Not since last season's Georges Seurat: The Drawings has there been such a singular display of flânerie's golden heyday as the vivid images of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's street walkers now gracing the walls of the Museum of Modern Art. This time around, flash forward from Seurat's Paris of the 1880s to pre-war Berlin of the 1910s, and our new go-to guy with the art supplies is a homesick German Expressionist. Out on the streets, he's watching the ladies of the evening as they prowl the night. Kirchner paints his kokotten in wide elongated criss-crossed brush strokes to exaggerate their brightly patterned geometries, their orange-red lipstick, mascara eyes, high heels, and feathery plumaged neckline and hats. They're theatrical and domineering, commanding Berlin as their center stage. Herr Kirchner is smitten mit dem Kätzchen.
Kirchner's move from Dresden to Berlin in 1911 proved to be a hard transition. A story told a thousand times, the artist hoped to meet great success upon moving to the big city, but sometimes, as we all know, the big city can let you down. Fellow buddies of his art group, the Brücke (Bridge) moved to Berlin as well, but the group couldn't hang after a couple of years. The Berlin avant-garde had gone abstract on them, and so the Brücke group members' representational work started looking parochial. Out of loneliness, Kirchner started wandering the streets. As we learn from one of the text panels, the artist remembered, "An agonizing restlessness drove me out onto the streets day and night, which were filled with people and cars." Out of these wanderings emerged the tour-de-force of his Street Scenes, a topic he began to explore in the fall of 1913 and continued until 1915.
The range of media impresses. Along with the central paintings, with the wonderful Postdamer Platz (1914) serving as the exhibition's focal point, the museum shows us Kirchner's woodcuts, drypoints, inks, and pastels. In addition, three sketchbooks reveal the process of an artist making quick gesture drawings on location, penciling in ideas to fully work out once back at home. He's also a good student of the sociology of the strassenszene, distinguishing the cocottes from ordinary people in their drabber street clothes and from the flâneur types with their top hats and canes. The men of Kirchner's street scenes, interchangeable for the most part and upstaged by the street women, function like backup dancers.
The exhibition engages in some speculation that Kirchner identified with the prostitutes, arguing that as a lonely person in Berlin he probably emotionally connected with their status of alienation and marginality. I don't know if we have to go there. First of all, they don't look marginal to me at all. They fill the whole canvas. He could just as well be projecting his own desire for attention. Or not. Maybe, he's just a guy into visuals, and he liked the spectacle, in the midst of the burgeoning modern city speeding by, of these fabulously colorful creatures of the night.
Kirchner and the Berlin Street
through November 10, 2008
3rd floor, Special Exhibitions Gallery
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
11 W. 53rd St.
The online version of the exhibition may be found here at this MoMA website.