Kirchner the Draughtsman - As exemplified by his drawings of the human figure 1909-1936

(Text in catalogue 78 published September 2009)

Kirchner the Draughtsman - As exemplified by his drawings of the human figure 1909-19361

The boldly casual, the exuberant
use of ink, the violent strokes fascinated
me, even that which, with just a few
dashes, was but a hieroglyph of a figure
was readable for me and I esteemed it

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, quoted, in translation, from: Der Sammler und die Seinigen, Dritter Brief, in: idem, Propyläen, 2nd Vol., 2nd Piece, Tübingen 1799

The significance of the drawing in the oeuvre of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner has been explained and emphasized in countless texts and exhibitions – including monographs devoted specifically to this technique and discipline – and not least in Kirchner’s own writings, some of which were penned under the pseudonym of Louis de Marsalle.2 Art historians’ concerns with Kirchner’s drawings are based – as is largely the case with Kirchner – on his own statements, these being most fascinatingly formulated, but they generally go no further, that is to say, they do not contribute to a recognition of Kirchner’s drawings within the context of the overall history of this technique.  Here, too, Kirchner’s self-portrayal, so powerfully worded, so precisely structured and so accurate in its observation, has so far impeded an objective appraisal of his drawings by the art world.3 In terms of quality, quantity, diversity and significance, however, Kirchner’s drawings are unique in the history of this technique and are comparable with those of no other artist.4

Since the seminal books on the art and technique of drawing – all of them having their roots in the Albertina in Vienna – by Joseph Meder (1919), Heinrich Leporini (1925 and 1928) and Walter Koschatzky (1977),5 there has been no further comprehensive literature published on this so eminent – and not just from a technical aspect – medium of art, although the enormous growth, in both volume and significance, of drawing in modern art would lead us to expect the very opposite to be the case.6 In any such comprehensive study of drawing in the history of art, Kirchner’s oeuvre would enjoy a very special status, indeed, it would be only through such a study that the significance of his work would finally be recognized in its entirety.  The following pages represent an attempt to redress this lack, if not completely then at least to some extent.

More than 20,000 drawings done by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner have survived.  They date from the years between 1905 and 1938, a few of them from even earlier.7 The only comparable oeuvre is that of Pablo Ruiz Picasso, who was one year younger than Kirchner. Picasso did just as many drawings and they rank similarly in his oeuvre.8 We must remember, however, that Picasso had thirty-five years more time at his disposal than Kirchner, whose working life as an artist lasted but thirty-three years.  Astonishing, too, is the fact that both artists produced roughly the same number of printed works, slightly more than two thousand each. Only when it comes to comparing the production of oil paintings must we admit that Picasso, during his very long and enormously productive life, must have done far more oil paintings than Kirchner, whose total production was around fifteen hundred (including the back sides of the canvases). Both artists worked incessantly and untiringly. The art of both artists was inspired and driven by the beauty of the woman. Their drawings are the epitome of the expressive tendencies of modernism that were manifest around 1910. They are masterpieces that count among the most significant in the entire history of drawing.

There are also further parallels in the lives and works of these two "titans" of modernism: the fathers of both artists drew and painted but never found their way into the "Who’s Who" of the art world (Thieme-Becker), that is to say, their artistic endeavours had no influence on their own time, but certainly on their sons. Picasso’s father, José Ruiz Blasco, equipped his son with many an artistic skill (he was a teacher of drawing in Málaga), while Kirchner’s father Eugen merely dabbled in the visual arts but was able, as a paper chemist and paper manufacturer, to equip his son with outstanding technical expertise.         

The differences between the fathers resulted in fundamental differences between the sons: Picasso enjoyed full academic training, with all the successes and risks it entailed. Even his earliest drawings are distinguished by a perfect mimesis.  For his part, Kirchner, an anti-academic and a graduate in architecture, developed from the matchstick figures and outline drawings of his childhood9 (Fig. 1) and a short-lived and rather mediocre attempt at realistic three-dimensional depiction10 (Fig. 2) straight to the pure line of Art Nouveau in his architectural designs11 (Fig. 3) and early drawings. These basic differences in approach also pointed to essential differences in the way these two artists saw things: Picasso still had a long way to go before he embraced the pure outline and in the beginning remained faithful to his two-dimensional depictions of three-dimensional figures and forms, while Kirchner immediately utilized the directness and abstraction of the lines and contours typical of a child’s drawing.12 This was the reason for the higher degree of autonomy of the drawing in Kirchner’s oeuvre, an oeuvre that through its drawings may possibly claim to be the most significant oeuvre in the history of art, at least the most intensive one in terms of pure, monochrome freehand drawing, the drawn version, so to speak, of the grisaille, and that is what we shall be concentrating on in this selection of works rather than on the more painterly and more colourful works in Kirchner’s oeuvre.

Indeed, the subject matter of this essay, of this catalogue and of this exhibition is the drawing, the drawing created with such hard, "scratchy" implements as a pencil, even a carpenter’s pencil at times, charcoal, chalk, pen and ink, but seldom, in Kirchner’s case, rubbed, wiped or finished with a wash. The brush and ink drawing usually marks the borderline between drawings and more "painterly" works on paper, though this technique served Kirchner rather as a starting point for his pen and ink drawings than as a technique in its own right, just as he would begin his watercolours with a pencil or charcoal sketch.  These "painterly" works do not count as drawings in Kirchner’s oeuvre, although they are often considered as such, for the drawing, precisely in Kirchner’s case, is to be seen as a medium in itself and not as a preparatory sketch for a watercolour or a painting.  There are indeed motifs in Kirchner’s oeuvre featuring the same composition yet executed in different techniques, but their sequence of production was not necessarily what one might normally expect, that is, from a drawing via a pastel or watercolour to a painting or print.  Many such motifs were realized in a completely different order.

The history of the drawing as an autonomous medium of art began in the Renaissance, when the medium was finally able to emancipate itself, both for the artist and for the art collector, from its use for architectural drawings and pure illustration and for preliminary sketches and detail studies for paintings.13 Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer were the initial influences. Altdorfer, Holbein, Bruegel, Giorgione, Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Tintoretto and El Greco were further highlights in the early chapters of the history of drawing, which were filled with those painters of the Renaissance and of Mannerism in Italy who not only painted but also  drew.

A hundred years after its emancipation, from 1600 onwards, the popularity of the drawing assumed epic proportions, a development due not least to the prodigious output of Jacques Callot, who produced thousands of drawings and etchings, the latter having superseded his copperplate engravings very early on. The etching and, later, the lithograph (Daumier) must be placed in the category of the drawing, for these two techniques, while not being done on paper, are indeed executed in an identical manner, that is to say, the drawing is done with a pointed implement on a wax-coated metal plate or, in the case of the lithograph, with a broad crayon on a stone slab. It was through the Mannerists that the art of drawing made its way to the north of Europe, especially to the Netherlands. Having become widespread in Europe during the Baroque period, the drawing now had a great many exponents that were later to constitute highlights in the history of art: Reni, Domenichino, Guercino, Bernini, Ribera, Rosa, Giordano, Zurbaran, Murillo, Poussin, Lorrain, Momper, Jan Brueghel, Rubens, van Dyck, van Ruysdael, as well as all the many Dutch painters, especially that great etcher Rembrandt. In the Late Baroque, the drawing came back in strength in Italy, with Tiepolo and the highly accurate veduta artists Canaletto und Piranesi, before it then evaporated into the fleeting and the painterly with Asam, Maulpertsch, Mengs, Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, or even a Lawrence.

What likewise seemed to evaporate in this way were the drawings of Goya, which went into the thousands and were mostly executed as brush drawings and often as etchings. But what at first glance seems to be fleeting and painterly is in Goya’s case a radical abbreviation of expression.  Even his softest brush draws with absolute precision. Neither of these qualities was to reappear in any artists’ drawings until after Cézanne, indeed, perhaps not until Kirchner.  Apart from the drawings of such gifted narrators, illustrators and caricaturists of early modernism as Daniel Chodowiecki, George Cruikschank, Honoré Daumier and Wilhelm Busch, the drawing was for a time to remain a "servant" of painting rather than a technique in its own right. A huge increase in quality and quantity came with Toulouse-Lautrec, of whose drawings more than five thousand have survived, and whose eminent lithographic oeuvre also belongs, for the reasons already given, to his oeuvre of drawings.  And then – almost a century ago in terms of their artistic beginnings – came Picasso and Kirchner, who, like Leonardo and Dürer four hundred years before, were an oddly matched pair.  Since then, almost a fifth of the entire period of development of the drawing as an independent art form has passed by, given its beginnings around 1500. It is in this vast historical context that the drawings of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner must be acknowledged and appreciated, and indeed as the most significant among all others in every respect.

However, if one considers Kirchner’s oeuvre of drawings and compares it with those of the aforementioned artists who either preceded him or were his contemporaries, one cannot but make the observation that, although some or a great many of the drawings done by even the best known artists among them, by the great masters, so to speak, from Leonardo to Toulouse-Lautrec, do indeed meet the artistic criteria defined in all the drawing manuals from Meder to Koschatzky, a large number or even the majority of the drawings done by these artists are preparatory sketches or studies for works in some other medium.  This is the case even with Picasso, the only artist whose drawings bear comparison with Kirchner’s. Picasso made detail studies and thumbnail sketches at least up until 1925, after which time most of his drawings took the form of complete compositions.

Even Kirchner’s oeuvre of drawings contains a small number of works that do not come under the category of drawing as an autonomous medium.  They are the architectural drawings done during his studies at the Dresden Technical College and his diploma piece dating from the spring of 1905.14 Even other sporadic drawings for exhibition projects or for large sculpture projects betray the hand of the trained architect, especially the designs for an exhibition room marking the 200th anniversary of the founding of the city of Karlsruhe, done in 1914-191515, or the designs in his sketchbooks for the moulded profiles of the frames he commissioned a cabinetmaker in Davos to make. Apart from these and a few other infrequent, unfinished designs, all of Kirchner’s drawings were devoted to complete compositions, to the whole and not the fragment.        

Kirchner saw this "whole" as a "hieroglyph".  Christian Lenz proved quite convincingly, in 1980, that Kirchner’s designation harks back to a comment made by Goethe – and quoted at the beginning of this essay – concerning the drawings in his collection.16 Writing in 1999 and then again in 2004, Lucius Grisebach expands upon Kirchner’s manifold and complex use of the term "hieroglyph".17 Goethe’s comment, which would seem to characterize Kirchner’s drawings just as aptly, was written, surprisingly, in 1799, precisely the year in which the Rosetta Stone was found.  At that time, Goethe’s comment must have still been based on the assumption that the "sacred inscriptions in the stone" were unreadable. For his part, Kirchner defined them as "short, clear signs" that "captured painterly visions" of "expressions of real life".18 But in Kirchner’s drawings they were not only that. They were also, as "hieroglyphs", sacred inscriptions of profound, cryptic significance.         

Seventy such hieroglyphs are being shown in this exhibition – and are also depicted in this catalogue. They are a selection from Kirchner’s representations of the human figure executed exclusively in black on white paper or, exceptionally, on yellow or brownish paper.  As is inevitably the case with such a selection of drawings, the figures are predominantly female and nude.  The relationships between men and women, their sexuality, the way they interact, the way the love each other, the way they live together, the beauty of the female body, its nakedness as a constant incentive for the artist to draw the human figure – all these aspects had preoccupied Kirchner from his early years as a student and in an entirely unconventional and broad-minded, non-bourgeois way.  It was to this side of Kirchner's life and work that Roland Scotti dedicated, in 2003, an exhibition and catalogue significantly entitled "Erna and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. An artist couple".  Like Kirchner himself, Scotti came to the conclusion that Kirchner’s wife Erna was involved in his work as an artist to such an extent that she herself merited the status of artist, of co-artist.  Here, too, Kirchner was evidently evolving at that time a concept that today would seem to be entirely in keeping with our own modern age. Take, for example, the man-and-wife artist team Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Kirchner realized this concept not only in his countless nude depictions but also in a great many portraits, such as "Erna doing her embroidery", 1936 (Cat. 69), and in a series of double portraits that accompanied their entire life together, a series in which he sought to idealize and sublimate a relationship that was not all that easily interpretable artistically, a typical example being "Self-portrait with Erna", 1933 (Cat. 53), in which Erna is shown with her head turned away from him. The composition itself is well formalized, but Kirchner does not succeed in idealizing the theme in the same way as he did, for example, with the wooden sculpture in the Kirchner Museum in Davos (Fig. 4). Another example is his "Self-portrait with Erna" of 1934 (Cat. 54), in which the artist gazes helplessly at his seemingly dejected life companion.  Erna, a Berlin nightclub dancer, never felt at home in Davos, although she was well liked there and, despite the fact that they never married, was always known as Frau Kirchner and always enjoyed the rights and privileges of a legitimate wife and – after Kirchner’s death – widow.  Without such background knowledge, anyone looking at Kirchner’s depictions of female nudes and portraits might easily conclude that the process of converting erotic energy into creative energy was indeed a fast and direct one.

By the time Kirchner produced the earliest drawing of the present selection, namely "Reclining couple", 1909 (Cat. 1), in which two lovers are captured in beautifully flowing strokes of charcoal, his drawing technique had developed from beginnings that were even further removed from the Art Nouveau style of the drawings done by the architect Kirchner early in 1905.  What had happened? Even the drawing done by Kirchner to mark the founding of the Brücke group of artists on 7th June 1905 (Fig. 5) was still very much in keeping with the style of the time, as were other works that can be dated to that year, such as the series of brush and ink drawings entitled "The abattoir cleaner and the elegant woman"19 or the woodcut series "Two people".20 Later in that same year, 1905, and during the following winter, the Brücke group defined itself both from a theoretical and from a practical aspect.  The theoretical aspect was laid down in the Brücke manifesto carved by Kirchner in wood, the closing words of which – "Anyone who renders directly and honestly whatever drives him to create is one of us" – were to remain the only programmatic statement ever to be made by the group.  The practical aspect consisted in the group’s invention of the "Viertelstundenakt" (the "quarter-hour nude"), in which the model may not be drawn in the same pose for longer than a quarter of an hour.  The resulting drawings waived all the academic rules pertaining to the modelling of volumes and surfaces in favour of an attempt to capture the whole, both figure and space, in just a few minutes and with just a few deft strokes (Fig. 6).  This could be done only with numerous discontinuous, rapidly drawn straight and wavy lines and/or violently spirited hatching. Thus it was that the theory – "Anyone who renders directly and honestly whatever drives him to create is one of us" – was certainly put into practice.21                                 

"Reclining couple", one of the first results of these "quarter-hour nude" experiments, confronts us with a completely new and singular style of drawing that has hardly anything in common with what went before in Kirchner’s work or with the drawings of other artists, and yet, conversely, it shows all the basic characteristics of Kirchner’s style of drawing, without exception. It was executed in only a few minutes.  Corrections using a rubber eraser, for example, are never to be found in Kirchner’s drawings. Whenever a part of a drawing had to be corrected, he would simply draw over it, often "attacking" it vigorously with the pencil, chalk crayon or pen.  And in spite of any mistakes he made, everything remained "direct and honest".  Kirchner put his trust in the line alone. It was the line that formed the contours, the surfaces, the spaces and the volumes.  Blendings and shadings appear only seldom and do not serve to model solid shapes but to form surfaces.  Only during the last years of his life did he use shadings of the kind never used by him before, and also cast shadows indicating the presence of illuminating light.

It is with "Reclining couple" (Cat. 1) that this exhibition preludes the theme of Kirchner’s art in general and of his drawings in particular: the nude, the beauty and appeal of the human body, the tactility of naked flesh – for Kirchner an inexhaustible and never-ending source of creative inspiration. Hardly any woman in his circle of friends would ever resist his wish to depict her in all her naturalness, to turn her into "hieroglyph" of the beauty and sensuality of the human body.  Kirchner imparts this to the eye of the viewer mostly with just a few contours, at times only hinting at it, and with just short hatchings for the hair, but the effect is so intensive that the arousal felt by Kirchner at the time still makes itself felt today.22         

Hardly any variety show, hardly any dance café, hardly any circus or hardly any of the then so numerous and popular "ethnological shows" escaped Kirchner’s eye. Forever there with his sketchbook, Kirchner fleetingly captured on paper whatever fleetingly met his gaze, and never just as details or fragments but as complete compositions. Typical examples are the drawings "Acrobats", 1911 (Cat. 9), and "Dancing couple", (Cat. 10), which he did during his stay with Otto Mueller in Bohemia in the autumn of 1911.  Once he was back in his studio, these small compositions formed the basis for larger drawings, prints or paintings.  It was not until after 1926 that he began to use larger sheets of paper when drawing groups of dancers and/or the dancers Mary Wigman and Gret Paluccca. His "Scene from Mary Wigman’s Death Dance" of 1926 (Cat. 46) is a typical example.

Again and again, Kirchner would use the common pretext for nude depictions, the motif of the "woman at her toilet", as in, for example, "Dodo standing naked with African stool", 1910 (Cat. 3), or "Bather bending", 1914 (Cat. 22).  The subjects seem to be entirely engrossed in their toilet, and that was precisely the reason for the choice of motif: the models were so involved with themselves that they behaved perfectly naturally, completely forgetting that they were being observed. And that was precisely what Kirchner wanted: completely natural movement, movement being of the absolute essence.  Kirchner’s models were forever in motion. Even on the beach on Fehmarn, the bathers he drew and painted had to be in constant movement.23 Movement, whatever its form, had a magical attraction for Kirchner, no matter whether it was the landscape racing past the window of a railway carriage, the swirling motion of people dancing, the movements of variety and circus performers or the expressive dance movements of the Laban pupils Mary Wigman and Gret Palucca.24 Thus it is that love, as expressed by the intertwined figures in the charcoal drawing "Reclining couple" (Cat. 1), becomes a "hieroglyph" of absolute unity.

Much has been thought and written about the reasons for man’s evolution into a "naked ape". Even Darwin was unable to see any recognizable evolutionary advantage in becoming hairless and assumed that it was for "ornamental purposes".  Indeed, the reasons, no matter their actual nature, ultimately lie in what we call "beauty", the kind of beauty Winfried Menninghaus writes about in his book "The Promise of Beauty".25 It is this beauty, the beauty above all of the almost entirely hairless female body (obviously desired by both sexes, as we would not otherwise have evolved thus), that since the very beginnings of art (take, for example, the "Venus of Willendorf" or the figures recently found near Ulm that date from an even earlier period some 30 to 40,000 years ago) has been the artist’s everlasting source of inspiration and his clearly defined challenge to transform erotic energy into creative energy. In this regard, Kirchner succeeds, with just a few strokes and without such modelling techniques as blending and shading, in suggesting bodily contours with such intensity that the viewer can physically feel every line and curve of the body – as is the case with the numerous nudes done in his studio, on the beach of Fehmarn or by the forest streams around Davos, many of which have been included in the selection exhibited.       

When he moved to Berlin in October 1911, everything changed for Kirchner, and radically too:  the hectic and aggressive way of life in this moloch of a city, which was developing like no other at that time; its differently natured, differently reacting people; his two new girlfriends and models, gaunt and skinny, and much less sensual than their Dresden counterparts.  All of this brought about a change in his style, initially and predominantly in his drawing, which was now more "elongated" and more expressive. The pencil drawings "Bathers by stones on Fehmarn" and "Portrait of Simon Guttmann" of 1912 (Cat. 13, 25) already indicate this change, while the drawings "Gerda at her needlework" and "Seated woman in bathing towel on beach" of 1913 (Cat. 29, 26) show how striking the difference actually was: the line became increasingly sensitive, yet more violent and more nervous, and the now more frequently used zigzag hatching was steeper and sharper. Even on Fehmarn, where Kirchner lived and worked during the summer months from 1912 until 1914, his style would at times reach the very heights of nervousness.

In his Berlin nudes, Kirchner had to come to terms with a femininity that was far less sensual than hitherto in Dresden, a femininity distinguished by a haughty body posture, self-confidence and a serious, emotionally more hermetic character.  Viewed today, Kirchner’s nudes of his Berlin period are reminiscent of the approach of a Helmut Newton, if such a comparison may be permitted.       

It was also at this time that the portrait gained in importance, typical examples being "Portrait of Simon Guttmann", 1912 (Cat. 12), the Berlin author; the unknown "Portrait of a man", 1913 (Cat. 28);  his Berlin student "Gewecke in armchair", 1913 (Cat. 27); "Gerda at her needlework", 1913 (Cat. 29); "Portrait of Gerda", 1914 (Cat. 30), Erna’s sister; "Portrait of Professor Botho Graef", 1915 (Cat. 33), his patron in Jena; and, when Kirchner was a patient at the Kohnstamm Sanatorium in Königstein during the First World War, "Otto Klemperer at the piano", 1916 (Cat. 34), the  famous pianist, conductor and composer.   Having from the very beginning recognized war as the moloch that devours everything and everybody, above all his art, Kirchner had during his military service hungered to the point of suffering from a chronic gastro-intestinal disorder. His addiction to medicaments did the rest and marked the beginning of an odyssey through the sanatoriums of Germany and Switzerland.

It is in this series of portraits that we can observe the development of Kirchner’s style of drawing in Berlin towards an ever increasing nervousness both immediately before and during the First World War.  All of them are compositions drawn directly before the subject. It is to these immediate "first sight" compositions, which were so essential to Kirchner, that Anita Beloubek-Hammer dedicated both her 2004 exhibition of Kirchner’s works in the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett26 and the accompanying symposium entitled "E.L. Kirchner ‘Ekstase des ersten Sehens’ und gestaltete Form".27 Both in "Portrait of a man", 1913 (Cat. 28), and in "Portrait of a woman", 1913 (Cat. 31), the peculiarities of Kirchner’s treatment of the subject "at first sight" are clearly recognizable.  The result is always a complete composition, never a partial one or a detail study, never a tentative approach to the subject matter.  Only the details are rendered rapidly and cursorily.  The speed with which the pencil or charcoal moves across the paper makes the latter tremble and the viewer can sense the excitement felt by the artist before the subject.  Indeed, there is no time to dwell on the details.  By 1914, the speed and intensity of Kirchner’s method of drawing had found its way into his larger formats, such as "Bather bending", 1914 (Cat. 22) and "Reclining nude with hat (Fehmarn)", 1914 (Cat. 23).

Astonishingly, in the summer of 1917, Kirchner approached the cows on the Stafelalp, the forests, the mountains and the peasants of Davos with the same drawing techniques he had developed for the hustle and bustle of Berlin. Indeed, after Segantini, Hodler and Giacommetti, Kirchner was to become the fourth greatest modernist painter of the Swiss Alps.  But this did not mean that his drawings of the human figure, which are the focal point of our interest here, were in any way neglected. On the contrary, Kirchner drew and painted not only the mountain landscapes of the Alps but also the Alpine peasants, their lives, their daily work, the way they lived and worked with their animals, their weather-beaten faces, indeed the entire world of the mountain peasants, but without slipping into the kitschy or idyllic. As documents of the working life of the Alpine peasants of the twenties of the previous century, Kirchner’s works are exemplary and are represented in the exhibition by the drawings "Peasants chatting on the Stafelalp", 1918 (Cat. 38), "Shepherd boy and goat with view of the Tinzenhorn", 1920 (Cat.40), "Boy with fishbowl", 1920 (Cat. 39), seen at a neighbour’s house, "Three peasant women baking bread", 1920 (Cat. 37), "Alpine life", 1922 (Cat. 4) and Peasants resting", 1922 (Cat. 42).

Previous to these last-mentioned works, however, Kirchner had produced two very "nervous" portraits: "Head of woman with hat" (Cat. 35) and "Head of Dr. Ludwig Binswanger (Cat. 36), both of 1917. The latter was Kirchner’s physician in Kreuzlingen in 1917-18. The dominant features of both of these portraits are the criss-crossing lines that seem to be exploding in all directions, like the seemingly scratched, fragmentary lines of the rapid pen-and-ink drawing "Selfportrait in a morphine fit" (Fig. 7).  Kirchner was in great pain, largely paralysed and took morphine.  These highly significant woodcuts produced in Kreuzlingen in the autumn and winter of 1917 were executed with the utmost difficulty, for Kirchner could only "hack" at them rather than "cut" them with his knife.  He was unable to write but could draw strokes and lines, and with an intensity never known before or after.

With the end of the First World War in November 1918, Kirchner’s nightmare of his life and art being devoured by the war, a nightmare that had haunted him ever since the war began in 1914, also came to an end. The paralysis in his arms receded.  By January 1919 he was able to write his letters himself, but it was not until 1921 that he was completely cured of his drug abuse. It was during these years that the development of Kirchner’s drawing style mirrored in reverse sequence the development that had taken place in Berlin from 1913 until 1916, that is to say, it now passed from nervousness and violence via greater tranquillity to what was almost a state of complete serenity.  This development is reflected in the few examples selected for these years, not least in the peasant life depictions mentioned above.

The style of Kirchner’s nudes, both in his studio and outdoors, likewise continued to  develop once he was living and working in Davos and its environs, with its mountains, valleys, streams and waterfalls, and certainly not later than the visit of the dancer Nina Hard to Davos in 1921. The examples are manifold: "Woman putting on stockings", 1921 (Cat. 44), "Two naked girls in the forest", 1921 (Cat. 43), "Nude kneeling", 1926 (Cat. 59), "Nude standing in front of painting in studio", 1926 (Cat. 58), "The painter and two nudes in the house on the Wildboden", 1926 (Cat. 57), "Three nudes in the forest", 1933 (Cat. 63), "Sketch for the painting ‘Nudes in the forest’", 1933 (Cat. 64), "Reclining nude with cat on bed with bedspread", 1933 (Cat. 56).

After 1926, the growing autonomy of form and colour in Kirchner’s work led to an  increased tendency towards abstraction.  Kirchner’s contribution to the "abstraction création" of the 1930s and his early anticipation of numerous aspects of German Abstraction of the 1950s, and also of the design style of that period, are in no way difficult to recognize in the group of drawings "Three nudes in conversation", 1929 (Cat. 62), "Swimmers", 1929 (Cat. 65), "Naked dancer in the forest", 1932 (Cat. 61), "Two acrobats", 1932 (Cat. 66), "Self-portrait with Erna", 1933 (Cat. 53) and "Ice hockey players", 1933 (Cat. 68).  Thus it was that in this fourth main phase of his creative life, Kirchner, the erstwhile Dresden, Berlin and Davos Expressionist, the German artist of the past, the Swiss artist of the present, now became a European artist, both for the active part he played in the surreal abstract developments of the pre-war period and for the inspiration he gave posthumously to the developments in abstraction after 1945.  His numerous themes devoted to the human being were now augmented by a further one, sport, as evidenced by the aforementioned titles "Swimmers", "Two acrobats" and "Ice hockey players", and also by "Archery on the Wildboden", 1934 (Cat. 67), a sport that Kirchner pursued keenly.

Despite all these abstracting and formalizing tendencies, Kirchner was still primarily concerned with the object, with the representation of the world as it is seen. Thus it was that the portrait still held an important place in his oeuvre, significant examples being "Girl student and boyfriend", 1926 (Cat. 48), "Self-portrait", 1927 (Cat. 52), "Self-portrait with Erna", 1933 (Kat. 53), "Self-portrait with Erna", 1934 (Cat. 54), "Portrait of a man", 1935 (Cat. 51) and "Male portrait", 1935 (Cat. 55). In his drawings of this period, Kirchner set great store by the single, uninterrupted line that at once united the entire composition into one surface and divided it into different yet equal compartments – a brilliant anticipatory move towards the near, even the distant future, and often referred to – even derogatorily – as his "late style", although he was only in his late forties at the time.

What may indeed be called "late" is the synthesis he attempted to achieve through the inclusion of the techniques of modelling and shading for the shadows cast by  objects and, primarily, human figures, as manifest in the last drawings of this selection, "Shepherd with sheep", 1935 (Cat. 70) and "Erna doing her embroidery", 1936 (Cat. 69).

Even this large selection of seventy drawings cannot serve to exemplify comprehensively all the works done by Kirchner in this particular genre. Mention has already been made of the architectural drawings that preceded the works chosen for this exhibition, and also of the "quarter-hour nudes", of which only a few have survived.  During the 1920s, Kirchner made numerous copies from the old masters. And there were also the many series of illustrations – albeit incomplete – such as the ones he did, for example, for "Till Eulenspiegel".28 Moreover, as this essay is focused  on Kirchner’s drawings of the human figure, the present selection cannot possibly represent the whole thematic diversity of Kirchner’s oeuvre of drawings. What is missing in its entirety, for instance, is Kirchner’s central theme of the human being in the big city, his exposure to the anonymity of the modern world, a theme that reaches its climax – and one of the climaxes of the entire history of art – in his so-called "street scenes".  (The reader must of course make allowance for the fact that the works selected here for exhibition are exclusively works that are currently available for sale in our gallery). There are other themes, too, that are equally conspicuous by their absence, such as Kirchner’s magnificent landscapes and cityscapes, his animal depictions and his still-lifes.  Many of these themes are represented in the exhibition by just one example, such as the theme of bathers on the shores of the Moritzburg Lakes from 1909 until 1911, on Fehmarn from 1912 until 1914 and in the main valley of Davos, the Landwassertal, after 1921. Even Kirchner’s eminent contribution to the representation of working life in the 1920s in his drawings of the mountain peasants of Davos is touched upon only very briefly.  All of these themes are represented by hundreds of drawings in Kirchner’s oeuvre.

It is important, moreover, to note that Kirchner’s drawings relate to one another on two contextual levels. The first level is a thematic one – Kirchner realized many of his compositions in all techniques and, as drawings alone, in several variations on the same theme and in some cases at different times and not necessarily within a short period. The second level is a serial one, that is to say, almost all of Kirchner’s drawings, including the drawings in this exhibition, were produced in series, rarely as single works. In other words, for every drawing there is a whole series of similar compositions produced one after the other within a relatively short time, in the same technique, on the same paper and in the same situation.

If we were to search, around 1905, for a possible model, for a possible source of inspiration for Kirchner’s dedication to the drawing, for something comparable with the "quarter-hour nudes" and the charcoal drawing "Reclining couple", 1909 (Cat. 1), we would find hardly anything that might have inspired Kirchner among the contemporary drawings that he may possibly have seen, either in the original or as reproductions. During his studies, up until 1906, he would have been able to visit exhibitions of outstanding draughtsmen at the Galerie Arnold in Dresden, such as Böcklin, Liebermann, Klinger, Thoma, Slevogt, Kandinsky, van Gogh, Nolde and Munch.  Whether these exhibitions also showed drawings by these artists cannot be said for certain. One of the exhibitions held at this gallery in the autumn of 1905 – "Freehand Drawings by German Artists" – may even have made the "Brücke" artists realize what they were not aiming to achieve.29 With the exception of Kandinsky, all of the aforementioned artists already had significant oeuvres of drawings to their credit, but the only artist among them who could have inspired Kirchner was Edvard Munch (Fig. 8).  Moreover, the drawings of these artists manifested little inherent autonomy and consisted largely of preparatory drawings for other works or they were exceedingly one-sided and lacking in diversity. This may also be said of other contemporaries and of later artists whose oeuvres of drawings constituted significant chapters in the history of art during the first half of the 20th century, such as Barlach, Corinth, Klee, Klimt, Klinger, Kokoschka, Kollwitz, Kubin, Matisse, Moore, Morandi and Slevogt.  The only drawings that primarily comprised complete compositions were those of Emil Nolde and Vincent van Gogh, the latter’s work having had such an enthralling yet short-lived effect on Kirchner in 1907, and those of the three "Brücke" artists Heckel, Pechstein and Schmidt-Rottluff.  However, the drawings of the first-named artists were not particularly vast in quantity, while those of the last-named were to a large extent destroyed in the air raids on Berlin during the Second World War.

Despite the enormous distance between his drawings and those of a more illustrative character, such as the drawings of Klinger, Kubin and Slevogt, for example, like these Kirchner’s themes manifest an enormous diversity in contrast to the drawings of Kollwitz, Klimt and Morandi, or of the sculptors Barlach and Moore, whose choice of subject matter was limited to relatively few themes.

The art world has long since clearly defined and classified Kirchner’s status as a draughtsman.  His drawings are now being celebrated in exhibitions and publications  of an incomparably greater quantity and frequency than is the case with the drawings of other painters. It would be desirable, however, if more systematic and comprehensive attention were paid to the medium of the drawing among scholars and connoisseurs and in exhibitions and publications.

Finally, it would seem to me that the comment made by Goethe on the drawings in his collection – quoted at the beginning of this essay – is significant not just on account of his use of the term "hieroglyph" but also because the words he uses to characterize drawings in general – "The boldly casual, the exuberant use of ink, the violent strokes […]" – are an altogether apt description of Kirchner’s drawing up until his "new style" after 1925. Kirchner’s drawings were all "hieroglyphs", holistic signs of things perceived, symbols of his orbis pictus, of art’s last universal view of the world before the radical destruction of the human being and his urban and rural environment, the destruction Kirchner did not live long enough to witness.

Wolfgang Henze

Translation: John Brogden, Dortmund


Fig. 1
"Railway train – child’s drawing 1884, Pencil, 17. 6 x 22.7 cm. E. W. Kornfeld Collection, Berne

Fig. 2
"Head studies" 1901/02, Pencil, 13.3 x 19.5 cm. Sketchbook Presler Skb 2, Sheet 5, Hermann Gerlinger Collection, Halle Foundation Moritzburg

Fig. 3
Diploma piece, p. 16, 1905, Pen and ink, watercoloured, 21 x 16.8 cm. Kirchner Museum Davos

Fig. 4
"Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erna. Double portrait" 1932, Swiss stone pine, height: 27 cm. Henze 1932/03, Kirchner Museum Davos

Fig. 5
Broadsheet "Founding of the Brücke Group of Artists", 1905, Pen and ink, 18.4 x 22.7 cm. Brücke-Museum Berlin

Fig. 6
"Nude kneeling" (Quarter-hour nude) 1905–06, Black chalk crayon, 43.4 x 34.3 cm. Hermann Gerlinger Collection, Halle Foundation Moritzburg

Fig. 7
"Self-portrait in morphien fit", 1917, Pen and ink, 50 x 38 cm. Brücke-Museum Berlin

Fig. 8
Edvard Munch, Drawing from sketchbook, 1889, Pencil, 23 x 30.6 cm. Presler Skb22, Munch Museet Oslo.


1 This is a revised version, in translation, of the text "Ernst Ludwig Kirchner der Zeichner" in: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Meisterblätter, exhibition catalogue, Brücke-Museum, Berlin 2008, pp. 14-29.

2 Cf. Wolfgang Henze, "Zeichnung, Pastell und Aquarell bei E. L. Kirchner. Ein Zwischenbericht", in: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Zeichnungen, Aquarelle, Pastelle, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle, Nuremberg, 1991, edited by Lucius Grisebach and Wolfgang Henze, pp. 25–47. This catalogue gives details of all the hitherto existing literature on Kirchner’s drawings. Further literature published since then: Heinz Spielmann: "Ernst Ludwig Kirchners frühe Skizzenbücher", in exhibition catalogue Die Maler der "Brücke". Sammlung Hermann Gerlinger, Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmuseum Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig 1995, pp. 13-26. - Gabriele Lohberg: "Der Almanach des Ernst Ludwig Kirchner", in: exhibition catalogue: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Unbekannte Zeichnungen aus dem Kirchner Museum Davos, Bündner Kunstmuseum Chur and Kunsthalle Emden 1995-1996, pp. 9-19. – Bestandskatalog Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Zeichnungen Aquarelle Druckgraphik, edited by Ernst-Gerhard Güse, with contributions by Ernst-Gerhard Güste, Marion Vogt and Anne-Marie Werner, Saarland Museum Saarbrücken 2001. - Gerd Presler, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Die Skizzenbücher, Weingarten/Karlsruhe + Davos 1996. – Volker Adolphs: "Malereien zeichnen wäre gut", in: exhibition catalogue Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Farbige Werke auf Papier, Kunstmuseum Bonn 1999, pp. 9-25. – ibid.: Christoph Schreier: "Spontaneität und Gestaltungswillen. Zur Rolle dere Farbe in Kirchners Zeichnungen 1908-1914", pp. 26-34. - Roland Scotti: "Der Schlüssel zu Kirchners Kunst: Zeichnungen der Schweizer Jahre", in exhibition catalogue: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Die Sammlung Karlheinz Gabler, Brücke-Museum Berlin and Galerie Jahrhunderthalle Hoechst 1999-2000, pp. 41-48.  – Wolfgang Henze, "Ernst Ludwig Kirchners Zeichnung", in: exhibition catalogue: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Gemälde, Zeichnung, Druckgraphik. Neuerwerbungen des Brücke-Museums Berlin seit 1988, Brücke Museum Berlin 2001, pp. 23-26. - Anita Beloubek-Hammer, "Kirchners ekstatisches Zeichnen", in exhibition catalogue: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Erstes Sehen, Kupferstichkabinett Staatliche Museen zu Berlin 2004, pp. 14-19. - Wolfgang Henze, "Bedeutung und Funktion der Zeichnung im Werk von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Ein Arbeitsbericht aus dem Archiv zum Gesamtwerk", in: "Ekstase des ersten Sehens" und gestaltete Form, colloquium accompanying the exhibition Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Erstes Sehen. Das Werk im Berliner Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin 2004/07. – as well as literature quoted in the following notes.

3 Cf. Frank Whitford, "Kirchner und das Kunsturteil", in: exhibition catalogue Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880–1938, Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Haus der Kunst, Munich, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Kunsthaus, Zürich 1979/80, pp. 38–45. – Wolfgang Henze, Die Plastik Ernst Ludwig Kirchners, Wichtrach/Bern 2002, pp. 39–40. – Franziska Uhlig, "Hand, die zeichnet. Über Ernst Ludwig Kirchners Handhabung eines Kohlestiftes", in: Friedrich Weltzien/Amrei Volkmann (eds.), Modelle Künstlerischer Produktion, Berlin 2003, p. 166. – Kirchner’s texts on his drawings have been collected together in: Magdalena M. Moeller, Von Dresden nach Davos. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Zeichnungen, Munich 2004, pp. 348–353.

4 One of the first attempts at a comparative appraisal has been made by Magdalena M. Moeller: See footnote 2, p. 7. 

5 Joseph Meder, Die Handzeichnung. Ihre Technik und Entwicklung, Vienna 1919, 2nd edition 1923. (Revised and translated by Winslow Ames as The Mastery of Drawing, 2 vols. New York: Abaris Books 1978) – Heinrich Leporini, Die Stilenwicklung der Handzeichnung. XIV. bis XVIII. Jahrhundert, Vienna 1925. – Heinrich Leporini, Die Künstlerzeichnung. Ein Handbuch für Liebhaber und Sammler. Berlin 1928. – Walter Koschatzky, Die Kunst der Zeichnung. Technik, Geschichte, Meisterwerke, Salzburg 1977. Even these comprehensive publications are devoted more to questions of technique, function and subject matter than to the history of the development of drawing and its significance in the context of art history as a whole.

6 A lack of self-confidence on the part of art historians may be the reason why none of them has so far "dared" to carry out such a comprehensive survey. Cf. the remarkable contribution by Sybille Ebert-Schifferer, "Von Gestern bis Morgen. Hundert Jahre Institut für Kunstgeschichte der Universität Bern", in: Dienstleistung Kunstgeschiche? Art History on Demand?, Festschrift, Vol. 2, Emsdetten/Berlin 2008, pp. 10-22, especially p. 13.

7 On quantities and collections cf. Wolfgang Henze, "Bedeutung und Funktion der Zeichnung im Werk von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Ein Arbeitsbericht aus dem Archiv zum Gesamtwerk", see footnote 2, pp. 22–37

8 Cf. Werner Spies, "Picasso der Zeichner", in: Picasso. Pastelle, Zeichnungen, Aquarelle, exhibition catalogue Kunsthalle Tübingen and Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf 1986, edited by Götz Adriani, pp. 11–48.

9 Cf. Eberhard W. Kornfeld, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Nachzeichnung seines Lebens. Katalog der Sammlung von Werken von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner im Kirchner-Haus Davos, Berne 1979, p. 13, Cat. 12, 13.

10 Cf. Kirchner’s two early sketchbooks in: Die Maler der Brücke. Bestandskatalog Sammlung Hermann Gerlinger, with contributions by Heinz Spielmann, Christian Rathke, Katja Schneider and Hermann Gerlinger, Halle (Saale) 2005, p. 279f.

11 Cf. Meike Hoffmann, Der Architekt Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Diplomarbeit und Studienentwürfe 1901–1905, Munich 1999.

12 Cf. Hans-Günther Richter, "Ernst Ludwig Kirchner und die Kinderzeichnung", in: exhibition catalogue Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Leben ist Bewegung, Galerie der Stadt Aschaffenburg and Landesmuseum Oldenburg 1999/2000, pp. 24–35.

13 Cf. Joseph Meder und Heinrich Leporini, op.cit. (footnote 5).

14 See Meike Hoffmann, op. cit. (footnote 11).

15 Roland Scotti, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Katalog der Sammlung. Band III, Kirchner Museum Davos, 2000, pp. 408–412, No. 753–763.

16 Christian Lenz, "Exkurs zum Begriff der ‘Hieroglyphe’", in: exhibition catalogue Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Aquarelle, Zeichnungen und Druckgraphik aus dem Besitz des Städel Frankfurt am Main, Wissenschaftszentrum, Bonn-Bad Godesberg 1980, pp. 22–24.

17 Lucius Grisebach, "Kirchners ‘Hieroglyphe’", in: exhibition catalogue Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Die Sammlung Karlheinz Gabler, Brücke-Museum Berlin, Galerie Jahrhunderthalle Hoechst, 1999/2000, pp. 31–39. – Lucius Grisebach: "Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Das ekstatische Zeichnen und die Hieroglyphe", in: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner "Ekstase des ersten Sehens" und gestaltete Form, Colloquium, Berlin 2004, Kupferstichkabinett Staatliche Museen zu Berlin 2007, pp. 11-21. – cf. also: Martina Padberg: "Topographie als Hieroglyphe: Grosstadtphysiognomie im Werk von E. L. Kirchner", in: idem, Grossstadtbild und Grossstadtmetaphorik in der deutschen Malerei, Münster 1995, pp. 171-186.

18 Louis de Marsalle [alias Ernst Ludwig Kirchner], "Zeichnungen von E. L. Kirchner", in: Genius, 1920 [Munich 1921], pp. 216–234.

19 Brücke-Museum Berlin, illustrated in: Magdalena M. Moeller, Von Dresden nach Davos. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Zeichnungen. Sammlung des Brücke-Museums Berlin, Munich 2004, pp. 23–29.

20 Dube H 40–48, the only complete series, Frankfurt, Städelsches Kunstinstitut.

21 Cf. the chapter entitled "Erste künstlerische Zeugnisse: Atelier- und ‘Viertelstundenakt’-Darstellungen" in: Georg Reinhardt, Die frühe "Brücke". Beiträge zur Geschichte und zum Werk der Dresdner Künstlergruppe "Brücke" der Jahre 1905 bis 1908, Brücke Archive, 9/10, Berlin 1977/78, pp. 19–22. – Sandra Mühlenberend, "Vom Stillstand zum Leben. Die Herkunft des ‘Viertelstundenaktes’", in: exhibition catalogue Die Brücke in Dresden 1905–1911, Galerie Neuer Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden 2001/02, pp. 278–282.

22 Cf. Gerd Presler, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Seine Frauen, seine Modelle, seine Bilder, Munich 1998.

23 Dietrich Reinhardt, "Zeitgenössische Zeugnisse von Kirchners Fehmarn-Aufenthalten", in: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner auf Fehmarn, Brücke-Almanach 1997, edited by Hermann Gerlinger and Heinz Spielmann, Schleswig 1997, p. 39.

24 Cf. Gerd Presler, "Meine Malerei ist eine Malerei der Bewegung", in: exhibition catalogue Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Leben ist Bewegung, Galerie der Stadt Aschaffenburg, Landesmuseum Oldenburg 1999/2000, pp. 36–45; cf. also Roland Scotti, "Bewegung und Stillstand", in: ibid., p. 62–69.

25 Winfried Menninghaus, Das Versprechen der Schönheit, Frankfurt a.M. 2003, paperback edition, Frankfurt a.M. 2007, p. 89. English-language edition: Winfried Menninghaus "The Promise of Beauty", Suhrkamp, 2003

26 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Erstes Sehen. Exhibition catalogue, Kupferstichkabinett Staatliche Museen zu Berlin 2004, Altana Kulturforum Sinclair Haus Bad Homburg 2005.

27 3rd and 4th June 2004, Kupferstichkabinett Berlin 2007.

28 Cf. Wolfram Gabler, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner als Illustrator, doctoral thesis, Berlin 1988.

29 Cf. Ruth Negendanck, Die Galerie Ernst Arnold (1893–1951). Kunsthandel und Zeitgeschichte, Weimar 1998, pp. 391–414.

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