely regarded as among the finest of all the artist’s creations, Kirchner’s Fehmarn pictures from this summer mark, alongside the city paintings he began immediately afterwards in Berlin, the absolute highpoint of the artist’s career and the pinnacle of the unique, edgy expressionist style of painting that he perfected during the last years before the First World War.
Kirchner visited Fehmarn every summer between August 1912 and 1914 when his visit was cut short by the outbreak of the Great War. The island represented a haven for the artist who revelled in escaping the frenetic hurly-burly of his metropolitan life in Berlin by pending time on what he once referred to as his South-Sea-like idyll. There, on this remote Baltic island, along with his companion Erna Schilling and her sister Gerda and often visited by artist friends such as Erich Heckel, Otto Mueller or Hans Gewecke, Kirchner would spend the summer months painting and living a carefree life away from the city and the constraints of civilization. The subjects of Kirchner’s paintings were simple: predominantly the island landscape on and around the lighthouse near the beach known as ‘An die Steinen’, the curve of this beach and what he famously described as the ‘beautiful, architecturally structured, rigorously formed bodies’ of his two female companions, Erna and Gerda. It was in Fehmarn, Kirchner later recalled, that ‘I learned how to create the ultimate oneness of Man and Nature, and completed what I had begun at Moritzburg… There I painted pictures that are absolutely mature, insofar as I myself can judge. Ochre, blue and green are the colours of Fehmarn, and the coastline is wonderful. At times with a South Sea opulence, amazing flowers and thick fleshy stems’ (E.L. Kirchner, ‘Letter to Gustav Schiefler’, summer 1912, in L. Grisebach, Kirchner, Cologne, 1999, p. 92).
Marking the emergence of a style which would come to underpin the edgy, gothic-looking cocottes and streetwalkers who were to dominate Kirchner’s art from late 1913 until his enrolment in the army in 1915, in Fehmarn, the artist began to employ a rough hatching technique in his painting as a way of delineating both his women and the island landscape. This frenetic, raw, spontaneous and angular technique often lent the already rough-edged, elongated and sculpture-like figures of Erna and Gerda a powerful and dynamic sense of energy and motion. In many paintings, the vivacity and strong verticality of these figures is often echoed, as in Erna am Meer, Fehmarn, by the forms of the landscape, so that, as in his city studies, Kirchner’s Fehmarn scenes, with their radically pared-back colour, appear to be vivid portraits of the fierce vitality of nature in the same way that his city scenes seem to capture the nervous momentum of Berlin.
With its elegant composition and strong formal representation of Kirchner’s lifelong companion seated in the sunshine, surrounded by rich flora in a landscape bordering the beach and stretching down to sea, Erna am Meer, Fehmarn is a painting where all these elements come together. In a rare move for Kirchner at this time, Erna is painted clothed and wearing a hat. In this way the broad vista of the wild, open nature of Fehmarn that Kirchner so loved is contrasted with the modern European dress and elegant style of the city women that Kirchner would attempt to capture repeatedly in his subsequent series of paintings of women on the street. Surrounded by the blustery forms of the plants blowing in all directions in a sea breeze, Erna’s sheltering figure seems to become a part of the scene, her face, hands and deep green blouse echoing the colours of the sand and vegetation. It is only the vivid red of her large fashionable hat and a dark shadow that dramatically single her out from her surroundings.
As in so many of Kirchner’s Fehmarn landscapes from this period, all the power and energy of the wind coursing through the trees, grass, rocks and the waves seems to find a totemic echo in the elegant, leaning, angular figure of Erna. This is accentuated by the energy and spontaneity of Kirchner’s hatched brushstrokes, which here appear to express more than just the vitality, joy and excitement in his surroundings that Kirchner so evidently delighted in in Fehmarn. Infused with a dynamic sense of engagement with his subject, the painting as a whole appears to convey a renewed energy, vigour and enjoyment in the act of painting, of composing and crafting a picture that Kirchner was to carry forward in his work with ever more nervous excitement and intensity from this moment onwards until the debacle of the war compelled him to stop. As Kirchner wrote to Gustav Schiefler from Fehmarn in the summer of 1913, previously exhausted and depressed by life in the big city, he had come to the island ‘to regain my strength and to paint’. The events of ‘last winter have worn my nerves thin’, he wrote. ‘My real pictures are coming now. I didn’t expect it but the colours suit my palette well’ (quoted in the film by M. Trabitzsch, The Life and Art of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Zurich, 2000).