Kirchner's dynamic Gruppe Badender am Strand represents the apotheosis of his achievements as a leading member of the German Expressionist movement. Kirchner's primary emphasis during this key period in his career was the naturalistic representation of the human form in its most primitive state, and this picture essentially defines that aesthetic goal. Painted in the summer of 1913, this was one of the last works that Kirchner completed around the time of the official dissolution of the artistic group known as Die Brücke, and therefore it marks the culmination of one of the most important avant-garde movements of the early 20th century.
Since the group's inception in 1905, the painters associated with Die Brücke, including Kirchner, Heckel, Nolde and Schmidt-Rotluff, set out to render the human form in its natural or 'primative' state, rejecting the academic study of the body or the reliance upon artistic precedents. Kirchner was one of the group's four founders and its most vocal proponent, and published the thesis that very generally defined their artistic objectives in the years leading up to World War I. 'With faith in progress and in a new generation of creators and spectators we call together all young,' Kirchner wrote in the original Die Brücke manifesto in 1906. 'As youth, we carry the future and want to create for ourselves freedom of life and of movement against the long established older forces. Everyone who reproduces that which drives him to creation with directness and authenticity belongs to us.' The compositions that Kirchner and his colleagues produced under the auspices of the movement were notably original and expressive, although a historical perspective reveals the clear aesthetic links to their avant-garde contemporaries in France. But unlike the Fauves, Kirchner and his fellow German Expressionists did not limit their palette and expressive brushwork to landscapes alone and focused instead on a broader range of subjects. For Kirchner, some of his most successful and daring compositions were his nudes, and the present work is a wonderful example of how he could manipulate this provocative subject.
Gruppe Badender am Strand was painted during one of the artist's many trips to the Baltic island of Fehmarn. The female model that we see in the centre was probably his companion Erna Schilling, who accompanied the artist here during the summers between 1911 and 1913 (fig. 1). This composition is one of a select group of bather scenes painted along the rocky beaches of this small island, located in the Baltic Sea off the eastern coast of Germany. Kirchner was drawn to the relative remoteness of this location, which had none of the urban tension of Berlin. Although he could get there by train from Hamburg fairly easily, Fehmarn was far enough removed from the concerns of Kirchner's daily life, much in the same way that Tahiti had been an 'escape' for Gauguin (fig. 2). Kirchner even went as far as to make a comparison between the South Pacific islands and his nearby Baltic retreat, as Jill Lloyd remarks: 'Kirchner seems to have regarded Fehmarn as a 'primitive' location, rendering a real journey to the South Seas like those undertaken by Nolde and Pechstein unnecessary. In December 1912 he wrote to Gustav Schiefler: "Ochre, blue, green - these are the colours of Fehmarn. A wonderful coast, sometimes with the wealth of the South Seas - fabulous flowers with fleshy stems"' (J. Lloyd, German Expressionism, Primitivism and Modernity, New Haven and London, 1991, p. 125). The artist also completed several wood carvings of the nudes during the summer of 1913, and his sculptural concerns carried over to these paintings. His new stylistic preoccupation is played out here in the volumetric bodies of the nudes, particularly the rounded and clearly defined curves of the reclining figure on the right.
At the time he painted this work, Kirchner was living and working in Berlin, far enough from the influence of his fellow members of Die Brücke back in Dresden. By 1913, he had become the group's most public figure, but ultimately alienated his fellow members with his exclusionary treatises and public pronouncements. Their collaboration ultimately ended in May of that year as a result of Kirchner's independent activities in Berlin, but the artist ardently carried on with his radical artistic objectives. This painting, therefore, marked the beginning of Kirchner's endeavor as a solo artist, free from the constraints and expectations of his fellow painters.
Oil on canvas
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Nuremberg (and travelling in Germany), Sammlung Dr. F. Bauer, Davos, 1952-53, no. 9
Dusseldorf, Kunsthalle, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1960, no. 41, illustrated in the catalogue
Schleswig, Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmuseum & Lübeck, Overbeck-Gesellschaft, Die Maler der Brücke, 1962, no. 108
Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, L'Espressionismo Pittura Scultura Architettura, 1964, no. 196
Bielefeld, Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner aus Privatbesitz, 1969, no. 7, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
London, Marlborough Fine Art, 1969, no. 8, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
120 by 90cm., 47 1/4 by 35 1/2 in.
Umbro Apollonio, 'Die Brücke' e la cultura dell' espressionismo, Venice, 1952, no. 44, illustrated
Lothar-Günther Buchheim, Die Künstlergemeinschaft Brücke, Feldafing, 1956, no. 194, illustrated
Werner Haftmann, Die Malerei des 20. Jahrhunderts, Munich, 1961-62, vol. II, illustrated p. 97
Donald E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1968, no. 342, illustrated p. 315
Frédéric Bauer, Davos (acquired from the artist in 1930; until at least 1952-53)
Graf Rüdiger von der Goltz, Dusseldorf (by 1955; until at least 1964)
Derek Jackson, Lausanne
Private Collection, USA
Galerie Thomas, Munich
Acquired from the above by the present owners on 4th June 1992