You could be forgiven for drawing a connection between Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s shocking colour palette and his character. It would be understandable enough, considering his problems with morphine, Veronal and absinthe; the nervous breakdown precipitated by his artillery training in World War I, and his many long hospital stays afterward; his bohemian relations with women and girls; his falling-out with the three other members of Die Brücke, the Dresden club that was a driving force, alongside Munich’s Der Blaue Reiter, in originating German Expressionism; the dates he altered on some paintings, to make himself seem even more innovative than he already was; his wavering ambivalence about National Socialism; and his suicide in 1938, at the age of 58, after the Nazis had denounced him and most other modern artists as “degenerates.”

But to linger on Kirchner’s lurid biography would be unfair to the mesmerising technical genius of his style, amply on display in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the Neue Galerie’s generous and essential overview of a peripatetic and unconventional career. Surrounding more or less sober portrait subjects with backgrounds of flat but brilliant colour, as Kirchner did, wasn’t just a youthful revolt against the staid academic painting of the late 19th century, or a bid to put German visual culture on the map. (Of course, it did those, too.) It was also an ingenious way to articulate subjective experience in an increasingly materialist modern world.

At first, Kirchner worked to capture mood and life force by turning real colours up to unreal volumes. The subject of his Portrait of Hans Frisch, from around 1907, sprawls across a patterned sofa in a tightly buttoned indigo suit. Think of the first icy trickle of water in a riotous springtime brook. Everything is rendered with the same impatient dashes, but while Frisch himself is an orderly chorus of lighter or darker blues, the sofa beneath him is a cacophony of olives, scarlets and pale, bilious yellows. Thoughtfully covering his mouth with one hand, Frisch seems touched by this chaos only in one motley shadowed cheek.

Because he’s the only real content of the picture, though, you can’t read the noise or colour as pertaining to anything but him. Maybe it represents an emotional turmoil Frisch is spending no small effort to contain. Maybe it’s that same turmoil colouring his own vision of the world around him. Either way, Kirchner powerfully dramatizes the lonely gulf between what we feel and what we can see.

The evocative split is still more drastic in Two Nudes, a thickly crusted, brightly speckled oil painting inhabited by a pair of women who share a single rolling cloud of blue-black hair. One, seen from behind, is perfectly formed. You can admire the curve of her upper thigh and find a circular eddy of force in her lower back. The other, though more fully exposed, is vaguer. Her right flank seems to be floating up and away from her left. But her face is a precise map of exaggerated dots, and her gaze misses nothing. She’s a psyche contemplating her own mortal form.

Of course, subjective experience doesn’t always stay on the inside. In 1911, Kirchner moved from Dresden to Berlin, where he studied the night life, struggled with addiction, and focused his efforts on the subtle emotional currents that arise between and among people. In Berlin Street Scene (1913-14) black-clad johns and colourful streetwalkers flicker like burning driftwood as they size up one another for tawdry encounters without ever meeting eyes. Excitement, danger, and braggadocio hang in the air, all distinctly disembodied. The etching “Cocottes at Night” captures this same social dance as a nightmare of movement and tension, a lightning storm of jagged lines.

Lying prone on a red Persian carpet meanwhile, the subject of Girl in White Chemise (1914) keeps her legs slightly crossed. To her left, the carpet’s pattern fades away like a mountainscape in the distance; to her right sits a record player, one more option for an evening’s entertainment. With her heavily made-up face turned toward the viewer, she gives a sumptuous display of professional submission. Kirchner captures her ritual sexiness exactly, the playful but rigid quality of earnest deceit. But he gives us no idea what she’s thinking.

In 1918, after spending most of World War I in Swiss sanitariums, Kirchner moved to a little farmhouse just outside the resort town of Davos. It would be his refuge for two decades, the place where he made some of his most important work, and the future site of the Kirchner Museum. Even as his health and reputation deteriorated—and the Nazis moved closer to the Swiss border in the lead-up to World War II—he painted idyllic mountain landscapes that combined the numinous presence of his portraits with the quivering energy of his crowd scenes.

None of these is better than Life in the Alps, a triptych in which men with flashing silver scythes and a woman carrying a rake converge on a small herd of golden cattle. Blue mountains, green pastures, and little red houses all nestle under an enormous, yolky sun close enough to touch.

Shallow perspective makes farmers and mountains look about the same size, lending the men monumental eternity and the landscape homespun life. Unmodulated colours—the way the glowing blue of the slopes lies hard against the emerald pasture—crowds everything together like a happy family. The scribbly dissolution of Kirchner’s brush strokes means that every patch of colour is a new field of action, a dense array of lines communicating the painter’s rush of enthusiasm as well as the bracing sensual overload of natural life under alpine light.

© 2019 The New York Times


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