Kirchner's tapestry

Print edition : January 05, 2002

The expressionist as painter, sculptor - and more.

ERNST LUDWIG KIRCHNER's would be one of the best known names among the painters who are called expressionists, and anyone with an interest in 20th century art is likely to have come across his work somewhere. A history of Expressionism would have to give him a deal of room on account of the painting alone, certainly; but his sculpture in wood interests the eye as much as the painting does, nowadays at least, and though that may be due to the relative dearth of sculpture one would want to call expressionist, the fact is worth noting. It is not entirely surprising that Kirchner should have carved well, of course; a serious study of his work would have to talk about how the woodcut print shaped the painting - especially since Kirchner used the medium himself - and one can see that it did do so when a work like The Street of 1908 is set next to the more characteristic Women in the Street of 1915.

The fact remains, though, that Kirchner is known as a painter; and the career of the epithet "expressionist" in talk about 20th century visual art has made it seem as if painting best serves the impulses behind the work labelled so (whatever those impulses may be). Now, from the look of the painting one hardly expects that an expressionist painter will take to designing tapestry: and if what one most easily recognises as Kirchner's work is the painting done in the three or four years preceding the First World War, it will seem very surprising that he should have done so.

One reason for that is how the presence of the hand tends to be valued in a painting like Women in the Street: the brush stroke would be seen as a 'gesture' that is not governed by, and is in fact formally prior to, the image or motif (which the stroke can now be seen to help constitute, rather than only accent or finish). To say that the gestural stroke - call it so for convenience - is formally prior to image or motif in a painting is to insist that the stroke is what enables image and motif to play whatever role they do in how the picture embodies meaning (rather than being itself so enabled by the image or the motif).

That puts matters rather baldly: but perhaps we can get a sense of how the stroke comes to enable the image in Kirchner's painting if Stepping Gingerly into the Sea is set between The Street and Women in the Street. Of course, to be at all certain that the stroke is formally prior to the image in the later work - while it is less so in the one coming between, and not really so in the earlier - one would have to have some sense of the meaning these pictures embodied for their intended beholders.

That may be hard to come by now - no matter how scrutable, so to say, the painting still seems - if only because the social production and consumption of images has changed so much since they were done. The problem will be taken up in a moment; but talking of the formal priority of the stroke over the image might be a good way of generally distinguishing expressionists from other sorts of modernist painters (and from their forebears: though something more would have to be said to mark them off from immediate preceptors like Van Gogh and Edvard Munch).

The young Kirchner and some of his fellow painters had gathered themselves into a group which called itself Die Brucke, and one of the group's rare public declarations - rare for a modernist fraternity, at least - may give us some feel for how they wanted their work to be understood. "We call together all young people," it says, "and, as young people who bear the future, we want to acquire freedom for our hands and lives against the well-established older forces. Everyone belongs to us who renders in an immediate and unfalsified way everything that compels him to be creative."

This translation from the original German is probably not the most elegant - it is taken from the popular Taschen volume - but it should be close enough; and knowing that the painters were all admirers of Nietzsche should make them sound less bland than they otherwise might. The 'well-established older forces' would be the Academy and the Bourgeoisie - the naturalist painting and sculpture which the established art schools of the period would have taught, on the one hand, and the middle class tastes which naturalist art was supposed both to form and service, on the other - and the uppercase here is meant to suggest how Kirchner and his fellows would have seen themselves set against the academies and the middle classes en bloc.

They seem, in fact, to have regarded the conventions of naturalist painting and sculpture as of a piece with the social norms that governed the life of the middle classes - into which they had been born - and so to have thought that the violation of the former somehow required, and would be enhanced by, the violation of the latter: hence the talk of both hands and lives being freed. Taking naturalist conventions and middle class norms for collusive forms of repression was something many modernist artists did - before the First World War, at least - and we might still be able to understand why they might have done so. But it would be hard now to imagine how the early modernists actually saw or felt naturalist conventions and middle class norms as being collusive: because the practice of art is not constrained by any visible sorts of convention anymore, and, as already noted, the social production and consumption of images has changed so much.

Just how the gestural stroke may have freed the hands and lives of Kirchner and his Die Brucke fellows is not, therefore, something we can actively sense through their painting now: the freedom achieved there will elude our sensuous grasp. (And what relation there might be between the meaning embodied in the painting, of which this freedom would be a condition, and the sorts of meaning embodied by postmodern modes that look expressionist - by the Neoexpressionist painting of the 1980s, for instance - is too knotty a question to tackle here.) But, though the gestural stroke cannot anymore be seen as Kirchner's first beholders saw it, what has got said above should show why designing tapestry will seem a very odd thing for Kirchner to have done, if all one has seen is the painting he is known for: weaving, obviously, cannot formally translate the gestural stroke.

NOW for the tapestry: one expects that it will embarrass but, oddly enough, it does not. Take a look at Menschem in Landschaft: the piece manages somehow or the other to persuade the eye (even at this scale, I think. And though the weave is not very close here it should be obvious why something like Women in the Street or Stepping Gingerly into the Sea would simply fail if it were woven out). Credit should of course go to the weaver herself - Lise Gujer, with whom Kirchner was to work for many years - but Kirchner's cartoons for the tapestries show that he was alive to the problems their design would pose him. The brush is still active there; but the cartoons manage, as pictorial wholes, to subject stroke to colour and image. Doing so would be necessary for a successful weave, of course; the surprise is that a Kirchner picture has done so.

That surprise might lessen when we learn that Kirchner had gone to live in a village in the Swiss Alps after the War: and that he found village life congenial. The painting before the War was formally pointed, one might say, by his very ambivalent attitude toward the city: which Kirchner was both fascinated and repelled by. An instinctual existence - a way of living as consonant with the natural world as, say, the lives of animals seem to be - that would be a workable metaphor for the sort of freedom Kirchner and his Die Brucke fellows had sought in and through their painting. (Putting things so might make our rebels seem a tame lot. But remember that they were reading Nietzsche then: and so may have been able to imagine the 'consonance' of animal life in morally strenuous ways.)

The three paintings looked at so far certainly seem to value 'natural' life over 'civilised' life - especially when we find that for Kirchner "the nude in all its freedom and artlessness is the basis of all living art" - and perhaps Women in the Street now might, just, show how the gestural stroke itself 'devalues' civilised life. Saying so will seem fanciful: but it should suggest, after what got said above, how settling into the rhythms of rural life could have made Kirchner think hard about where he should go with his painting (if only because life in a village could not be set against 'natural' life in just the way life in a city could be).

A painting from around the time of the tapestry reproduced here, The Painters of Die Brucke, shows that Kirchner did wean his painting away from the gestural stroke; and a good deal could be ventured about how he managed to do so. (The early lessons of Paul Gaugin and Henri Matisse, for instance, might play a part in the pictorial success of the cartoons.) But making good whatever might now get said would be very difficult: and would involve one in the seeming scandal of expressionist historiography.

The problem can be raised very quickly, by asking whether Kirchner's later paintings can count as expressionist if the earlier work is what provides the prime samples. If they cannot be taken so, one really should ask whether painters like Beckmann and Marc - to give obvious examples - should be called expressionists at all (as they usually are): the stroke is never formally prior to image or motif in their painting (and it might be worth noting now that Beckmann never cared to be tagged as an expressionist.) Taking them so, on the other hand, threatens to make "expressionist" only a taxonomic convenience: the term would cover works too formally diverse then - seemingly, at least - and fail to have any real use in understanding how they embody meaning. The difficulty should be evident when a late piece like Three Nudes in a Wood is set next to the early painting: the work of the brush is merely epigraphic here, one might say, and the formal gap between this picture and Women in the Street seems too wide to bridge.

There have been attempts to do just that, though; and one tactic here has been to read in certain ways the pictures of dancers Kirchner did after the War. The painter was very interested in the new forms of 'expressive' dance that were emerging in Germany then (out of which what we know as Modern Dance came. Kirchner sought out and made friends with Mary Wigman, one of the leading exponents of the new dance; and did a lot of sketching in her studio while rehearsals were going on). The claim now is that pictured dance "acts as a metaphor for the creative process" itself: and is able to so act because, presumably, the image is "informed by a complex and subtle attempt to translate the language of movement into that of visual art".

The text quoted above comes from an essay titled The body and the dance: Kirchner's Swiss work as Expressionism (by Colin Rhodes, collected in Expressionism Reassessed, a volume published some eight years ago). The author goes on to say of one of Kirchner's later pictures with dancers - called Colour Dance II, an apparently much faulted piece, done a little before Three Nudes in a Wood - that "it represents, in effect, a metaphoric reduction of the painter's art to its essentials: the musicalisation of colour, contained in a language of line which is closely related to that of modern dance." Why this should link the later painting with the earlier as expressionist is not spelt out; but one suggestion might be that the gestural stroke and the line trying to 'translate the language of movement' engage the beholder's kinaesthetic memory and imagination in complementary ways (the latter as well, Kirchner might have claimed, rendering as truly - if more mediately - whatever compels him to be creative.)

All this just might make Three Nudes in a Wood a better picture than it seems; and seeing line in Two Nudes in a Wood as translating the language of movement in dance - however one understands "translating" and "language" here - might make that a more interesting bit of tapestry than it is otherwise. (Without the reference to dance Two Nudes in a Wood seems a poorer piece than Menschem in Landschaft: because the image seems to 'narrate' in a way inappropriate to tapestry then.) But a great deal more would have to be said, of course, before the tapestry and the later painting can be understood as expressionist, in ways cognate to Kirchner's earlier painting. One would, especially, have to ask if the reference to dance allowed the specifically German notion of kultur - which the word "culture" very poorly translates - to inflect contemporary beholders' experience of the later work in some distinct fashion: in a way which refines, somehow, the opposition betw een the 'natural' and the 'civilised' in the earlier. (That question would be difficult to address, but asking it locates expressionism nicely, as a German or perhaps Middle European phenomenon. Having a notion like kultur to hand would shape one's response to the gestural brush stroke, even, in particular ways - because the sense of "kultur" lies in apposition, so to say, to the senses of both "nature" and "civilisation" - and one should be properly wary of calling a painting expressionist simply because the brush moves 'gesturally' there.)

I had begun by remarking that Kirchner's sculpture seems to interest the eye as much as the painting does nowadays; and one has to wonder if that is so because the practice of art has become posthistorical, and reached a condition of perfect aesthetic entropy (as Arthur Danto puts it). Our willingness to look at Kirchner's tapestry may be due to that as well: due, simply, to the eye going slack (and very few museums, certainly, would have exhibited it as art until about 10 years or so ago). But one hopes not: it is much more comforting to believe that we are more able than we once were, now, to value the work as it should be valued.

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