Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

gigatos | February 6, 2022


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner († June 15, 1938 in Frauenkirch-Wildboden near Davos


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was born in Aschaffenburg, Germany, the eldest son of Maria Elise Kirchner, née Franke (1851-1928) and her husband Ernst Kirchner (1847-1921), a chemist for industrial papermaking, from 1892 professor at the Technische Lehranstalt und Gewerbeakademie in Chemnitz. He had two younger siblings, Hans Walter and Ulrich Kirchner. He successfully completed the years of study, which he began after graduating from high school in Chemnitz in 1901, by studying architecture at the Technical University of Dresden in 1905 with his diploma thesis Entwurf einer Friedhofsanlage (Design of a Cemetery). In the winter semester of 1903

The artist group Brücke

On June 7, 1905, Kirchner joined forces with Erich Heckel, Fritz Bleyl and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff – self-taught artists like himself – to form the Dresden artists” association Brücke. In 1906, Cuno Amiet, Emil Nolde, and Max Pechstein joined as active members. During this period Kirchner developed from an Impressionist-influenced painter into an Expressionist. His preferred subjects included nudes and portraits as well as landscapes, cityscapes and the world of vaudeville.

Doris Große, called “Dodo,” a milliner from Dresden, became Kirchner”s model and mistress for two years starting in 1909. From the same year, the then nine-year-old Lina Franziska Fehrmann, called “Fränzi”, was a model for the painters Heckel, Pechstein and Kirchner. In summer at the Moritzburg ponds, in winter in the Dresden studios, she was sketched, drawn, painted and portrayed in printmaking techniques by the artists. It was not until July 1995 that her surname “Fehrmann” was discovered in one of Kirchner”s sketchbooks, so that her identity could be established during research in church records.

Kirchner lived in Dresden until 1911 and then moved to Berlin. The decisive factor for this decision was the lack of success of his art. In Berlin, his situation improved only slightly at first. However, a change was noticeable in his paintings. For example, his round forms now became more jagged, the strokes appeared more nervous (contrast of landscape and big city), and his colors diminished in luminosity. Street scenes began to appear in his work. In today”s Kirchner reception, these are the artist”s most sought-after paintings. In 1911 he participated with other Brücke artists in an exhibition of the Neue Secession, led by Max Pechstein, in Berlin.

In December 1911, together with Max Pechstein, Kirchner founded a painting school called the MUIM Institute (“Modern Instruction in Painting”), but it had only two students and thus no success. In 1912 he met his long-time partner Erna Schilling (1884-1945). After participating in the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, Kirchner wrote a chronicle about the “Brücke” in 1913, in which he greatly overemphasized its importance for the artists” group. This led to a dispute with the other remaining members, as a result of which Kirchner resigned. This led to the final dissolution of the group.

Stays on Fehmarn

In 1908 and from 1912 to 1914, Kirchner lived on Fehmarn in the summer and painted coastal pictures, such as the painting Lighthouse Staberhuk from 1912. During these four summers, he created over 120 paintings, a tenth of his painterly oeuvre, in addition to hundreds of drawings and sketches and several sculptures. He also captured the island in photographs.

In 1908 Kirchner was on Fehmarn with the siblings Emi and Hans Frisch. From 1912 to 1914 he traveled to the island with Erna Schilling; together they lived with the keeper of the Staberhuk lighthouse. 1912

World War I

At the beginning of World War I, Kirchner volunteered and became a driver in an artillery regiment. In the spring of 1915, he came to Halle an der Saale as a recruit. He endured the drill for only a few months, then was given leave in early November after a nervous breakdown. Kirchner became dependent on medication (initially Veronal, later morphine). He was treated in Germany at the Dr. Oskar Kohnstamm Sanatorium in Königstein im Taunus, where in the summer of 1916 he created a cycle of five murals created using the encaustic method. The penniless artist”s first stays in the sanatorium were financed by a few museum people and art collectors such as Ernst Gosebruch, Karl Ernst Osthaus, Botho Graef and Carl Hagemann, who had become aware of his work.

The self-portraits of these years – The Drunkard and Self-Portrait as a Soldier – reflect the artist”s desperation. Despite war service and illness, Kirchner began to create large-scale paintings, including the triptych of Bathing Women.

From 1914 Kirchner reached the public through the work exhibitions of the Jena Kunstverein, which were supervised by Botho Graef and Eberhard Grisebach. In 1917 Kirchner donated 34 etchings, 83 woodcuts and 125 lithographs to Jena as the Botho Graef Memorial Foundation, thus establishing his impact that began after the First World War.

Davos time

In 1917 Kirchner moved to Davos, Switzerland. While he, disabled with signs of paralysis, believed he would never be able to paint again, his partner Erna Schilling in Berlin laid the foundation for his successes and for his financial independence through assiduous sales. In Davos he was mentored by Lucius Spengler and especially by his wife Helene. It was thanks to their rigor and Kirchner”s iron will that he was weaned off medication in 1921. This weaning marked the beginning of a relatively stable phase in Kirchner”s life in terms of health. From the mid-1920s onward, he suffered increasingly from the harsh winters in Davos, which took their toll on his health, and from years of severe depression suffered by Erna Schilling.

Henry van de Velde visited Kirchner in Davos and was able to persuade him to stay at the Bellvue Sanatorium, where he became friends with Nele van de Velde, who became his student.

Although Kirchner”s art had enjoyed firm recognition in circles open to modern art since about 1920, in his own opinion it was not sufficiently appreciated in art criticism. He therefore ensured this appreciation himself by writing various essays about his own art under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle and only giving the right to reproduce his pictures free of charge to those art writers who were prepared to have their texts approved by him in advance.

This was not the only reason why Kirchner was considered a difficult person. His mistrust bordered on the pathological. He only approved exhibitions and publications with detailed contracts, the wording of which imposed almost unacceptable obligations on his business partners, while he reserved all freedom for himself. He could be as charming and winning as he was insulting and hurtful. His wrath struck everyone who mentioned his former affiliation with the Brücke, called him an expressionist, or associated his art with alleged role models.

At the end of 1925 Kirchner left Switzerland for the first time in nine years and traveled via Frankfurt

Kirchner”s painting style became increasingly two-dimensional from 1925, and by the end of the twenties he had developed a very personal style, always representational but strongly abstract. A planned commission for a large mural in the Museum Folkwang in Essen fertilized his late work, but failed due to human problems between the client (Ernst Gosebruch) and Kirchner. In the last years of his life he created less abstracting, but strongly influenced by light and shadow problems, constructed-representational picture compositions.

After the National Socialists” “seizure of power,” he initially remained a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts, but was finally expelled in July 1937. In the same month, 639 of Kirchner”s works were removed from museums in Germany and confiscated, 32 of which were shown as part of the defamatory “Degenerate Art” exhibition, including Self-Portrait as a Soldier. Some of these works were later shown posthumously at documenta 1 (1955), documenta II (1959), and also documenta III in 1964 in Kassel.

Kirchner took his own life in Davos on June 15, 1938 with a shot to the heart. According to the literature on Kirchner, the motive for the suicide was the artist”s deep disappointment at the defamation of his works in Germany. In the meantime, it is known from Kirchner”s correspondence with his doctor Frédéric Bauer that he had been addicted to morphine again since 1932. Presumably, his suicide also had something to do with a reduction in his morphine dosage in 1938, which Kirchner forced. This thesis is also supported by Kirchner”s farewell letter to his friend, the architect and sculptor Erwin Friedrich Baumann, in which he warns of the danger of drugs. On May 10, he applied to the municipality of Davos for a marriage license to Erna Schilling, but withdrew it on June 12. At the time of the suicide, according to his partner, who was officially allowed to bear the name Kirchner, the painting Flock of Sheep (1938) was on the easel.

Although evidence of self-stylization, depressive delusions, and contradictory reactions are repeatedly superimposed on Kirchner”s statements and actions, he consistently tried to follow his ideal of the free artist. Despite skepticism about the commercialization of art, Kirchner established himself as an “exhibition artist” and took advantage of the patronage of his patrons such as Carl Hagemann.

Suicide doubt

Kirchner shot himself with his pistol, which was found a meter away from him, according to reports of the discovery of the body. However, according to firearms expert Andreas Hartl, this is extremely difficult with the FN Browning Model 1910 due to the additional bale safety on the pistol”s grip. If at all, he says, this is only possible by resting the muzzle on the chest.

The medical officer who examined the body considered a suicide unquestionable. However, his findings do not seem to fit this. He wrote: “In the intercostal space 6 and 7 there is a small bullet hole each, originating from a small bullet. The heart is so well struck that death was in any case instantaneous.” First, in this context, the presence of two bullet holes is unlikely, and second, the medical officer explicitly did not note the puffing typical of a superimposed gunshot.

However, a possible alternative perpetrator is not known.

After the Second World War, Kirchner”s works were initially shown only in solo exhibitions. Since the retrospective Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938, organized on the occasion of his 100th birthday and first shown at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin (subsequently at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the Museum Ludwig in the Kunsthalle in Cologne and the Kunsthaus in Zurich), there has been a steady increase in exhibitions of the artist”s work.

An important factor here is the Kirchner Museum in Davos, which opened in 1992 and has the most extensive collection on the artist outside Germany and has prepared numerous exhibitions. Within Germany, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt has the largest collection of works by Kirchner. This museum paid tribute to him in 2010 with the exhibition “Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Retrospective”.

In 2002, as part of the series “German Painting of the 20th Century”, Deutsche Post issued a special stamp with the motif of his painting “Rotes Elisabeth-Ufer”.

Estate and estate administration

After the death of Erna Schilling (1945), the estate of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was kept in the Kunstmuseum Basel under the direction of Georg Schmidt until 1954, inventoried and provided with the estate stamp and an alphanumeric entry in ink

The administration of the estate was then handed over by the artist”s heirs to Roman Norbert Ketterer, who carried out this task with great dedication from 1954 until his death in 2002. Current administrators of the estate are his children Ingeborg Henze-Ketterer and Günther Ketterer.

In 2010, during a trial at the Tiergarten District Court in Berlin, it became known that the LKA Berlin had seized a replica of the Basel estate stamp from the art forger Tom Sack in 2005. By this time, an undetermined number of Kirchner forgeries bearing this stamp had probably entered circulation.

“Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive” in Wichtrach

The “Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive” was founded in 1979 and was in Campione d”Italia until 1993. Today, directed by Wolfgang Henze, it is located in Wichtrach near Bern and includes documentation on the artist”s complete works and a library on his life and work, as well as materials in general on Expressionism.

The aim is to collect all texts and images of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner that have ever been published, as well as information on exhibitions and offers on the art market. In addition, the archive supports exhibitions and publications on the artist and Expressionism and is responsible for authenticity issues.

Kirchner Museum Davos

Kirchner moved to Davos in 1917. Almost his entire oeuvre, especially his early work, has survived there, as it was thus spared the bombardments of the Second World War. In total, there are almost 30,000 works, which distinguishes the artist as one of the most productive of the 20th century.

Roman Norbert Ketterer and his wife Rosemarie Ketterer donated the new building of the Kirchner Museum Davos, designed by the Zurich architectural team Gigon

Kirchner Association Davos

The “Kirchner Verein Davos” sees itself in close cooperation with the “Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Stiftung” as a sponsoring association to support the activities of the Kirchner Museum Davos. Founded on January 9, 1982, it supports the museum ideally and financially in the areas of collection and preservation of artworks as well as in the scientific processing, mediation and organization of exhibitions on the artist and his environment.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Foundation Davos

The “Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Foundation Davos” is also committed to the preservation and further dissemination of the memory of the artist and his work. It manages the Kirchner Museum Davos and owns its collection, and supports and promotes exhibitions and publications on the artist and his environment.

Kirchnerhaus Aschaffenburg

The Kirchnerhaus-Verein Aschaffenburg was founded in 2011 to put the painter”s birthplace to worthy use and to raise public awareness that Kirchner was a native of Aschaffenburg. He had been born in Aschaffenburg in 1880 and had spent the first years of his life in the townhouse, which has remained almost unchanged to this day. In 2013, the association set up a documentation room on Kirchner”s childhood in the family”s former apartment on the upper floor. Since 2014, exhibitions, lectures and art education programs have been held in the rooms on the first floor.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Association Fehmarn

The “Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Verein Fehmarn”, founded in 1992, has made it its task to trace and preserve the traces of Kirchner on the Baltic Sea island of Fehmarn. The “Documentation of E. L. Kirchner”s Time on Fehmarn” is shown in photos and reproductions in the house of the municipal library at the town park in Burg auf Fehmarn.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Biberach

The Braith Mali Museum in Biberach permanently displays up to about 62 works by the artist, which came to the museum because his brother lived in Biberach.

Kirchner as name giver

The asteroid (16441) Kirchner, discovered on March 7, 1989 at the Thuringian State Observatory Tautenburg, was named after Kirchner on November 11, 2000.

The Berlin Street Scene is a painting by Kirchner from the year 1913 from the work series of street scenes, eleven paintings created between 1913 and 1915. This cycle is considered one of the most important works of German Expressionism. In August 2006, the then Berlin Senator for Culture Thomas Flierl announced that the state of Berlin would return the painting to the heiress of the Jewish art collector Alfred Hess, who lives in Great Britain. In 1980, the state of Berlin had acquired the painting for about DM 1.9 million and exhibited it in Berlin”s Brücke Museum. After a review of the heiress”s claim, it was classified as Nazi looted art and restituted in accordance with the Washington Declaration. The restitution was controversial and triggered strong reactions and ongoing discussions. On November 8, 2006, the work came up for auction at Christie”s auction house in New York and was acquired by the Neue Galerie in New York for over 30 million euros.

Kirchner”s work can be roughly divided into the following categories

Among the paintings, a special phenomenon are the double-sided painted canvases and the double canvases (frames covered twice with canvas, canvases lying on top of each other). The latter were included in the first inventory 10 years after the death of the artist in the estate as individual independent works and stretched on new stretcher frames. Regarding the former, we know to this day of 138 canvases painted by Kirchner on both sides (reverse paintings). Thanks to special frame constructions, some of these paintings can be presented in exhibitions simultaneously from the front, called recto in catalogs, and from the back, called verso. Kirchner gave as a reason that the canvases were too expensive.

Selection of his works

DKB annual exhibitions until 1936

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a member (later also on the board) of the Deutscher Künstlerbund from 1910. Kirchner participated in the following annual exhibitions until the dissolution of the DKB by the National Socialists:

Solo exhibitions after his death

Also worthy of note is the traveling exhibition in the U.S., initiated by the German government under the name German watercolors, drawings and prints: A midcentury review in 1956. This show of works documented the high status that Kirchner already possessed at that time. Kirchner was represented with seven works, more than any other of his renowned colleagues.

In addition, the museums of the city of Aschaffenburg own a graphic collection by Kirchner, from which works are regularly shown.

Kirchner”s work in Davos (1917-1938) will be presented in 2021 in the special exhibition Europa auf Kur. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Thomas Mann and the Myth of Davos at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, featuring around 45 works. The exhibition is a cooperation with the Kirchner Museum Davos, where it will be on view from October 2021.


  1. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
  2. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
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