The subject of a Berlin street scene is the most celebrated theme in Kirchner's work (figs. 1-6) and represents one of the most iconic images of German Expressionism. Kirchner first visited Berlin in 1910 and moved there from Dresden in 1911 to join other artists of the Brücke group. The vibrant life of the metropolis provided him with a totally new and stimulating experience, contrasting both with his time in Dresden and his summer vacations in Fehmarn. The move to Berlin profoundly influenced both Kirchner's subject matter and style. Promenading figures provided his main subject-matter, rendered in an increasingly elongated manner, with the energetic, diagonal hatching that became the hallmark of his mature expressionist painting. As Edward Lucie-Smith wrote: 'Kirchner was indeed producing some of his best work of this epoch, notably the hallucinatory Berlin street scenes featuring prostitutes which give a strong impression of the feverish atmosphere of the German capital just before and just after the beginning of the war' (E. Lucie-Smith, Lives of the Twentieth Century Artists, London, n.d., p. 62).
There are only eleven recorded Berlin street scenes in oil painted by Kirchner during the years 1913-15 (Gordon nos. 362-370, 427 and the present work). This is the only painting from this series and date still in private hands. There is one further 1913 version which was repainted in 1922, also remaining in a private collection. The other nine paintings are all in major international museums. Compositionally, the present work relates most closely to the monumental painting which is now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York (Gordon no. 364). The Museum of Modern Art painting, which was originally acquired by the Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 1920 and was the first Kirchner street scene to enter a major museum collection, was considered by Donald E. Gordon to be the most successful of the series (op. cit., p. 93). The present painting shares many of its compositional and stylistic elements with the New York version: the movement of the passers-by captured in the rhomboid forms of their heads; the angular, elongated figures; their mannequin appearance and mask-like faces; the striking figure of the man leaning forward on the right to look into a shop window, and the sharply contrasting colours. In the present version, the two female figures stare straight out of the picture plane, whereas in the New York painting they are depicted in profile, turned towards each other as if in conversation.
Wolf-Dieter Dube wrote about the influence of city life on Kirchner: 'The move to Berlin at first had little effect on either his choice of subjects or his methods of representation. But soon he was carried away by the current of the city. His artistic sensibility, always alive to the fascination of movement, was seized by the dynamism of city life. Kirchner discovered new pictorial forms unique to himself and was the first to render the feel of a modern metropolis (which had nothing in common with the Impressionists' boulevards, filled with gaiety and joie de vivre). He discovered its peculiar, malevolently glittering attraction. Herded along with the herd, he observed its people and developed a pictorial language for their denatured humanity, combining chronicle and allegory. Broken feathery brush strokes underline the vibrating nervousness of pointed, vertiginous form' (W.-D. Dube, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (exhibition catalogue), Marlborough Fine Art, London, 1969, p. 10).
The present work remained in the artist's possession until his death in 1938. The Kirchner Nachlass stamp was applied posthumously in the lower right corner of the side with the street scene and was subsequently removed. On the reverse of the Strassenszene is a portrait of Professor Botho Gräf painted in 1914. Gräf was part of the Jena academic world with which Kirchner was associated between 1914 and 1916. Gräf was a professor of archaeology and an art historian who greatly admired Kirchner, and bought several of the artist's works. 'What Gräf treasured in my work was its frank sensuousness and its unbroken development and autonomy; [...] something new which, through the unconfined conception of life there expressed, connected it for him with antiquity' (E.L. Kirchner, in 'Die Arbeit E.L. Kirchners', quoted in D. E. Gordon, op. cit., p. 26).
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Street Scenes in major museums:
Fünf Frauen auf der Strasse (Five Women in the Street), 1913, 120 x 90cm. (Gordon no. 362) Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany
Berliner Strassenszene (Berlin Street Scene), 1913, 125 x 95cm. (Gordon no. 363), Neue Galerie, New York
Die Strasse (The Street), 1913, 120.6 x 91.1cm (Gordon no. 364), Museum of Modern Art, New York
Strasse mit roter Kokotte (Street with Red Cocotte), 1914 and repainted in 1925, 120 x 90cm. (Gordon no. 366), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain
Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, 1914, 125 x 91cm. (Gordon no. 367), Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany
Leipziger Strasse mit elektrischer Bahn, Kleines Stadtbild (Leipzig Strasse with Electric Tram; Small Street Scene), 1913-14, 69.5 x 79cm. (Gordon no. 368), Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany
Zwei Frauen auf der Strasse (Two Women on the Street), 1914, 120 x 92cm. (Gordon no. 369), Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany
Postdamer Platz, Berlin, 1914, 200 x 150cm. (Gordon no. 370), Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany
Frauen auf der Strasse (Women on the Street), 1915, 126 x 90cm. (Gordon no. 427), Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal, Germany
This work has been requested for the exhibition Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Retrospective, to be held at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt from April to July 2010.
Signed EL Kirchner, titled Kopf Gräf and inscribed Davos on part of the original stretcher attached to the reverse
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Frankfurt, Galerie Ludwig Schames, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1919, no. 15, verso illustrated in the catalogue
Bad Homburg, Kurhaus, Deutsche Bildniskunst, 1931, no. 40
St. Gallen, Kunstmuseum, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1950, no. 45
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1952, no. 26
Düsseldorf, Kunsthalle, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1960, no. 58
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Figures du Moderne: L'Expressionnisme en Allemagne 1905-1914, 1992-93, no. 50, recto illustrated in colour in the catalogue
70 by 51cm. 27 1/2 by 20in. 70 by 51cm. 27 1/2 by 20in.
Donald E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1968, no. 414v, illustrated with the Nachlass mark p. 427 (recto); no. 414, illustrated p. 326 (verso)
Magdalena M. Moeller, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Die Strassenszenen 1913-1915, Munich, 1993, no. 69, recto illustrated in colour
Estate of the artist, Davos, Switzerland
Werner Brunner, St. Gallen, Switzerland (1952)
Roman Norbert Ketterer, Campione near Lugano, Switzerland
Charles Tabachnick, Canada (acquired from the above in 1978. Sold: Sotheby's London, 24th June 1997, lot 14)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner