For Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the island of Fehmarn was a haven, a secluded idyllic paradise to which he could escape when the hectic hurly-burly of life in Berlin threatened to overwhelm him. In the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War, Kirchner would spend several weeks each summer immersed in the verdant landscape of the island, enjoying a carefree, blissful way of life which centred on his direct engagement with nature. These experiences provided the artist with rich inspiration, prompting him to create a vast array of works during his stays. In this way, these summer sojourns became an important stimulus to Kirchner’s creative energies, ushering in one of the most important, fertile periods of his career. Created during the summer of 1913, Gut Staberhof III is the final of a series of three oil paintings by the artist to focus on the small cluster of buildings at the heart of the Staberhof farm holding, a modest settlement a short walk from Kirchner’s lodgings. This suite of paintings reveal the important evolution of Kirchner’s artistic style at this time, as he began to employ a bolder, more expressionistic painterly technique in his work.
Situated just off the northern coast of Germany, between the Kiel Fjord and the Bay of Mecklenburg, Fehmarn was a beautiful, if somewhat isolated outpost in the Baltic Sea during the opening decades of the twentieth century. The island had only become readily accessible by train and ferry since 1905, ensuring that by the time of Kirchner’s arrival, it remained relatively untouched by tourism. During his 1912 stay, he rented rooms from the obliging keeper of the statuesque Staberhuk lighthouse on the south-eastern tip of the island, a comfortable space where he could paint uninterrupted and enjoy views of the wild, untamed landscape from his window. He and his companions, Erna and Gerda Schilling, immersed themselves in a carefree lifestyle not dissimilar to that enjoyed by the artist and his colleagues at the Moritzburg lakes, playing games on the sandy beaches, frolicking in the rolling surf, and bathing nude in the fresh, open air. According to Nikolaus Lüthmann, a son of the lighthouse keeper, Kirchner would often stand on the beach below the Staberhuk lighthouse, stretch his arms to the heavens and cry: “Oh Staberhuk, how glorious you are, happiness in a quiet corner, a place of peaceful beauty!” (quoted in K. Schick, "'Happiness in a Quiet Corner': Kirchner on Fehmarn," in Vibrant Metropolis, Idyllic Nature: Kirchner–The Berlin Years, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Zürich, 2017 p. 35). Revelling in the sense of freedom he found at Fehmarn, Kirchner’s creative energies flourished, with the artist producing an impressive array of sketches, drawings, watercolors, prints, sculptures, photographs and paintings during the weeks and months he spent on the island.
The subjects of Kirchner’s works during his stay were simple, focusing primarily on the landscape on and around his lodgings, the elegant curving profile of the beach known as “An die Steinen,” and the “beautiful, architecturally structured, rigorously formed bodies” of his two female companions (Kirchner, quoted in F. Krämer, “In Contradiction: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner,” in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Retrospective, exh. cat., Städel-Museum, Frankfurt, 2010, p. 17). In a letter to his patron, Gustav Schiefler, dated December 1912, Kirchner described the breakthrough that occurred in his painting as a result of his summertime experiences in Fehmarn: “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 Seas opulence, amazing flowers with thick fleshy stems...” (Kirchner, quoted in L. Grisebach, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938, New York, 1999, p. 92). While Kirchner’s comparison between Fehmarn and the exotic isles of the South Seas may have belied the chilly realities of life on the Baltic Sea, the analogy highlights just what the artist found most fascinating about the island—its remoteness, its rich, colorful environment, and the simple, carefree lifestyle it offered him.
During his 1913 sojourn, Kirchner began to explore the island further, capturing views of local monuments such as the island’s distinctive windmill, the rich greenery of the Staberholz woods, and the architectural complex of the Staberhof farm. This sprawling collection of buildings, located just a short distance from the lighthouse, was built on a stretch of land which had been acquired by the Mackeprang family from the Danish king during the eighteenth century. Over the course of the following seventy years, different buildings popped up as needs required, resulting in an eclectic array of architectural styles and tastes. Kirchner studied the site from numerous angles, creating various preliminary drawings before taking his brush to canvas, focusing on different viewpoints of the manor house, service buildings and barns. For example, in the first painting he created, Gut Staberhof I, Kirchner focused on the imposing façade of the baroque gabled barn, selecting an elevated view that cuts between the surrounding structures to reveal the expansive central square before it. In the present work, Gut Staberhof III, Kirchner adopts a view from the opposite side of the site, with the curvilinear edge of the barn’s gabling just visible to the left of the composition. A diagonal path cuts through the foreground from right to left, drawing the eye towards the large manor house in the distance, while the dramatic roof of one of the outer buildings dominates the right hand side of the composition.
One of the most significant developments to occur during this 1913 trip to Fehmarn was the increased dynamism of the hatching technique which had emerged in Kirchner’s compositions the previous year. No longer confined to only the contours of his shapes, these visceral brushstrokes now spread across entire planes, imbuing the canvas with an intense vitality and sense of energy. This technique, which would become such a characteristic feature of the frenetic cityscapes of Berlin that the artist later became renowned for, adds a wonderful sense of texture to the scene, the layers of fragmented, feathery brushstrokes allowing lines to collide and converge with one another. The expressive nature of Kirchner’s painterly approach is further heightened by the unnaturalistic color palette employed in the composition, as saturated planes of bright blue sit alongside salmon pinks and vibrant greens, giving the scene an otherworldly quality that seems rooted in the artist’s own subjective view of Staberhof, rather than an accurate portrayal of the world as he encountered it.