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An Introduction to Die
Brücke and the German Expressionists

Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938: Marcella, 1910
Brücke-Museum, Berlin

The history of Expressionism revolves around Die Brücke, a group formed by four architecture students in Dresden in 1905. However, it took another two years before their radical approach to the arts had gelled into a recognisable singular style. Their aim was to form a bridge between the ancient traditions of German art and a futuristic manner of painting, which was driven by emotion rather than academic dogma. The founder members were: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; Erich Heckel; Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl. However, Bleyl married and left the group in 1907 and although he was very active as a printmaker, he left no particular mark on what was to follow. Later members included Max Pechstein, Otto Meuller and Emil Nolde.

The group was inspired by an extraordinary mix of Nordic culture; a form of Primitive Symbolism; Neo-Impressionism and Divisionism coupled with a diverse selection of artists such as Van Gogh, Seurat, Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald, an expressionist painter working in Germany in the early 1500s. Grünewald had rejected the classical Renaissance of his day and there can be little doubt that his paintings and his philosophy sowed at least one of the seeds of Expressionism.

Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist, Erich Heckel.

Erich Heckel (1883-1970): Junger Mann und Mädchen, 1909
Brücke-Museum, Berlin

Künstler Gruppe Brücke was formed with artistic revolution in mind. The group believed that art should be available to the man in the street and that this could be achieved through the medium of print. With this in mind, the group initially concentrated on woodblock printing and developed a modern approach to this ancient craft. This culminated in their first exhibition, held in Dresden in 1906. They were brash enough to publish a manifesto, which Kirchner produced as a print. A version translated by Die Brücke Museum reads: "Believing in development, in a new generation of those who create and those who enjoy, we call together the youth of today. And as a youth which bears the future, we aim to create space to live and work, as opposition to the well-established, older powers. Everyone who reproduces, directly and without illusion, whatever he senses the urge to create, belongs to us." Their doctrine was to allow the inner spirit to take control of their creativity. Drawings and paintings were produced in a simplistic distorted form to which unrealistic colour was applied. Despite their resolution to work as a unit, their individual styles were quite dissimilar and it is more their subject matter and ideals which identify them as a coherent group. In this regard, they were influenced by the work of Edvard Munch, a factor which comes to the fore in much of their early work.

Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938: Nude in Tub, 1911
Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Germany

In spite of their revolutionary zeal, the group created only a narrow gap between themselves and their immediate predecessors. It was practically impossible for them to invent a new style of painting in isolation to what had gone before. Consequently, much of their early work is no more than one or two steps removed from the many brands of late 19th century Post Impressionism. Van Gogh held two exhibitions in Germany in 1905 and 1908 and there is little doubt that his work had an influence on the group, even though this was denied. However, comparisons with Van Gogh may have more to do with his expressive approach to painting rather than his style although works such as The Yellow House, painted in 1888, are close in manner. A somewhat similar argument arises in relation to the Fauves, another pioneering group of colourists painting in France at the same time. However, It is probably true to say that in the first years of Die Brücke, they were not familiar with this development and arrived at a coincidental style due to a natural progression, much in the same way as Roderic O’Conor had arrived at these solutions a decade earlier. However, by 1909 there is little doubt that at least some of the group had come under their direct influence.

Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist, Erich Heckel.

Erich Heckel (1883-1970): Weisses Haus in Dangast, 1908
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

The association with the Fauves may owe a lot to Erich Heckel’s style and particularly his colouring. One of his best known works, Weisses Haus in Dangast, painted in 1908, is as fauve as anything produced in France at the same time. It was painted on a visit to the remote coastal resort on the North Sea. Heckel explored this region in the early years in a search for subject matter untarnished by modern culture. The minimalist outline manner of Junger Mann und Mädchen shows another side of Heckel and is reminiscent of Gauguin’s South Seas paintings. Heckel continued to produce fine work of this type until the group moved to Berlin in 1911. However, as an artist with a passionate desire to paint nature in an untainted form, the move to a large city did not suit him. His subject matter became slightly morose and his colouring grew sober. Rather than enhance the group, the move to Berlin had the opposite effect and it dissolved in disagreement in 1913 after a dispute which began with Kirchner’s publication of a chronicle of their work. In later life, Heckel reverted to nature and landscape painting. He experimented with Orphism, a style of abstract cubism made popular by Robert Delaunay. He was a fine printmaker who worked in a striking distinctive style, which can also be said of his primitive sculptures.

Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff 1884-1976: Parkecke, 1910
Gallery of Modern Art, Pinakothek, Munich

Heckel played an important role in influencing the group’s philosophy. He had been a friend of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff at school where they were active in the debating society. Many of the debates were influenced by the writings of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche and the two young students developed a revolutionary anti-establishment mindset which they eventually carried with them into their art. The early paintings of Schmidt-Rottluff are amongst the most dramatic of the time, which may be due to his strict reliance on pure primary colour, a method Matisse was also using in France. His inclination was to paint alone in the countryside during the summer months although he often joined Heckel in Dangast. Even in the city, he would seek out a quiet corner of a park rather than a busy street or café scene.

Initially, Schmidt-Rottluff adapted well to the move to Berlin where his characteristic interpretation of primitive art, emphasised by a hard edge outline, came to the fore. However, this soon gave way to a vigorous geometric style in which detail was grossly distorted. He developed an association with the newly formed Der Blaue Reiter group and particularly with Lionel Feininger after the break up of Die Brücke and eventually yielded to the influences of Cubism and Futurism.  By the 1920s, Schmidt-Rottluff’s work became more formal although the ghost of his African primitivism was still apparent. However, his importance was well recognised and in 1947 he was appointed Professor at the University of Arts in Charlottenburg.

Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938: Spielende nackte Menschen, 1910
Gallery of Modern Art, Pinakothek, Munich

The eldest of the group, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, was twenty-five when it was formed. He may have taken on the role as leader even though their philosophy did not allow for such a hierarchy. Apart from architecture, Kirchner had also studied painting in Munich and would have been the most knowledgeable of the four as a result. He emphatically rejected Impressionism and developed an interest in Seurat’s theories of Divisionism, which explored the potential of luminous colour harmony by the optical mixture of pure pigment. Kirchner’s style was formed through the influence of tribal art, which he studied in the galleries of the Zwinger Palace in Dresden. His early works are notable for their interpretation of everyday life depicted as large flat distorted planes, painted in a daring range of unrealistic colour. His favourite subject was the nude in nature. Many of these were painted around the Moritzburg lakes where he was often joined by the rest of the group and the coterie of followers who were associated with their studios.

Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938: Berlin Street Scene, 1913
Neue Gallery, New York

Kirchner moved with the rest of the group to Berlin in 1911 where his reaction to the city and its nightlife immediately began to play an inspiring role in his work. He became fascinated by the colourful life and exotic costume of the street prostitutes. Berlin Street Scene depicts two such ladies and although they are surrounded by men, they appear aloof and untouchable. Behind them, a normal street scene is depicted as two men speak to a guard as they stand beside a tram car. Another man tends to a pair of carriage horses. However, the clandestine nature of the scene is suggested by the anonymity of the man who has his back to us. In front of him, another man emphatically turns his head away as if to distance himself from the situation. Kirchner leaves us in no doubt as to the scene being portrayed. The number 15 is prominently displayed above the station in the background, which depicts the tramway which serviced Berlin's red light district. Paintings such as this have now found their place amongst the icons of 20th century art.

In his subject matter, Kirchner was the most varied of the group even though the theme almost invariably revolved around the human figure. This he depicted in many guises: a girl reclining on a sofa; a group of bathers running across a field; figures dancing in a studio and crowded street scenes were amongst his favourite topics. He often returned to the same theme, which he would reinterpret in a revised form. Kirchner often used a grouping of three figures. This arrangement gave a strong sense of balance to the composition, which demonstrates that the fundamentals of traditional painting were adhered to notwithstanding his rejection of the formal academies. 

Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938: Tanzschule, 1914
Gallery of Modern Art, Pinakothek, Munich

As a group of artists, Die Brücke had reached the height of their powers by 1910. By this time, Kirchner's work stood out amongst the rest, which was most likely due to his formal training. For example, his striking study of Marcella reclining on a sofa in the Dresden studio is remarkable for its colouring and sheer dramatic effect. Much the same can be said of his studies of her sister Franzi. These were two local girls who modelled for the group and joined them on their excursions to the lakes for picnics, swimming and painting. Almost overnight, Kirchner advanced from strength to strength. His work became more and more dramatic; Nude in Tub for example is as powerful as Picasso at his best. The model is his girlfriend Doris Grosse, portrayed in stone white within a bold blue outline with lips and eye shadow depicted in bold strokes of raw Sienna. The starkness of the figure is dramatised by the blue and black panels and the green, yellow and black stripes of the floor rug. Doris is mirrored by a crouching primitive wooden sculpture, which supports a bottle perhaps containing bath oil. Another painting from this extraordinary year, Standing Nude with Hat, has been described as a landmark in German modernism. Kirchner creates a scene of similar drama by the starkness of Doris's figure standing in red slippers and an elegant wide-brimmed hat against an exotically coloured tapestry. The painting was modelled on Lucas Cranach's 1532 painting of Venus.

By the time Die Brücke disbanded, their idealism had set the trend for the avant-garde of the 20th century. Their brand of Expressionism had spawned a number of subdivisions, which continued to spread across Austria and France well into the 1920s. Kirchner moved to Davos in Switzerland in 1918 where he concentrated almost entirely on landscape painting. Much of what had gone before is discernible in this period but with more of an emphasis on primary colour. The sharp pointed angles of the figures from his Berlin streets were replaced by those of Alpine ridges and as the years went by, his work gradually developed into a form of abstract cubism.

Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938: Der Tanz Zwischen den Frauen, 1915
Gallery of Modern Art, Pinakothek, Munich

By 1911 a second bridge had been built. Der Blaue Reiter was formed following the rejection from an exhibition of a painting by Kandinsky. Their ideals were somewhat similar to Die Brücke but they had no formal creed. Amongst the other leading members were Franz Marc, August Macke, Alexej von Jawlensky and Lionel Feininger. The association between Feininger and Schmidt-Rottluff has already been mentioned and many more alliances developed between different artists and different groups. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff was at the centre of this creative maelstrom and must have taken some pride in what Die Brücke had achieved over its very short history. In naming the group only six years earlier, he was once again inspired by Nietsche when he took a line from ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’:

"What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end".

Dominic Milmo-Penny

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880 - 1938

Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Between Women (Tanz Zwischen Frauen II)
Oil on canvas 150 x 150 cm. Signed by the artist 1919 / 1926
Studio Inventory Stamp verso: KN-Da/Bg1

Provenance: The Kirchner Estate;
Private collection, Switzerland
Exhibited: Kirchner Museum, Davos, 1999-2000, ‘Farben sind die Freude des Lebens: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Das Innere Bild’;
Folkwang Museum, Essen, 2000, ‘Farben sind die Freude des Lebens: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Das Innere Bild’;
Kirchner Museum, Davos, 2003-2004, ‘Erna und Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - ein Künstlerpaar’.
Literature: Donald E. Gordon: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, catalogue raisonné, number 597;
Kirchner Archive III;
Thomas Röske, ‘Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Tanz zwischen den Frauen’, Frankfurt am Main, 1993, illustrated p.13;
Colin Rhodes, ‘Expressionism Reassessed: The body and the dance’, Behr, Fanning and Jarman, Manchester University Press, 1994;
Sabine Welsch and Klaus Wolbert, ‘Die Darmstädter Sezession 1919-1997: Die Kunst des 20 Jahrhunderts im Spiegel einer Künstlervereinigung’, Darmstadt, 1997, with illustration;
Titia Hoffmeister, ‘Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Der Tanz zwischen den Frauen’, G. 443, Werke der Brücke Künstler, Bestandskatalog Staatsgalerie moderner Kunst, München, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlung, 1999, pp.158-163, illustrated;
Mario-Andreas von Lüttichau and Roland Scotti (Hg.): ‘Farben sind die Freude des Lebens: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Das Innere Bild’, exhibition catalogue, Davos 1999, illustrated p.49;
Hyang-Sook Kim, ‘Die Frauendarstellungen im Werk von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Verborgene Selbstbekenntnisse des Malers’, Marburg, 2002, illustrated p.107;
Wolfgang Henze, ‘Die Plastik Ernst Ludwig Kirchners’, Wichtracht and Bern, 2002, p.196, illustrated p.185;
Roland Scotti, ‘Erna und Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: ein Künstlerpaar’, Davos Museum Magazin vol. IV, Davos, 2003, illustrated p.36.

There is a tradition amongst Die Brücke scholars of putting names to the faces in the paintings, a custom which is frowned upon in certain quarters, perhaps in the belief that this bourgeois mindset would have been shunned by the artists themselves. However, there are occasions when this is difficult to avoid and such is the case in the present work. It is generally accepted that the central figure is a self-portrait of Kirchner and that the figure to the right is his lifetime partner, Erna Schilling. His first girlfriend, Doris Grosse, stands to the left although her features are not as identifiable as those of Erna.

As the title suggests, the work has traditionally been regarded as a simple dance scene, related to the many drawings and paintings Kirchner did on the theme. It was a subject that interested not only Kirchner, but also his fellow artists in Die Brücke as it gave them the opportunity to study the human form in movement rather than the traditional static pose. Inspiration also came from the fact that many of the wives and girlfriends of the Brücke artists were dancers, including Doris and Erna.

The painting is related to two earlier works, Tanzschule, (Pinakothek, Munich) painted in 1914 and Der Tanz Zwischen den Frauen, (Pinakothek, Munich) painted in 1915. It appears that the significance of these works may have been underestimated although the symbolism of the latter was recognised by Colin Rhodes in his essay on Kirchner where he describes: “the artist’s sense of being suspended between an irrevocably lost past and a portentous present”.

When these paintings are viewed together, there is little doubt that they are related and that they are not straightforward dance studies. It is clear from Der Tanz Zwischen den Frauen that the woman who stands behind Kirchner is distressed and agitated, which is obvious from her facial expression and her body language. She leans forward in an aggressive manner, her eyes bulging as she gesticulates with her left hand raised in the air. She displays the demeanor of one who is grief stricken. Kirchner turns his back on her and moves away as he shuns her with both hands. He appears numb and ashen faced as he stares into the distance. Erna stands to the side, upright and motionless; she is not involved in the altercation. She has a quizzical, patient look on her face. This suggests that the scene being played out is Kirchner’s rejection of his first love, Doris Grosse and, perhaps symbolically, his other lovers, at the demand of Erna.

The theme is carried forward to the current work, painted about four years later. However, in this version, the rejected lover in the background is less animated. She is older and looks more resigned. She appears to beckon Kirchner back with her raised hand. Kirchner no longer stares into the abyss and, instead of his distressed appearance, he looks assured and confident. He moves towards Erna and looks straight into her eyes. She now takes an active part in the drama and moves towards Kirchner although her demeanor suggests she is not fully convinced of his loyalty, her arms only partially opened in welcome. It may be that the painting is an attempt by Kirchner to exorcise the ghost of Dodo as there is no doubt that by the time he painted this work, more than eight years after they separated, he was still obsessed with her. In a diary entry dated 5th July, 1919, the same year as this painting; Kirchner renews his great love for her and goes on to state: “I know that you think of me sometimes; we have both known happiness and anguish.”

Both of these versions may have been preceded in 1914 by Tanzschule, although it has been suggested that Der Tanz Zwischen den Frauen may also date to this year. This may be further strengthened by a drypoint engraving, The Dance, (Allen Memorial Museum, Oberlin College, USA) if the 1914 date given to this work can be relied upon. A mirror image of the miniscule print follows the detail of the Munich drawing in almost every aspect. In any event, Tanzschule appears to be another painting where the dance theme may take second place to a self portrait of Kirchner torn between two women. In this version, Kirchner portrays himself as a Harlequin and poses himself on a circus-like round mat, perhaps in case his costume was not distinctive enough to portray him as a clown. He wears no make up, which may be an attempt to show himself to the world not just as a fool, but as a very unhappy fool. And the reason for his unhappiness is there for all to see. The woman who sits on the bench leans towards him and beckons him to sit down and join her. Beside them, another woman dances as an exotic bird might do in a mating ritual in an attempt to lure the unfortunate Kirchner away. The features of both women are close enough to suggest that they also represent Doris and Erna.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938

Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist,Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.   

Two Nudes above a Lake
Oil on canvas 120 x 80 cm. Official stamp verso KN-Da/Bf2

Provenance: The Kirchner Estate;
Private collection, Switzerland
Exhibited: Galerie Ludwig Schames, Frankfurt, Exhibition of Paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, March 1919, number 25.
Literature: Donald E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, catalogue raisonné, number 667;
Kirchner Archive III, page 164;
Hyan-Sook Kim, ‘Die Frauendarstellungen im Werk von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Verborgene Selbstbekenntnisse des Malers’, Marburg, 2002, illustrated p.111.

The style and manner of this painting places it firmly in the years between 1909 and 1911. The work is closely related to Akte an der Sonne, Moritzburg, painted in 1910. Both canvases appear to have been painted from about the same height above the lake and perhaps even from the same spot. Other similarities include the broad manner in which the trees are handled; the colouring and general mood of the composition. Bathers at Moritzburg, 1909, is another related work, which shows a group of bathers at the water’s edge. The setting is the Moritzburg Lakes, which surround the picturesque Castle of the same name just a short distance outside Dresden. Between 1907 and 1911, Kirchner spent the summer months at Moritzburg, usually in the company of Erich Heckel. They lodged in the local inns and were often joined by other members of Die Brücke and their followers for excursions to the lakes where they spent the days picnicking, bathing and painting.

Kirchner was preoccupied with the study of the nude in the open air at this time. However, the stark simplicity of the present painting also demonstrates many of the core values of Kirchner’s approach to painting. The figures are depicted in a wonderful combination of lemon yellow, pink and orange without the use of an outline. The vibrancy of these colours is heightened by setting them against the deep blues and rich crimsons of the background, a technique which Kirchner regularly employed. Specks of pure white from the ground layers remain visible, which gives the painting an added sparkle. The overall impression is one of great spontaneity with absolutely no attempt made to prettify the painting or interfere with the powerful alla prima credentials of the canvas.

Max Beckmann 1884 – 1950

 Photograph of a painting by the German Expressionist, Max Beckmann.                                     
Woman with Red Rooster
Oil on canvas 55 x 95cm (22 x 38 inches) Signed by the artist and dated 1941

Provenance: The artist’s Studio;
Galerie Karl Bucholz, Berlin;
Private collection, Europe
Exhibited: Seurmondt Museum, Aachen: 1967;
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art, 1992;
Jerusalem, Israel Museum, 1998-1999;
Tokyo, Nagoya Aichi Museum, 2001;
London, Royal Academy, 2002
Literature: Lothar Gunther Buchheim, 1959;
Ernst Gunther Grimme, ‘Aacchener Kunstblatter’, 1966;
Seurmondt Museum, Aachen, 1970;
Eberhard and Barbara Gopel, Catalogue of Works, Berne, 1976, no.586

In the catalogue note to the Royal Academy exhibition in 2002, Masters of Colour, Dr. Tobia Bezzola raises a number of questions about the title of the painting and suggests that: “Although it appears as Woman with Red Rooster in the list of works and titles prepared by the artist himself, elsewhere he refers to it simply as ‘Woman with Bird’. Indeed, it is difficult to identify the bird perched on the right hand of the resting woman as a rooster. Its small size alone gives rise to doubt, and the feather crown is suggestive rather of an exotic bird of paradise, a bird that would seem more appropriate to the scene. The rooster is more likely to be found on a farm, and certainly appears quite out of place in this luxurious interior.” 

Bezzola is indeed correct in pointing out that this is not a farmyard rooster. However, he does not allow for Beckmann’s renowned wit and powerful ability to play with words. The title may simply refer to the fact that the bird is roosting on the girl’s hand and Beckmann takes the opportunity to link this with the fabled red rooster. The bird does not fit with any particular species and represents, as Bezzola suggests, the exotic ambiance of the harem where colourful birds of this type were common. Beckmann may have been inspired to paint the work as a reaction to the looting of Matisse’s Odalisque from Paul Rosenberg in 1941. The model appears to be his second wife, Quappi, although there is no great attempt to represent her features with any degree of fine detail.

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