Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Drawings

by Donald Goddard

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Kirchner made about 20,000 drawings during his working life, almost two a day (from about 1900 through 1938). Only 41 are in this show, but I would be happy to see all 20,000. The process probably involved bursts of activity, but still must have been fairly continuous. Above all, Kirchner was aware of the possibilities, and that there are more lines in life than can ever be comprehended (lines, anyway, being a conceit of art). The drawings are firmly planted in this world, the artist's immediate life, specifically where he was or chose to be at any given moment, not in some universal space, nor in universal signs and mythologies. Everything is in motion--people, their surroundings, himself--so drawing is a method of approximating, of stabbing at what is there. Nature is translated immediately into gesture and line, which are its equivalents. There is no artist whose drawings more occupy the paper, just as mountains, people, trees, and buildings occupy the world. In that sense they are more like children's drawings than any other artist's--my house, my cats, the tree in my yard, the moon in my sky, me.

Nothing is wasted or embellished. In Young Nude Woman in a Tub of 1914, the lines indicate the circular shape of the tub, the body of the sitting woman, her sex, her knees bent and head turned slightly downward, a chair and perhaps table behind her, little else. Shapes repeat and echo one another: shoulders and tub, head and chair back, breast and chair seat. We are intensely aware of the paper's blankness, and that what has been put there, or has emerged there, uniquely belongs to that space. The motif could not be simpler, nor the drawing more rudimentary, yet both are visually and emotionally complex. Curved lines billow outward to utterly command the space within the rectangle of the paper. The figure herself is completely engaged, evincing an expressive wholeness and self-regard, touching her left foot with her right hand, curling her left arm under he left knee, gazing downward intently where her right arm and left leg converge. She was not sitting for a portrait, as indeed few of Kirchner's subjects were, just acting through a moment, something like Degas' bathers but in a far more stringent and abstracted language. It is nothing but a drawing, and therefore nothing but the artist.

In a sense, Kirchner's drawings are like caricatures, in that they use minimal means to capture the salient characteristics of a bather, dancer, shepherd, mountainside, city street. Caricature became important in the politically scathing work of George Grosz, Otto Dix, and other German artists during the 1920s. But Kirchner wasn't so much interested in typing his subjects as in their immanence, their closeness to his own awareness represented by the flat rectangle of the paper--their authentication of his consciousness. Whereas the drawing of 1914 achieves this with a flowering of arcing lines, Conversation in the Shadow of Buildings of 1926 does it with a more complicated triangulation of motifs--the two women and the cat and the actual triangle of the shadow that connects the figures. We look first at the woman on the left, because she is looking out, then at the woman she is looking at, who seems to anchor the center, then, almost reluctantly because it introduces another kind of consciousness, at the cat. The shadow plunges as a perspective convergence into the background, where a shower of green and blue chalk strokes cascades forward, with the cat, toward the women, seeming to encompass them, and the shadow in its reverse course encompasses them. Like a Cubist double face, a smaller profile appears within the face of the woman on the left, and looks toward the cat. All this might seem quite trivial--the women in conversation, the ordinary surroundings, the appearance of the cat--were it not that all these elements merge so dramatically through the rough geometry and swarming draftsmanship of the picture. The force of communication, projected inward and outward, toward us, is startling.

During the 1930s, Kirchner's work became more lyrical, even as Europe devolved and his own illness and despair grew, leading to his suicide in 1938. Living in Switzerland from 1917 on, he managed some city scenes--in Davos, Bern, Frankfurt--but was mostly immersed in the country around him, the mountains, forests, and farmland near Davos. Increasingly, he drew in a kind of shorthand, suggesting movement, space, figure, character, and emotion in a more or less intricate interplay of linear notations and patterns ranging from ephemeral to insistent, or containing both at once. Some drawings, with delicate outlines and thin washes, barely exist. Others are scrawled onto the page in bold rhyming configurations. The seemingly simple collation of signs in Balcony Scene of 1935 contains multitudes. Trees are like jagged rows of cursive writing. The umbrella is a flat triangle. The shade it casts is a parallelogram of parallel diagonal lines. The man's head is a dome. The chairs on either side parenthesize the scene and the relationship between the man and the woman. There is a constant interpenetration of one entity, one area of definition, into another, so that while everything is separable and distinct it is also interconnected with everything else, often humorously. The line of trees in the distance, for instance, begins at the woman's head and curls around to eventually pass by the man's head. The umbrella sprouts out of the man's head. The parallel lines of the shade are interrupted by another configuration of parallel lines comprising not shade but the balcony fence, and then are doubled up under the woman's chair to fall more darkly on the dog lying on the deck. The man and woman are contained by their chairs and the mountains behind them, which slope down to meet at the house at the center, presumably the couple's common ground. The heart formed in the man's face is a play on a Cubist double face, and perhaps an expression of his feelings for the woman. For Kirchner, drawing was an integration of contradictions, which, perhaps in his own life, and certainly in the world, seemed impossible without brute force.

Donald Goddard © 2005

The exhibition was at Michael Werner, 4 East 77th Street, New York, NY 10021.
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