E. L. KIRchner: Online exhibition for the 85th DEADDAY

"An 'Ascender' from Dark Earth to Sunny Existence".

Kirchner's last pictures, between despair and confidence.

The 85th anniversary of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's death will be in 2023 - the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive is taking this as an opportunity to dedicate an online exhibition to the artist.The Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive on the artist's complete works has been built up since 1978 by Dr. Wolfgang Henze and Ingeborg Henze Ketterer and has been located in Wichtrach/Bern since 1993.

The online exhibition makes use of the archive's rich sources and accompanies Kirchner's "last pictures" with passages from his letters to revive the events of the last years 1937/38 in Davos and the world on the anniversary of his death.

In the years 1937 and 1938, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, despite the internal and external circumstances of his life(s), was extremely active, creating significant works, consolidating his artistic self-image and steadily developing his painting until his abrupt death on June 15, 1938.

The online exhibition is curated by Patrick Urwyler.

Work image: Shepherds in the Evening (E. L. Kirchner and Erna), 1937, oil on canvas (private collection)
‍Citation: Letter to Gustav Schiefler Davos, July 29, 37
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner The Sensations woodcut

The sensations

50 x 36,9 cm on 60,5 x 43,5
Gercken 1783; Dube H 673 II
(Galerie Henze & Ketterer, Wichtrach/Bern)

On chamois China. One of 4 prints by the artist known so far. On the reverse with the estate stamp with the designation "H Da/Bk 27 II" in ink and "K 5526" and "C 3265" in pencil.

The last two creative years 1937/38 of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner were an up and down, characterized by despair, restlessness and anger followed by phases of hope, harmony and confidence.

Programmatically reflected in the woodcut "The Sensations" the emotional world of the artist as a reaction to the events of the turbulent year 1937. In this year Kirchner sold in Switzerland, has a first major museum exhibition in the U.S. (Institute of Art in Detroit), even the MOMA contacted him. He has a major exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel, but the desired success fails to materialize; in Germany, his art is banned from museums and pilloried by the National Socialists in the "Degenerate" art exhibition (the "Degenerate Art" confiscation inventory currently lists 748 works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner).

Only a few kilometers from Austria as the crow flies, World War II is literally at Kirchner's door. In his house on Wildboden, he has also been waging his own inner battle against illness and drug abuse for years. At his side is Erna Schilling, who cares for and supports her longtime partner.

As different as the events of 1937 are, the emotional world of the protagonist in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's woodcut also changes: from the left still the enthusiasm in recourse to the Nietzschean adorant of the Brücke-beginning, higher to the right already the despair, below further to the right retreating surprise and right above asking questions.

Degenerate Art, Munich 1937

Film: excerpt from the documentary "Degenerate Art" by Julien Bryan, 1937
Source: (Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., Julien Bryan Collection-March 13, 2014).

"An 'Ascender' from Dark Earth to Sunny Existence".

In many letters from 1937, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner expressed concern about what was happening in Germany, especially with regard to himself as an artist. In addition to the banishment of his paintings, Kirchner was also expelled from the Prussian Academy in July '37.

In the letter of July 29, 1937, to Luise Schiefler, Kirchner describes a new painting and, with some pathos, probably himself as "an 'ascender' from dark earth to sunny existence." The letter begins gloomily and reads in places like a self-penned obituary - but then ends with new images and thus a certain confidence for the future:

"The future is quite dark ahead. How the recent events will affect us abroad is not yet known. They will damage the reputation of the entire German art, that is the regrettable and sad thing. We have already had five years of hardship as a result of the foreign exchange embargo. If necessary, I will sacrifice my life for the sake of art. I have a clear conscience and have always given the best of my work to others. A valid value judgment will only be possible long after us, because the new in spiritual things is never properly understood at the time in which it is created.

How was Rembrandt, how Dürer, Franz Hals died in the poorhouse. How many artists of old and new direction do not starve today? In all countries. But there is only one thing, continue to create with all your strength. I am with great pictures. A 'Rising' from dark earth to sunny existence. A 'Midsummer Night's Dream' and others."

Note to original document: whereabouts of original not known. Published in: Henze, Wolfgang (ed.), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Gustav Schiefler, Briefwechsel 1910-1935/1938, Stuttgart 1993, no. 626. Davos, 29 July 37.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner portrait
Self-portrait in front of the Wilboden house after 1935 (Kirchner Archive Wichtrach)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Emporsteigender woodcut


50.0 x 36.8 cm on 55.8 x 41.1 cm
Gercken 1785; Dube H 675 I
(Galerie Henze & Ketterer, Wichtrach/Bern)

On solid China. One of 3 prints by the artist known so far. Inscribed by the artist in pencil at lower left "1st proof". On the reverse with the estate stamp and the inscription "H Da/Bk 26 I" and with the numbers "K 5650" and "5281" in pencil.

The aforementioned "large pictures" are often preceded by Kirchner's studies (cf. info box "Pen and ink drawing") and an examination of other techniques, as exemplified by this woodcut "Emporsteigender", which is dedicated to the allegory of the "Ascent". The woodcut is also the last in the catalog raisonné (Dube H 675 / Gercken 1785).

The subject of the woodcut was part of Kirchner's design for the decoration of the banqueting hall of the Museum Folkwang in Essen. The execution was rejected by the new director, who was close to the National Socialists, which disappointed Kirchner greatly. In 1937, with the woodcut and the painting mentioned in the letter to Hagemann, Kirchner finally completed this cycle, which was so important to him:

"The Ascent. Shall show the development of man to man. The ascending man below the lower stages of development struggle and love. The child running along, always accompanying him above the sun and quiet couples in the light. The picture belonged to the cycle of the large wall of the hall. Now I paint it so on 150 x 200 cm."

Our knowledge of the mentioned painting "150 x 200 cm" is based solely on the letters and a photo of Kirchner in his photo album (see info box "Paintings"). In the letter to the Kunsthalle Basel dated 26.10.1937 on the occasion of the solo exhibition in November 1937, the painting is titled "Aufsteigender" in Kirchner's list of works, but crossed out by hand, which means that it was not sent to Basel in the end - and this is where the trace of this nevertheless so central work of 1937 gets lost.

Such documented paintings could be, as it has often happened especially with Kirchner, on not yet known backs of other paintings or lie under an overpainting.

Note on the original document: original in the possession of the Max Beckmann Archive, on permanent loan from the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung. Published in: Delfs, Hans et al. (eds.), Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, Nay. Briefe an den Sammler und Mäzen Carl Hagemann, Ostfildern 2004, no. 827. Handwritten letter, eight pages.

Note on the original document: original in the Staatsarchiv des Kantons Basel-Stadt, Bestand PA 888a N6(1)328 1937/8, typescript, handwritten additions by Kirchner printed in italics, two pages. The document was enclosed with letter no. 3439.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner allegory painting

Allegory (Rising)

195 x 150 cm
Oil on canvas.
Gordon 1004
(location unknown)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner pen drawing

Study for "The Ascent"

In the letter from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to Carl Hagemann dated April 29, 1937

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Midsummer Night's Dream painting

Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream

Oil on canvas
196 x 150 cm
Gordon 1005
(Galerie Henze & Ketterer, Wichtrach/Bern)

On the back with the estate stamp and numbering "KN-Da/Bk 2". In the original Kirchner frame.

Among the "large paintings" Kirchner mentions in his letters in 1937 is the painting "Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream". He mentions working on it in a letter to Gustav Schiefler dated July 29, 1937. Just as the lost painting "Aufsteigender" brought his subject to a close, Kirchner's Midsummer Night's Dream corresponded to a final examination of a (large-format) image from literature.

In contrast to his "Brücke" colleagues, Kirchner repeatedly ventured into the exceptionally large format of two meters in height or width, the first time as early as 1908 and 1909, then once or twice a year. In the 1930s there were even more, as if Kirchner himself had anticipated in his "New Style" this tendency of the years after 1945 towards the large format, namely that of the American Abstract Expressionists, who owed their success not only to the high intensity of their painting, but also to the fact that they realized it in very large formats. In total, there were about thirty such large formats, one of them triple as a triptych and three in the excess width of four meters.

Kirchner created his very large formats mostly as the conclusion and culmination of the long series of a fundamental preoccupation with a particular theme. This painting is the final of his interpretations of individual episodes but also entire plots from literature, which occupied him from the beginning of his art around 1905, a true "Midsummer Night's Dream".

View of the Wildbodenhaus, Frauenkirch, DavosKirchnerMuseum Davos, donation Ernst Ludwig Kirchner estate 2001, inv. no. 2./23L

Erna and Ernst - The balance at Wildbodenhaus, 1937

1937 was marked by world events and the activities of the National Socialists - in the Wildbodenhaus in Frauenkirch near Davos, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was on the road to recovery in the middle of the year. Through the care and support of his partner Erna Schilling, he slowly recovered from a dangerous intestinal disease and created new strength, which found expression not only in allegorical motifs and literature, but also in the motif world of the mountains that surrounded Ernst and Erna.

His position as a painter in the letter to Gustav Schiefler still self-confidently proclaiming, it is undisputed from today's perspective that Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is one of the most important and innovative painters of the representation of the Swiss mountain world.

"I am better now, I am slowly recovering from the severe illness of winter and spring. In May I still thought it would be my last, now I hope for a few more years of creating.

There is still so much to do and the forces are still so weak. I paint completely from the head now. Two shepherds on the mountainside, behind them the herd of cows running downhill. You can only do something like this from your head when you're an old man, but I'm glad that I got this far after all.

That's what I always admired so much about Böcklin. Only for us, we no longer need Greek gods to create life likenesses. Segantini already knew that, too, and Hodler."

Note to original document: whereabouts of original not known. Published in: Henze, Wolfgang (ed.), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Gustav Schiefler, Briefwechsel 1910-1935/1938, Stuttgart 1993, no. 626. Davos, 29 July 37.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Shepherds In The Evening Letter
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner letter
Note on the original document: original in the possession of the Max Beckmann Archive, on permanent loan from the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung. Published in: Delfs, Hans et al. (eds.), Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, Nay ... Briefe an den Sammler und Mäzen Carl Hagemann, Ostfildern 2004, No. 868. Handwritten letter, four pages.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Shepherds in the evening

Shepherds in the evening
(E. L. Kirchner and Erna)

Oil on canvas
120 x 90cm
Gordon 1008
(private collection)

Upper right incised signed "E. L. Kirchner", upper left incised monogrammed "K"; signed on the reverse and dated "37".
In imitation Florentine frame by Renz.

In your biography of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the Kirchner Museum in Davos mentions the painting "Shepherds in the Evening" as a major work of the year 1937.

The art historian Anton Henze sees the "Shepherds in the Evening" as a "Creative summary [...] everything is gathered: the figure of the foreground, which dominates the picture to the upper edge, as in the Berlin years, the luminous Alpine landscape and the herd that Kirchner discovered on the Stafelalp. [...] Unmistakable in the formal composition, finally, memories of the large surfaces of the so-called carpet style. The parts close together in a harmony to the whole, which is new. The large-scale becomes beautiful, nature becomes a symbol."

A biographical interpretation is provided by Kirchner scholar Roland Scotti, who identifies the two shepherds as Erna and Ernst and as a projection showing "the dignified aged 'special people' at the evening of their lives, at the end of their collaboration."
Roman Norbert Ketterer supports the interpretation and mentions in his book some passages from letters by Kirchner, in which the artist confirms the view of his relationship with Erna Schilling:

"When two people go together for life, they make an agreement to achieve a goal. The goal with us is and was to reach the greatest and highest level in painting and sculpture [...]. I have the feeling of infinite gratitude towards this woman [...] but love... I don't have that, I can't have that. This feeling is absorbed in my activity."

Anton Henze, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Leben und Werk, Stuttgart, Zürich: Belser, 1980, page 84.

Roland Scotti, Erna und Ernst sind im Bilde. Iconography and Reality, in Magazine IV, Erna and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Ein Künstlerpaar, ed. by Kirchner Museum Davos, 2003, pp. 37-48.

Roman Norbert Ketterer, Legenden am Auktionspult. Die Wiederentdeckung des deutschen Expressionismus, edited by Prof. Dr. Dr Gerd Presler, Ketterer Kunst Verlag, 1999, p. 284.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner photo portrait
Erna Schilling photo
Self portrait after 1935 (Kirchner Museum Davos)
Portrait of Erna Schilling on the veranda in front of the Wildbodenhaus after 1934 (Kirchner Museum Davos)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner mountain studio painting

Mountain studio

Oil on canvas
120 x 90cm
Gordon 1002
(Kirchner Museum Davos)

Front: upper right incised "E. L. Kirchner" and "K", upper left incised "K"; back signed "35", KN-Da/Ad 3. In original artist's frame.

The "Mountain Studio" is another main painting from 1937. As with the "Shepherds in the Evening" Kirchner also draws a balance with the mountain studio, but with a different focus, "it [the picture] brings summarily in the interior of the Wildbodenhaus, the union of art and life to view," writes Thorsten Sadowsky in the last chapter of his book "Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Weg ins Gebirge".

"The perspective aligned walls appear with the strong zigzag pattern like a screen, which carefully arranged presents decisive stations from the life and work of the artist. As in Kirchner's street scenes (see picture gallery below), the triangle appears as the dominant geometric form. In contrast, the circle in the form of a target symbolizes Kirchner's lifelong enthusiasm for archery and dynamic movement. The truncated painting "Balcony Scene" from 1935 refers to Kirchner's physician Dr. Frédéric Bauer, while the wooden sculpture with farmer and cow appears as a tribute to the simple life in the mountains.

The relationship of man and nature is present through the open door, which provides a view of the mountain world. In the center - as if on a peep-box stage - the artist presents himself half-obscured by the profile of his companion; the central motif in the depth of the stage, however, is the exemplary painting "Red-Haired Naked Woman" from 1925/26."

Life and art have become a room picture. Everything is parable and the world is a living room.

Thorsten Sadowsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Weg ins Gebirge, Klinkhardt & Bierman Vverlag, 2017, p.46.
The Street
Oil on canvas
120.6 × 91.1 cm
Gordon 364
(Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Oil on canvas
195 × 130 cm
Gordon 994
(Kirchner Museum Davos)
Balcony scene
Oil on canvas
135 x 177 cm
Gordon 989
(Kirchner Museum Davos)
Farmer with cow
c. 1925
pine wood, painted
WVZ 1925/02.
44.5 × 47 × 34 cm
(private collection)
Red-haired nude woman
Oil on canvas
Gordon 836
150 x 80 cm
(private collection)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Junkerboden painting

Junker floor

Oil on canvas
60,5 x 70 cm
Gordon 1020
(Kirchner Museum Davos)

Signed and dated "38" in pencil on the reverse, as well as the estate stamp and numbering, KN-Da/Aa 77

The last two years of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's life, however, were marked not only by concluding works and taking stock, but also by experiments and the active continuation of his work.

"Junkerboden from 1938 is imposing because it [the landscape] demonstrates that Kirchner did not give up the claim to renew his own art after all until the last year of his life. [...] 'The joy of color and the possibility of line' Kirchner maintained throughout his life," writes art historian Hyun Ae Lee in her book on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's late work.

"I struggle to create large calm surfaces and deep full colors. [...] I want to give more than just visual experiences."

In Junkerboden he has succeeded in this, Lee writes further, with the concept of the "new Kirchner": "The mixture of observations of nature and fantasy painting. The yellow larches seem like staccato in an inaudible music of the alpine landscape, whose monumentality dances in deep blues and dreamy pinks.

It is a supreme abstraction based on Kirchner's own self-experience as well as fantastic imagination, and admittedly would have been inconceivable without the contribution of modern pictorial language, such as the biomorphic design of Surrealism."

Hyun Ae Lee, Aber ich stelle doch nochmals einen neuen Kirchner aus. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Davos Late Work, Münster/New York/Munich/Berlin , 2008, pp.146-148.
Quote Kirchner from letter to Nele van der Velde, October 13, 1918.
Copyright image: Werner Murrer Frame
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Violet house in front of snow mountain painting

Purple house in front of snow mountain

Oil on canvas
62 x 74 cm
Gordon 1021
(private collection)

On the reverse with the estate stamp and numbering, KN-Da/Aa 62. In the original Kirchner frame.

The painting "Violet House in front of Snow Mountain" also corresponds to a work in the sense of a "new Kirchner". The starting point of the composition is the depiction of the shooting range in Davos Islen against the background of snow-covered ski horns. Kirchner unfolds the architecture so that two sides of the house appear frontally. Despite the high degree of abstraction of his painting in these years, such details as here at the lower right corner of the house appear, a turnstile also folded into the vertical passable for pedestrians, not for cows.

Kirchner thus again starts from a real situation, an eye experience probably on a clear spring morning, as he walked from his house on the Wildboden to Davos. In these years, inspired by scientist friends in Davos, Kirchner was intensively occupied with questions of optics and perception, with auras, which the over-clear light of the great height of Davos caused to appear in the eye around things, with air shadows and reverberation effects of moving objects or people in the eye - all part and repertoire of the program of a "new Kirchner", respectively his "new style".

Here, the central scene of the mountains, the house and the people in front of it is surrounded by a lighter almost circular area, into which the outer darker zones push in some places. Our "round" view of the world, conditioned by the eye and the retina, is intensified here by Kirchner through kaleidoscope-like condensation of forms and colors. The latter are a veritable expressive firework, despite Kirchner's now relatively calmed formal language.

The grandiose composition, surrounded by darkness that tries to penetrate it, seems to threaten the house, people and the pure mountain world. Even in the preparatory works for the painting (see below), the auras, the air shadows, the reverberations in the eye become threatening and take on larger-than-life proportions.

The threat, as mentioned elsewhere, was real. Kirchner's direct involvement as a "degenerate" artist and the fact that on March 13, 1938, his uniformed adversaries were suddenly in Austria, as the crow flies only ten kilometers from his house, brought Kirchner fear and despair.

He immediately removed the red and blue painted wooden figures, which made the artist's house recognizable as such from afar. He also burned all his wooden sticks.

A depression took its inexorable course.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner photography
The sculpture work next to the Wilbbodenhaus.
Photo: Kirchner Museum Davos, inv. no. 1/214 W.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner landscape with house watercolor
Landscape with house
(Violet house in front of snow mountain)

Watercolor, pencil and ink on wove paper
15.5 x 24.5 cm
(private collection)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Violet House Study
Violet house in front of Schneeberg
(study for painting)

Watercolor over pen and brush in ink
35.5 x 47.2 cm
(private collection)
"There is so much beauty in the world, and so few can see. The defamation broke him, and so perhaps he had to go. I desperately looked out to see if no one could come to his aid, I alone was too weak, I could no longer hold him. For four months I fought the battle every day, and now he has gone the last way alone.

Erna Kirchner
Erna Kirchner to Victor von Hämmerli, 20.06.1938. Note on the original document: Original in the Bündner Staatsarchiv. Copies in the Bündner Kunstmuseum Chur. Handwritten letter, two pages.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner floral carpet wall hanging

Flower carpet
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Lise Gujer

Wall hanging
195 x 94 cm
Kornfeld 26 B
(Galerie Henze & Ketterer, Wichtrach/Bern)

Interlocked knitting with linen warp and colored wool weft by Lise Gujer after design by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1938. (Private collection)

The "Flower Carpet" is the last design that Kirchner provided to Lise Gujer before his suicide for realization in the form of a woven carpet. It was completed shortly after his death.

Meadow flowers seen close up like still lifes were often depicted by Kirchner in all techniques in Davos. Here below in the center a large cineraria, above it summer flowers in the meadow and on the mountains primroses. They are stylized into a parable against the suggestion of a mountain range in the background above them.

Kirchner came into early contact with the weaver Lise Gujer in Davos and gave her many designs to implement in the form of woven works. She developed her own handling in the form of knitted carpets, so that the colors of the carpet could develop their full effect. She already had a surprising amount of freedom in her direct collaboration with the artist and continued to work in his spirit even after his death.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner photo with Lise Gujer and Erna Schilling
Erna Kirchner (Schilling) and Lise Gujer on the veranda in front of the Wilboden house 1935
Photo: Kirchner Museum Davos, Inv.-Nr. 143P
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner self-portrait painting

Self portrait

Oil on canvas
84 x 61 cm
n.b. Gordon 020
(Kunstmuseum Chur)

The last "self-portrait" by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was not discovered until years after his death in 1970 under spectacular circumstances in the Chur Art Museum.

The Bündner Kunstmuseum acquired two Kirchner paintings in 1969/70: "Bergwald" and "Augustfeuer". In the case of both paintings, it turned out that they were each mounted over a second canvas and that both front canvases were also painted on the back. In the case of "August Fire", the previously unknown painting "Portrait of Erich Heckel" (1909) was found on the back and the "Self-Portrait" on the canvas underneath.

The Self-Portrait with its controversial dating was last dated by the art historian Hyun Ae Lee to the years 1937/38. In her book, Hyun describes individual interesting details of the painting, such as the "finger sign" of the left hand, which, according to the art historian, can also be found on the poster "Never Again War" by Käthe Kollwitz. Hyun goes on to write, "It [the finger sign] commands a halt and appeals for peace. We find more symbolic representations in the room decor. On the wall hangs a carpet in three primary colors, its ornament obviously reminiscent of the Indian swastika, the wheel of life, or swastika of the Nazis. [...] Opposite the tapestry with the symbol of violence, there is a peaceful landscape painting.

Under this painting there is a plastic figure, whose posture with closed legs and raised arms is reminiscent of the signet of the artist group "Brücke". Kirchner had depicted this trademark of the Dresden artists' group in 1905 in a small woodcut, specifically as a symbol for the 'youth who carries the future' and who wants to 'procure freedom of arms and life [...] vis-à-vis the well-suited older forces.' Connected with the oath to freedom is the appeal to peace through the finger sign. In the lower left of the picture the cat Schacky crouches, as if it were a witness of this oath.

The circle closes.

Hyun Ae Lee, Aber ich stelle doch nochmals einen neuen Kirchner aus. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Davos Late Work, Münster/New York/Munich/Berlin , 2008, p.145.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Brücke Signet woodcut

Signet of the artists' association Brücke

7 x 8.4 cm

DUBE H 692
(Private collection)

Forest Cemetery, 1933
Color woodcut
35 x 50cm
Dube644; Gercken 1729
(Kirchner Museum Davos)