Saturday, September 20, 2008

Review: Kirchner and the Berlin Street

My friend KB and I went to see the exhibition Kirchner and the Berlin Street at the Museum of Modern Art. This is a show I've been anxiously waiting to see, because I find myself thrilled by Kirchner's expressionist works, his take on line, color, and perspective, not to mention the fabulous fashion sense he captured in the clothes of these women. We were not disappointed.

The German artist Ernst Kirchner (1880-1938) was part of Die Brücke (The Bridge), a German Expressionist group of artists based in Dresden. Their mission was to "bridge" the traditional and the modern in art. They were influenced by the vibrant colors of the Fauves (Matisse and Derain) and the geometric forms of Cubism (Picasso and Braque), but they also borrowed on Germanic traditions such as woodblock printmaking to create a new, vivid form of art that revealed their emotional truths through art. In 1913, Kirchner left Dresden for Berlin, then the third largest city in Europe. The works in this exhibition showcase seven of the paintings in what became a series of works reflecting his take on the Berlin Street scene. But the primary subject of all of them are the prostitutes who worked the streets of Berlin.

As you enter the gallery, each painting is given its own freestanding wall, boldly highlighting the pictures as individual masterworks, but grouping them as part of the series. To the left and right hang drawings, prints, and sketchbooks by Kirchner with work done in conjunction with these paintings. The woodblock prints are especially engaging, demonstrating the ongoing talents of the Germans in this medium dating back to at least the 1400s. But the oil paintings are the primary focus on this exhibition, and they are stunning.

Take for instance the work above, Street, Berlin (1913), which is part of MOMA's permanent collection. In all of the pictures, two or more prostitutes stand as the focal point, so your eye is drawn to them. In some, you even engage with them visually, as if you were a potential client. The sharp angularity of his line, the harsh coloring, and the attenuated forms of their bodies would lead you to think he hated these women, but instead they are beautiful. Look at their faces. Look at their clothes. These are fashionable working women. The energy of Berlin--a new urbanism filled with electric lighting and trains and streetcars--pulsates around them. They are the logo of this new urbanism, the product and marketing of the City of Berlin in 1913. This same energy and beauty characterizes many expressionist movements prior to World War I, when the new industrial, modern age was seen as a form of utopia.

KB and I spoke about the treatment of women in Kirchner's works. At the time, we were standing in front of a drawing of a dancer on stage whose raised leg revealed everything under her skirts. She argued that this type of work is misogynistic. It reflects the emasculated sensibility that most men felt at the turn of the century when the New Woman rose to power, demanding and securing equal rights. I agree with her. Pictures as diverse as Munch's Vampire and Burne-Jones's Mermaid demonstrate that there was something misogynistic going on in art all over Europe at the time. But I pointed out to her that with heterosexual artists like Kirchner, Schiele, Klimt, and so on, they drew or painted like this because it was sexually alluring. It was their artistic form of pornography. To which KB responded that was exactly the point, that in order to combat the newfound power of these women, they had to be stripped down and objectified as sexual objects. It was the only way men could combat women's burgeoning sense of self. According to the wall text in the gallery, however, there's a third option: that Kirchner's constant depression and isolation in a new city allowed him to identify with the isolation these same prostitutes would have felt as omnipresent, yet rejected, parts of Berlin society. So I guess we're all right.

All in all, this fantastic, small exhibition is worth seeing a second time, and I'm going to head back before it closes on November 10. If you're interested in reading another take on the exhibition, and learning a bit about Kirchner's recent popularity as it relates to auction sales, see CultureGrrl's posting.

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