Intimacy and Ecstasy (Innig und ausser sich)

Kirchner’s Synthesis of Modernism around 1930 and Fritz Winter

28 October 2017 till 10 February 2018

Mini-Catalogue (PDF)

  • Kirchner 1932 5H D720 Plakat der Ausstellung Ernst Ludwig Kirchner  Bern 1933 04

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Plakat der Ausstellung Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Bern 1933.
    Farbholzschnitt 1932.
    99 x 69 auf 100,5 x 75,3 cm.
    Obj. Id: 72939

  • Kirchner 1928 1G G0926 Spielende Badende 04

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Spielende Badende.
    Öl auf Leinwand 1928.
    92 x 73 cm.
    Obj. Id: 66673

  • Kirchner 1930 1G G0943 Saengerin am Piano 02

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Sängerin am Piano.
    Öl auf Leinwand 1930.
    120 x 150 cm. 
    Obj. Id: 69979



  • Kirchner 1933 4Z Taenzerin K 01703 01

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Bleistift um 1933.
    50,3 x 37,3 cm.
    Obj. Id: 75373



  • Winter 1931 1G L0119 Ohne Titel 01

    Fritz Winter
    Ohne Titel.
    Öl auf Karton 1931.
    65 x 82 cm.
    Obj. Id: 74582

  • Winter 1933 1G L0454 Ohne Titel 01

    Fritz Winter
    Ohne Titel.
    Öl auf Velin 1933.
    245 x 150 cm.
    Obj. Id: 74552




Intimacy and Ecstasy (Innig und ausser sich)

Kirchner’s Synthesis of Modernism around 1930 and Fritz Winter


When we contemplate the pictures painted by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner around 1930, some of the best of which are on display at the Henze & Ketterer Gallery, we notice that the contours and surfaces free themselves from the need to delineate bodies and objects: some lines flow from one body onto the next, while others can be assigned to either one or the other body, depending on the viewer’s perspective. The lines multiply and depict bodies in motion. Colour also becomes detached from objects, body parts are linked to others via light or patches of shade, forming new, non-objective shapes. So it is neither clear where a body or object begins, nor where it ends; what is inside and what is out; which is front and which is back. 

Kirchner thus addresses the same questions as his fellow artists of the time. In Cubism, the body is portrayed on a flat surface in several perspectives at the same time; in Purism, which aims to use as few media as possible, lines are used to delineate several objects at the same time. The non-objective shapes that Kirchner forms using lines and areas of colour to connect different parts of different bodies resemble biomorphic forms such as amoeba, the female torso, or an egg, as found in the work of Hans Arp or Brancusi’s sculptures. These are primal forms, from which others are shaped, in which all others are already contained. In today’s world, stem cells might come to mind. In Fritz Winter’s work, the biomorphic contours, which contain a nucleus and partially overlap, thus seeming to fuse or divide, are indeed cell-like.

Winter visited Kirchner several times in Davos between 1928 and 1932, during which time the former was a student at the Bauhaus. He is without doubt the most important link between Kirchner and the Bauhaus teacher: biomorphic primal shapes can also be found in the work of Klee, under whom Winter studied. Both Klee and Kirchner use lines not to clearly delineate an object, but as part of a development process: from the point at which the artist places the pen, via the line traced by the artist’s hand and followed by the eye of the observer, to the formed shape. This can be seen in particular in figure drawings formed from a single continuous line, a technique that Picasso also employed.

The Bauhaus was also the place for experimenting with materials. Fritz Winter was employed in the studio of Naum Gabo, who created abstract biomorphic sculptures with new transparent material such as cellophane and using parallel cords. In Winter’s and Kirchner’s paintings, this experimentation is seen in transparent areas of colour through which partially hidden fields are visible, apparently lying behind them. Cords become lines, able sometimes to portray shadows, or vibrations.

So far, formal aspects have been discussed, that is to say, the transformative process. Around 1930 this transformative process was still applied to something specific, portraying something, even if it was an abstract concept such as order, dynamic, chaos, chance, which constituted the content of painting. Kandinsky and Klee combine the colour, shape and lines of painting with music, poetry, nature, etc. Kandinsky, for example, puts colours, shapes and lines on a level with sounds and emotions. His pictures become compositions, and the eye can track the path of these compositions through the picture. In Klee’s work, pen- and brushstrokes become written characters with unknown meaning, symbols captured as they are formed or as they are resolved, and thus open to possibilities. Where there is no reference to written characters, the form itself becomes the content; lines are formed purely for their own sake, no longer in order to represent anything specific. In nature, Klee sees transformation in the simultaneity of different stages of plant growth. The content of Kirchner’s images, meanwhile, consists in depicting the transformative process in the dimension between people: for example, in the large-format painting “Liebespaar”, the contours weave back and forth between the two embracing figures, and in “Grosses Liebespaar” the female form, Mrs Hembus, is portrayed on the lap of her husband. In “Mann und Katze”, the two closely embracing figures form one intact shape. One highlight is without doubt the series of coloured woodcuts entitled “Drei Akte im Walde”, which Kirchner worked on over several years. The different fields of colour, achieved by using different plates, call to mind Hans Arp’s abstract biomorphic wood templates and join and divide different parts of the figures into abstract shapes. In the coloured woodcut “Palucca”, time also becomes a factor; the multiple contours prevent us from saying where exactly the dancer is.

In the mid-1920s, Kirchner undertook to reinvent himself, an endeavour that was successful in particular between 1928 and 1933, and at the same time he kept telling himself that what he classed as ‘new’ was in fact what he had been doing since the beginning, and as such was ahead of his time. Kirchner began his artistic career in Munich, where around 1900 Theodor Lipps’ theory of empathy was being applied artistically by Hermann Obrist and taught to young artists in the Debschitz school. Kirchner attended this school in 1903–04. According to the empathy theory, lines are comprehended by the eyes, physically and emotionally; they can be dynamic or restricting, ascending or descending, and can correspondingly release positive or negative emotions. Artists, who are ascribed a particularly strong ability to empathise, are well able to comprehend the lines in nature with their eye and hand. In a work of art, these lines can be clearly viewed by the observer, and comprehended and emotionally understood. The product – the work of art – is of lesser importance; what counts is how it is received, and perceived. From this, Kirchner and the other artists of the Brücke group developed movement drawing: with constant practice, drawing bodies in movement would lead to an immediacy that communicates without reflection the essence of the object and of the artist. Over time, this allows the artist to develop their own individual handwriting. Kirchner was therefore justified in saying that he was interested in the transformative processes from the very start of his career. However, his contemporaries around 1930 can say the same, since the Blauer Reiter and Bauhaus artists Klee and Kandinsky were in Munich in 1900, along with many others, and, like Kirchner, also addressed these theories. In terms of the empathy theory, we can say of Kirchner around 1930 that the three-step process nature-artist-observer had become artist-artist-observer; Kirchner looked at his own work from the perspective of the current developments in art, which in turn led to new artworks. Kirchner himself best makes this clear with the poster that he designed for an exhibition of his own works in the Kunsthalle in Bern in 1933, which shows the artist observing his own face reflected in a mountain lake. However, Kirchner has been reproached for this idea of self-reflection, the claim being that he was only an artist in the first sense, that he could only create on the basis of his own life experiences and not as the result of reflection. In response to this, it may be said that although Kirchner never produced art entirely uninfluenced by his own experiences, this does not exclude self-reflection. During his time in the Brücke group, Kirchner had already turned his studio into a work of art, the furniture, utensils and walls all decorated by the artist himself, not to mention his own artworks. These things reappear in his paintings in simplified form in the background, often with no clear demarcation between foreground and background, between art and life. His experience finds direct expression in his art, and as such constitutes self-reflection. Instead of interpreting the lines found in nature so that the observer can experience them more intensely, as in the empathy theory, around 1930 – or indeed always, as Kirchner rightly claimed – he interprets the lines in his own art and in this way intensifies his own art.

Just as spontaneity and ecstasy are reflected and calculated in early Kirchner's work, obsessive reflection is inseparable from his later artistic activity. Like Chamisso’s Schlemihl, which he illustrated with elaborate coloured woodblock prints in 1915, Kirchner is chasing his own shadow: after 1919 he pretended to have anticipated the new developments in art by retrospectively painting over his own work. Around 1920 he invented the critic Louis de Marsalle, who of course was the only person capable of judging Kirchner’s work correctly. The fact that Marsalle was a Frenchman suggested that Kirchner was particularly appreciated in France, which at that time was considered to be the most advanced country in all things relating to art. The creative but also paranoid and delusional way in which Kirchner pursues self-reflection thus has an artistic quality in itself and is worthy of historical study, rather than serving to be reproached to the artist.

Kai Schupke(Translation by Philippa Bainbridge)

Text accompanying Exhibition No. 117 at the Henze & Ketterer Gallery, Wichtrach/Bern

Galerie Henze & Ketterer
Kirchstrasse 26, CH 3114 Wichtrach
Tel. +41 (0)31 781 06 01
Galerie Henze & Ketterer & Triebold
Wettsteinstrasse 4, CH 4125 Riehen
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