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: A Letter from Ernest Ludwig Kirchner


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Members who have seen the Institute's recently acquired painting by Kirchner, Seated Woman (Franzi) will wish to know more about the artist of this important work. Among the published documents on Kirchner's career and work, none-better sums up the painter's point of view as an expressionist than a letter which Kirchner wrote to his friend and dealer, Curt Valentin, in 1937 on the occasion of his first one-man exhibition in this country. Writing from Switzerland, where he had lived for 20 years, Kirchner reviewed his entire career as a painter, throwing new light upon his activity as the leader of the group called The Bridge in Dresden and, afterwards, the younger group of artists developing the new expressionist ideal in Berlin.“April 17, 1937”“Dear Mr. Valentin,. . . Did you know that as far back as 1900 I had the audacious idea of renewing German art? Indeed I did, and the impulse came to me while looking at an exhibition of the Munich Secessionists in Munich. Their pictures were dull both in design and execution, the subjects uninteresting, and it was quite obvious that the public was bored. Indoors hung these anemic, bloodless, lifeless studio daubs and outside life, noisy and colorful, pulsated in the sun. In those days I was a strong and healthy lad, not like I am today when the spirit is still active but the body often fails me.“Why didn't the good Secessionists paint this full-blooded life? The answer that they could not because they did not see it. It was outside and it changed incessantly, and when they dragged it into their studios it ceased to be life and was merely a pose. I was filled with the desire to try and grasp what they had missed; I did and I am still doing so today.“First of all I had to try and find a method whereby I could seize the effect of motion; here I was helped by the Rembrandt drawings in the Munich Kupferstichkabinett. They taught me how to arrest a movement in a few bold lines. I practiced this wherever I went. At home and elsewhere I made larger drawings from memory, catching the passing moment and finding new forms in the swift ecstasy of this work, which, without being true to nature, expressed everything I wanted to express in a bigger and clearer way.“I learned a great deal from an exhibition of French Neo-Impressionists. I found the drawing weak but I studied their color technique, founded on a study of optics, only to arrive at an opposite conclusion; namely not to let complementaries and the complementary colors be formed while one looked at them, according to Goethe's theory. This made the pictures much more colorful. My sense of design was simplified and strengthened by the fact the I had learned to make woodcuts from my father when I was only 15 years old. So armed I arrived in Dresden and during my studies there I was able to arouse my friends' enthusiasm over my new ideas.“My goal was always to express emotion and experience with large and simple forms and clear colors, and it is still my goal today. But whereas I used to paint a great deal from life, today I paint only from my imagination or memory. I wanted to express the richness and joy of living, to paint humanity at work and at play in its reactions and interreactions and to express love as well as hatred.“Sometimes a symbolic truth rose from an individual picture like a law of nature. That great poet, Walt Whitman, was responsible for my outlook on life. During my dismal days of want and hunger in Dresden, his Leaves of Grass was and still is my comfort and encouragement. . . . He can give and love without desiring. We have a German who follows in his footsteps, Georg Heym, the poet of Umbra Vitae, who has prophetically perceived and written of our last decade.“Want drove me from Dresden to Berlin; during 1910 and 1919 I had a workshop there. But things got better in 1911. B. Graef in Jena did a great deal to make my work known and introduced me to Schames, to whom I owe so much. I cannot work and be my own agent at the same time, it isn't natural. The artist's work demands great mental strain and deep concentration; the business side of it quite other qualities. So this connection with Schames, coupled with our later personal friendship, was a great piece of luck for me. My intensive production during my last years in Germany and the first Swiss period was directly owning to the care of my dear old friend Schames.“You know pretty well how my work developed after this, how, after 1925, a new period, in which I still am, followed on the old. Vision becomes clearer, and I only regret that illness often forces me to rest when I would like to create. The new discoveries in form, all coming from nature, must be worked out, sometimes they have to be remodelled and clarified again and again in drawings before they assume their rightful places on the canvas.“With age one learns much which the younger painter can only instinctively guess at, but I still feel as naked and innocent before a new picture as I did in my youthful days and there is still a mysterious surprise when the Form rises clear and plain from one's myriad efforts and is suddenly apparent. I used to put light and shade together in a picture, expressing them in color. Today I separate them and lay one design over the other, so to speak, to find that I thus achieve doubly strong expression. Of course both forms must spring from the inner picture. Naturalistic design would only have a disturbing effect, but at the same time I experience again and again while working that the exact reproduction of the design in mind tallies with the actual form, and how very accurately I unconsciously paint even the smallest detail in the flat.With best regards,
E. L. Kirchner”
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Source: "A Letter from Ernest Ludwig Kirchner," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 42, no. 8 (February, 1953): 37-38.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009