One of the great artistic movements of the 20th Century
A few years back a friend and I decided to spend a week in Berlin. We followed the tourist handbooks and navigated our way through the city. After a few days, with growing confidence, we even began to explore with the guidebooks tucked away in our pockets, and gradually started to establish our bearings. I loved the experience, and to this day I feel that Berlin is one of the greatest places I've ever visited.
I found it amazing to see the way Berlin accepts and adapts to its own history: a history that shaped much of twentieth-century Europe, and which manifests itself in every street and every square of the city. There are so many signifiers of a dark and troubling past, amid so much optimism and urban development. The collision of the present with the past, light with dark, was often more than a little on the uncanny side.
We saw bars and restaurants located around Checkpoint Charlie, where tourists can sip a cold beer and contemplate the divide; fragments of the Berlin wall outside shopping malls and train stations; and memorials and high-rise buildings constructed over underground caverns of Nazi administration. Walking through the city was, at times, awe-inspiring, and at others it was frightening.
It was in Berlin that I first came across the work of Ernst Ludvig Kircher, Ernst Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, painters of the Die Brücke expressionist movement. Their name, literally meaning 'the bridge', derives from a desire to merge traditional artistic techniques with the evolving avant garde movement. I was initially drawn to investigate the group while reading about David Bowie, who emulates the pose of Heckel's Roquairol on the cover of his Berlin album "Heroes". Iggy Pop strikes a similar pose on the cover of his album, The Idiot, released the same year.
Despite their expressionist techniques, I always saw a certain realism in their work that always appealed to me. I was drawn to the lone figures, that seemed to be trying to comprehend their surroundings. At times I was reminded of some of Kafka's short stories, at others I thought of Edward Hopper's anonymous city dwellers, but sometimes I didn't think of anything specific. I just daydreamed. That was what I loved about them.
I was reminded of Die Brücke again just recently, while reading James Knowlson's fantastic biography of Samuel Beckett, Damned to Fame. In the mid-1930s, as national socialism began to gain momentum, Beckett embarked on a kind of cultural pilgrimage, touring the museums and art galleries of Germany.
Ironically, many of the modern pieces that interested Beckett most, including those of Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff had recently been declared decadent by the Third Reich and were taken out of the public eye - either to be stored, bought by private collectors or destroyed. Beckett witnessed the censorship first-hand, and was appalled to meet painters and artists who were suffering from the new policies. But despite this, Beckett did find numerous opportunities to see the works he had been looking for, and retained an interest in the Die Brücke movement, and painting in general, all of his life.
Lying in bed this morning, I spent some time in a dreamless haze, watching the sun move gradually up the wall. I was contemplating the morning coffee, but couldn't quite find the motivation to get up and do something about it. It was at this point that I noticed some of the postcards that have been tacked about the place, here and there, to give my room a bit of colour. Two such postcards were bought from an art gallery gift shop in Berlin: two paintings by Kirchner. I decided to make myself a fresh pot of coffee and go in search of some more paintings online.
And I found them. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently holding an exhibition of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's work. There is a website filled with great examples of his painting, and plenty of information about his life and that of the Bridge movement. You can see it for yourself by clicking here.