Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880 - 1938) This article is about Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a bohemian German artist, a painter and printmaker, who is credited with being part of a movement (epitomised by Die Brücke - or ‘The Bridge’ in English - because it spanned the gap between the old and the
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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880 - 1938)

By Paul Dunwell, writing for EasyFrame
© Copyright EasyFrame 2020

What This Article is About

This article is about Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a bohemian German artist, a painter and printmaker, who is credited with being part of a movement (epitomised by Die Brücke - or ‘The Bridge’ in English - because it spanned the gap between the old and the new worlds) that developed a home-grown German expressionism and abstract art.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner working

Left: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner working, naked, in his studio in 1915. Centre: The artist as a soldier. Also painted in 1915. Note his right hand is, for the purpose of this portrait, oddly missing. Right: Kirchner in 1919.

Unfortunately Kirchner had the misfortune to do so at a time when his homeland was either at war or being irrevocably driven towards it by the lunatic Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP to Germans but what English-speakers call Nazis). Kirchner‘s brief personal experience of World War One, coupled with what we’d now recognise as the PTSD that sprang from it and an antipathy for the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and all that entailed (including the treatment of people that didn’t conform with its faux Aryan wholesomeness), led him to have a perpetual struggle with drink and drugs that culminated in the artist blowing his own head off with a weapon on the eve of World War Two.

By the time he died Kirchner had seen his work exhibited, alongside that of other artists in 1937, as that of an ‘unGerman’ degenerate. A special show of 650 works had been mounted by Adolf Ziegler, Hitler’s favourite painter and a politician who was tasked by the Nazi party to oversee a purge of what it saw as degenerate art. For Kirchner, who had spent his working life trying to create art of which Germans should be proud, this would have been deeply insulting. Yet he did enjoy recognition and commercial success in his time, with his work even then being shown around the world. Though, of course, ultimately the Nazis and their Axis partners were beaten in 1945 so that today Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is rightly recognised for his ground-breaking contribution to culture.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Education and Influences

Kirchner was born in Bavaria, and was descended from Prussians (you can’t get more German) and Huguenots (famously-victimised during the 16th and 17th centuries, they were French protestants and this personal link would have chimed with the artist when, in the 1930s, he realised the Jews were being similarly persecuted by the Nazis). His father became a Professor of Paper Sciences in a college. Both parents encouraged young Kirchner’s art but all agreed that he should earn a formal qualification so he studied to be an architect at Dresden and, though he also had a spell in Munich, earned his degree there in 1905. The course, like many architectural courses today, had anyway developed his artistic skills and knowledge of art history.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Painting

Left: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s ‘Davos in Summer’ (1925). Centre: ‘Archers’ (1935 -1937). Right: ‘Street, Berlin’ - featuring prostitutes - (1913).

Influences included:

  • The other three artists who set up the group known as Die Brücke. All were also students of architecture. So Hilmar Friedrich Wilhelm Bleyl (more often known simply as Fritz Bleyl), a German expressionist graphic designer whom Kirchner met at university. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff who was also, like Kirchner, a painter and printmaker. And Erich Heckel, again a painter and printmaker
  • A trio of 15th – 16th century German renaissance painters and printmakers, viz Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald whose works are often confused with those of Dürer, and Lucas Cranach the Elder
  • The 17th century Dutch draughtsman, painter and printmaker Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

  • Contemporary international avant-garde movements epitomised by exponents such as:
    • The Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler who switched mid-career from realism to symbolism
    • The Belgian Art Nouveau architect, designer and painter Henry van de Velde
    • The Swiss expressionist painter, sculptor, draftsman, graphic and glass artist Albert Müller
    • The Swiss expressionist painter and sculptor Hermann Scherer
    • The Swiss expressionist painter, architect and illustrator Paul Camenisch
    • The German abstract and ‘Art Informel’ style painter Fritz Winter
    • The Swiss-born German expressionist, surrealist and cubist artist Paul Klee
    • The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painting

Left: ‘Marzella’ (1909-1910). Centre: ‘Standing Nude with Hat’ (1910). Right: ‘Vier Holzplastiken’ (which translates to ‘The Four Wooden Sculptures’) (1912).

Kirchner’s Association with Die Brücke. And Non-Association with Rot Blau.

The four artists who formed Die Brücke were, at the time, proud of Germany and of being German. They wished to affirm their national heritage and revive older media e.g. woodcut prints. They declared in a prospectus that they were artists who wanted freedom in their work and in their lives, coupled with independence from older established forces. In fact Die Brücke was dissolved in 1913, just before World War One started, perhaps in no small part because of anti-German sentiment and a loss of pride by the artists in their own country.

So what happened to the members? Fritz Bleyl left the group after only a couple of years when he got married and stopped exhibiting his work. It seems likely that he was intimidated by the ultra-right. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel both later had their work, as did Kirchner, selected by Adolf Ziegler for Die Ausstellung Entartete Kunst (or, in English, ‘The Degenerate Art Exhibition‘).

Under the Nazis (remember they took power in 1933, six years before world War Two) Kirchner was forced to resign from the Prussian Academy of Arts. And then the Academy of Arts in Berlin expelled him as a member. Schmidt-Rottluff was likewise expelled from the Prussian Academy of Arts as well as the painters’ guild and banned from painting. Some of Erich Heckel’s work was barred from public display by the Dresden police and a lot of it was torn out of galleries and museums to be destroyed.

Despite this, Kirchner was the only one of the four artists in Die Brücke who did not survive World War Two.

It is perhaps also useful to speak of a second avant-garde group, known as ‘Rot Blau’ (or, in English, ‘Red Blue’). Kirchner was pressed by some of his friends (principally Schmidt-Rottluff) to join this group - which was based in Basel, Switzerland - between 1925 and 1929, when he was so upset by the group pledging allegiance to him that he wrote an open letter to it telling it that he didn’t want to be associated with it and refused to be its patron. It is likely that this was because, if Germany invaded Switzerland, he’d be a target there too.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner paintings

Left: ‘Nollendorfplatz’ (1912). Centre: ‘Portrait of a Woman’ (1911). Right: ‘Potzdanerplatz’ (1914).

Kirchner on the Nazis

But his feelings towards Red Blue were warm compared to those he had for Hitler and his cronies.

Of the Nazi influence on his legacy, the country he loved and its people, Kirchner wrote ‘Here we have been hearing terrible rumours about torture of the Jews, but it’s all surely untrue. I’m a little tired and sad about the situation up there. There is a war in the air. In the museums, the hard-won cultural achievements of the last 20 years are being destroyed, and yet the reason why we founded the Brücke was to encourage truly German art, made in Germany. And now it is supposed to be un-German. Dear God. It does upset me’.

Mental Illness and Scandalous Behaviour

The artist knew war. He had broken from art to volunteer for the German artillery in 1914, and was a driver, but within a year or so suffered from a mental breakdown so was invalided out and sent for treatment. This treatment was to continue for many years (interestingly he seemed largely better after 1920 though some close to him always expected Kirchner to commit suicide) and he was certainly put on both oxycodone (one and a half times as strong as morphine) and veronal (a barbiturate often used by Jews and Japanese in that era to commit suicide). Kirchner was a hard drinker too, and had problems specifically caused by smoking.

But it didn’t end there. Kirchner certainly lived a rather dissolute and bohemian lifestyle. It was common knowledge that his studio was not only a place where artists would model nude but where the artists would be naked too. So sexual congress - if not orgies - was commonplace. One of the models, Isabella, was only 15. Others such as Doris Große became perpetual lovers. And, of course, many of Kirchner’s subjects were sex-workers. He had a life partner in Erna Schilling but it seems that she had to accept his dalliances with other women, notably a dancer called Nina Hand who was moved into their home despite Erna’s protestations.

None of the above would have recommended him to the Nazis, of course. Though he was commercially successful. That’s because not everyone agreed that his work was a blight on Germany.

Preoccupation with Switzerland and the Swiss

Kirchner found something of a haven in Switzerland, loving the country and its people. He particularly liked Davos. In the end, and three months after the Germans invaded Austria, his fears that they would also invade Switzerland prompted him to take his own life in front of his home. Assumedly he’d gone outside rather than despoil it.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner paintings

Left: ‘Brandenburger Tor’ (1915). Centre: ‘The Sleigh Ride’ (1923). Right: ‘View of Basel and the Rhine’ (1927-1928).


n summary Kirchner was a pivotal artist who abhorred genocide and resisted all that the Nazis stood for, ultimately paying with his life.

There are many sources online of unframed Kirchner prints. See as an example.

You’ll want to frame whatever you buy. Any good framers will be able to show you a vast range of different solutions and advise on what might be the most suitable given the work and its proposed location.

EasyFrame is on 01234 856 501 and / or and they’ll always chat even if you don’t want to buy!

Article Posted: 28/08/2020 18:01:42

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