“I paint as much as possible if only to hold at least some of the many thousand things I would like to paint...” (Kirchner, quoted in "The Expressionist in Berlin," N. Brandmüller, in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Retrospective, exh. cat, Städel Museum Frankfurt, 2010, p. 101).
Painted in 1912, Segelboote im Sturm was created during one of the most fertile periods in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s artistic career, as he reached the pinnacle of the unique, edgy expressionist style of painting that dominated his oeuvre immediately preceding the First World War. Executed shortly after the artist’s move from Dresden to Berlin, the composition depicts life on the secluded German island of Fehmarn in the Baltic Sea, which had become something of a haven for the artist during this period, a refuge from the frenetic atmosphere of life in the city to which he could escape each summer. Spending several weeks every year between 1912 and 1914 immersed in the remote, rich environment of the island, Kirchner enjoyed an informal and relaxed way of life, animated by the fresh sea air and lush landscape that surrounded him. It was here, according to the artist, that he “...learnt how to create the ultimate oneness of Man and Nature” (Kirchner, quoted in L. Grisebach, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880-1938, New York, 1999, p. 92).
Kirchner had first visited the island of Fehmarn in 1908 and the experience left an indelible impression upon him. Following his move to Berlin, expeditions to Fehmarn became a regular feature of the artist’s life, with Kirchner spending extended sojourns on the south east coast of the island each summer. Here, he rented rooms from the lighthouse keeper at Staberhuk, and spent his days immersed in an idyllic, free lifestyle, filled with nude bathing, frivolous games and prodigious painting. The subjects of Kirchner’s works were simple–predominantly the 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 Schilling (Kirchner, quoted in F. Krämer, "In Contradiction: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner," in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, exh. cat., op. cit., 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 experience of Fehmarn: “There I painted pictures that are absolutely mature, insofar as I myself can judge. Ochre, blue and green are the colors 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, ex. cat., op. cit., 2010). While Kirchner’s comparison between Fehmarn and the exotic isles of the South Seas may bely the chilly realities of life on the Baltic Sea, the analogy highlights what the artist found most fascinating about the island–its remoteness, its rich, colorful environment, and the simpler, carefree lifestyle it offered him.
In Segelboote im Sturm, Kirchner captures the fierce vitality of a storm as it hits the Fehmarn coast, evocatively expressing the power and energy of the weather system as it sweeps through the landscape in a series of gestural, painterly brushstrokes. Several boats stream across the centre of the painting, their billowing sails appearing as sharp triangles of white against the deep orange sky, their hulls cutting through the rolling waves of the choppy sea. In an unusual addition, Kirchner has included a male figure, fully clothed, on the right hand side of the painting. Executed in sharp, angular lines, his form echoes the outlines of the foliage on the beach, an effect which, when combined with the bright orange coloring of his body, roots the figure in the island landscape. There is a vivid sense of movement that seems to flow through each element of the composition, from the waves of the sea to the clouds scudding across the sky, the billowing fronds of the vegetation along the shoreline as they are tossed by the wind to the extreme angle of the boats as they appear to lean precariously towards the sea. This sense of motion not only points to the visible effects of the storm, but also unites the different elements of the scene as they bow and shift under the strength of the fierce wind.
Kirchner emphasises the immense, dynamic energy of the storm through his use of raw, expressive brushstrokes across the canvas, the sharp diagonal strokes of paint implying a spontaneous application that retains an impression of the energy of the artist’s hand. Indeed, it is as if Kirchner has channelled the power of the storm through his paintbrush as he recorded the overwhelming, fierce vitality of the event with a similarly all-consuming, unbridled energy. Kirchner’s summers at Fehmarn marked the beginning of a style which would come to underpin the edgy cocottes and streetwalkers that dominated his output from late 1913 until his enrolment in the army in 1915. It was during his summers on the island that the artist began to employ a rough hatching technique in the delineation of both his women and the island landscape. In Segelboote im Sturm, the beginnings of this frenetic, spontaneous and angular technique can be seen in the sharp lines of the luscious vegetation of the shoreline, emphasising the sense of movement in their forms as the wind courses through their leaves. One of the most striking aspects of the work is the dramatic birds-eye perspective Kirchner uses to capture the scene, a technique that accentuates the arch of the horizon line in the distance, causing it to curve almost impossibly across the canvas, enveloping the shoreline in the deep blue expanse of the water. In response, the sharp geometric sails of the storm-tossed boats create a sharply angular visual counterpoint to the overwhelming curve of the horizon. This interplay of sharp lines and sweeping curves reflects what Donald E. Gordon saw as Kirchner’s “splendid fascination with the contrasts of vertical and diagonal and of straight line against curve” in the Fehmarn paintings (op.cit., 1968, p. 82).
In many ways, Kirchner’s paintings of Fehmarn convey not only the serene environment and lush landscape of the island, but also the intense excitement the artist felt during his time there. The energy and raw spontaneity of his compositions, their nervous, frenetic brushwork, appear to convey something of his own feverish joy before the landscape. As Kirchner explained in a letter to Schiefler in the summer of 1913, his trips to Fehmarn not only offered him respite from the overwhelmingly hectic pace of life in the city, but were also integral sources of stimulation for his creative imagination: “The events of last winter have worn my nerves thin. My real pictures are coming now...” (Kirchner, "Letter to Gustav Schiefler," Summer 1913, quoted in the film by M. Trabitzsch, The Life and Art of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Zurich, 2000).