Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Self Portrait as a Soldier 1915
Oil on canvas, 69 x 61 cm

Royal Academy, London
June 2003

The show focused on his work between 1908 and 1918 and concentrated in particular on his depiction of street scenes in Berlin and how he used these as a mirror of human psychology. Although some of these works are more melancholic than celebratory I have chosen the last painting in the exhibition and the one that made the biggest impact on me.

In 1915 Kirchner volunteered for the army as an artilleryman in order to avoid being drafted as an infantryman in the trenches, but his deepening personal crisis led to a physical and psychological breakdown. It was while he was recuperating at a Swiss sanatorium that he painted this haunting graphic self portrait.

Thin and gaunt, he stares out of the canvas with an unfocussed gaze, cigarette dangling from his lips and the bloodied gangrenous stump of his painting hand, raised for all to see.

The paint is applied evenly with powerful expressive brushstrokes that are short cross hatching and look very rapid in their execution. His flesh tones are a sickly yellow and outlined in black. The greens in the background contrast and emphasise the strength and variety of vivid reds.

The space in the painting is very claustrophobic, accentuated by the sharp converging diagonals, but it is his imaginary amputation that is the most striking metaphor for loss. He is clearly expressing his concern for his creativity, artistic vision, and inspiration, and perhaps even his ability to paint. The nude woman in the background seems to refer to his pre-war work and is perhaps an additional metaphor representing something that is now “behind him” or perhaps specifically the loss of his potency and manhood.

Fittingly it was the final painting in the exhibition, as although he continued to work after 1915, his painting, perhaps understandably, lacked the expressive resonance of his images of pre-war life in Berlin.

©blackdog 2009

1 comment:

  1. Your interpretation is informative, careful, and sensitive- I think the 'depictured situation and mood of the painter EK (we see his atelier full of paintings and his model while turning her face away from him) as soldier -staying at home- (1915) has been very well described and interpreted, yes, what is a painter full of ideas and visions, but without his hand? I notice the dominant of the blood -red colours, the "sickly yellow" (also in the Expressionistic poetry we find words like that, e.g. the poisonous green...)! The message of this painting cannot be ignored- one of the most impressive and moving anti-war-paintings indeed!

    In a German interpretation I read some information which could be interesting for you:
    EK. "wurde zur Feldartillerie einberufen, wurde jedoch bald lungenkrank und depressiv, und im Oktober 1915 verschlechterte sich sein Gesundheitszustand dermaßen, daß er ins Hinterland verlegt werden mußte. In seinem Berliner Atelier zurück, malte er zwei Selbstbildnisse: eins als niedergeschlagener Trinker, das andere als Soldat. Die an die Wände gelehnten Bilder und das Aktmodell kennzeichnen eindeutig den Ort und seine Funktion: Hier in diesem Atelier hatte Kirchner zuvor seine äußerst satirischen Szenen aus dem alltäglichen Leben gemalt. Aber ist der im Vordergrund Abgebildete noch dieser Maler? Er trägt die Uniform und das Käppi des 75. Artillerieregiments, in dem der Künstler gedient hat. Statt einer den Pinsel haltenden Hand, streckt er einen blutigen, am Gelenk abgerissenen Armstumpf vor. Die Verstümmelung ist symbolisch: Dieser Mann kann nicht mehr malen, das Modell kleidet sich umsonst vor ihm aus. Kirchner hatte keine derartige Verwundung davongetragen. Nach physischer und psychischer Genesung nahm er seine Arbeit wieder auf. Jedoch nahm sein Leben ein tragisches Ende: Von den Nazis verfolgt beging er 1938 Selbstmord."