The tragedy of avant garde artist Ernst Kirchner

The annual World Economic Forum that concluded yesterday makes its home in Davos, Switzerland. Turns out, Davos was also the home of a pioneer of modern art, whose creations -- and struggles -- aren't widely known. Margaret Brennan means to correct that:

You may not be familiar with Germany's Ernst Kirchner, but his work helped to change the course of modern art.

Andrew Robison, curator of a recent exhibit of modern German prints at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said that while Kirchner is not a household name, it should be.

"He should be just like Picasso," he told Brennan, "because Kirchner in many ways, in the first part of the 20th century, parallels Picasso in being the dominant artist for his country.


"If you think of his early works, then you think of nudes -- nude women, nude men, in the studio, posing. But not posing in an academic sense -- lying on a sofa, sitting in a chair. You think of going out to swim. Did a lot of swimming. Skinny dipping. Always went swimming nude."

Kirchner's daring depictions of prostitutes and the street life of Berlin and Dresden in the early 1900s illustrated a frenetic, modern world.

The style, known as Expressionism, was pioneered by Kirchner and a small collective of artists who called themselves Die Brucke (German for "The Bridge") -- a link from classical art to the avant garde.

The art was frantic. They worked extremely fast -- sometimes taking just 15 minutes to capture a scene. The images distorted physical reality for emotional effect.

"The idea was to move quickly, capture it quickly," said Robison. "Capture life while it's on the run, you know. And that sense of joy, sense of love of life is very much characteristic of Kirchner, certainly until the First World War."

That's when Kirchner's life took a dark turn. He joined the German army, but found life in uniform too rigid, too constrained. A mental breakdown got him discharged. A morphine and alcohol addiction would haunt him for life.

He sought help at a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps. The cold, dry air in Davos, Switzerland, was considered therapeutic.

Kirchner's health improved, and he later moved into a house in Davos, which doubled as his studio.

The calm lifestyle in Davos, up in the mountains and far away from city life, was healing for Kirchner. It marked an artistic rebirth, showcased at the Kirchner Museum in Davos.

Majestic mountain views inspired him, and the unusual color choices exploded off the page.

"You can see that he is painting the mountain in purple color, and we have blue mountains, we have the colors of autumn over here and we have a very colorful depiction of the city," said museum director Thorsten Sadowsky.

summer-in-davos-ernst-kirchner-620.jpg
"Summer in Davos" by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Kirchner Museum

The Nazis confiscated or destroyed 600 pieces of his work, and rich clients stopped buying.

"Now he's being called un-German," said the National Gallery's Andrew Robison. "His works are being removed, some are being destroyed. They're being cleaned out of Germany so that in his own country his work will not be known. That was for him an enormous problem."

He was, said Robison,"diminished, totally."

In March of 1938, the Nazis invaded nearby Austria, and Kirchner felt besieged.

"The Nazis were 12 miles away from Davos," said Robison. "Kirchner is sitting there in his mountain house with his paintings and his drawings, his prints, his sculpture and so forth, and he got more and more this idea, 'My God, they're 12 miles away and they've destroyed my art in Germany and now they're coming for me.'"


It was better to destroy his own artwork, Kirchner thought, rather than let the Germans do it. "Not only his art; he would destroy his art before they had the chance, and he would destroy himself," said Robison.

He tried to persuade his long-time girlfriend, Erna, to commit a joint suicide. She refused, but couldn't stop him.

"And then he went outside of the house and she heard two shots, and that was it," said Robison. "Shot himself in the heart."

Kirchner was just 58 years old.

He and Erna are buried side by side near their former home. But his artistic legacy has only grown.

One of his surviving paintings -- a street scene in Berlin -- sold in 2006 for $38 million dollars.

And in Germany, a country whose rejection tortured him, Kirchner is now revered as one of its greatest modern artists.


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