The Naked Gaze


The Brandenburg Gate (1929), Oil on canvas, 120 x 150 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

The first time I remember seeing a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) was The Brandenburg Gate (above) on the cover of Mary Fulbrook’s Concise History of Germany. I didn’t even realize it was painted by a famous artist until I saw it hanging in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt a few years after I read the book. Now the Städel has a retrospective exhibit of Kirchner’s art on display and today I went see it. Here’s the official video of the exhibit with English subtitles (WARNING: there is some non-realistic-looking nudity in the video):

Kirchner was one of the founding members of Die Brücke (The Bridge)—a group of expressionist artists founded in 1905 in Dresden, Germany. I’m a fan of German expressionism, but I prefer the works of the other, later group based in Munich—Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), which included such luminaries as Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke, Gabriele Münter, and Lyonel Feininger.

Kirchner and his friends rebelled against the moral strictures of Wilhelmine Germany and its rule-bound art establishment. They experimented with bright color, primitivism, and eroticism. All of these things had already been done a generation earlier by French artists, but there is a new kind of in-your-face flaunting of rule-breaking the German manifestation. That and more angst. Their goal was not to reproduce nature but to express emotion, hence the name “expressionism.”

As I wandered through the exhibit, I was surprised by the range of subjects and emotions in Kirchner’s art. I was also impressed with his post-1925 “new style,” which employs pastel colors (mint green, Pepto-Bismol pink, and lavender) and abstract forms that look twenty to thirty years ahead of their time. On the other hand, I was bothered by the way Kirchner portrayed women in his art. The odd skin tones (ghost while, burnt orange, periwinkle blue, or puke green) and unnaturally drawn bodies of his female nudes make them hardly titillating, but Kirchner nonetheless objectified women (and girls), making them subjects of his voyeuristic male gaze. There were also some erotic sketches in the exhibit as explicit as any illustrations in the Kama Sutra.

Kirchner’s art is libertine and with it comes all of the good and bad that normally accompanies libertinism: creativity, liveliness, debauchery, and exploitation. In the end, Kirchner became a victim of his own angst. He tragically took his own life just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Maybe it’s a good thing that he didn’t live to see it. The violence war is far more pornographic and corrupting than anything you could possibly experience in a museum.


Blue Nude with Straw Hat (1909), Oil on board, 68 x 72 cm, private collection.

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