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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was one of the most influential Expressionist artists of the 20th century and his paintings were most famous for their abstract forms and bright colour choices.

Kirchner's compositions have been categorised into two very different types. There is firstly the cityscapes of Dresden and Berlin, part of which helped to bring about the famous Die Brücke art movement. There was then the scenes of rural Switzerland, which connects Kirchner's career with that of Paul Klee and August Macke. Despite the relatively close proximity of these locations, Kirchner was actually an artist whose style was derived from international influences, both famously African art and also influences from the Oceanic region. This was an artistically-educated individual who found a way to effectively fuse the best qualities of European art with other external influences.

European artists across the past two centuries have been inspired by foreign influences, with Japanese and African art being amongst the most prominent. The likes of Van Gogh and Monet would collect Japanese art prints and produce paintings or study sketches based on them. With the age of the mainstream newspaper and world wide web still waiting to be developed, getting hold of original artworks was the best way of learning more about foreign art. There were publications to research more about these techniques, but none had the required reproduction qualities of the original to properly explain the technical intracacies delivered by these artists. African art was clearly Kirchner's preference, and photographs have been uncovered of his domestic interior, spruced up with an extraordinary display of these very same influences.

The artist's use of perspective was also extraordinary, stretching reality into his own preferred depictions. He was proudly modernist and found many likeminded artists in and around this region of Europe during the early 20th century. Some have even compared the elongated forms in his paintings with those of El Greco, whose career came around many centuries earlier. Kirchner was very familiar with movements of previous centuries, he just happened to be much more enthusiastic about forging new paths rather than just reproducing what had already been achieved by others. This is common with many from the early to mid 20th century who held great respect and admiration for the great masters, but simply wanted to innovative new ideas themselves. Their own artistic education would have inevitably brought these names from the past to their attention, but collectively they desired to move things onwards once more.

Kirchner's colour schemes were undeniably bold and bright but he never went quite as far as Fauvists, such as Henri Matisse. Instead his palette was slightly less vivid and he also liked to make use of black strokes around his figures and objects, in a similar manner to Franz Marc. One can almost say that he took the best of other European artists to produce his own style and his success has lasted up to the present day, without any signs of diminishing any time soon. Whilst the German regime in power at the time that he was at the height of his fame attempted to destroy his reputation and career, his quality as an artist has ensured he made it through this onslaught, even though his own life was sadly lost. Thankfully most of the other notable German Expressionists would also manage to rise above this considerable challenge and ultimately have their impressive work recognised on the international stage.

Kirchner also was involved in other mediums throughout his career which helped to feed his hunger for experimentation that could not be satisfied just through oil painting. There were thousands of drawings, for example, as well as watercolours and a multitude of combinations which was typical of artists in the 20th century. Photography would also become a particularly important creative outlet for the artist over time and he was known to have understood many of the technical aspects of this art form which was still in its relative infancy at that time. A museum in Davos was set up in his name and has on display many of these different artworks which helps us all to better understand the full breadth of his oeuvre, which is often limited to just his paintings in the majority of exhibitions or discussions of his work. This website attempts to cover each and every aspect of his life and career in detail, to make it the best resource on this highly regarded artist.

The keenest followers of art will immediately spot similarities between his work and that of several related artists. The expressive style of Edvard Munch can be seen here, as well as a similarly emotional style of painting used by Egon Schiele. These were all major players within North European art and several key movements formed a consistency in style. We all know about the Der Blaue Reiter, which included the likes of Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, but Kirchner helped to form another significant group of artists, and this movement was named Die Brücke, which translates into English as "The Bridge". The exciting work of these artists, with bold colours and semi-abstract forms have made them all very popular for art print reproductions, with most major retailers offering a fine selection of the best work from each of their careers. See also his own Photographs.

Die Brücke

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a founding member of the groundbreaking German art movement, known as Die Brücke, and formed in the city of Dresden in 1905. At that stage he was joined by fellow enthusiasts Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. They are all considered significant influences on the direction of German art in the 20th century, but certainly did not have quite the same level of legacy as Kirchner. Whilst Die Brücke is not revered in quite the same way as another famous German art movement, Der Blaue Reiter, it still can be considered influential and ultimately spawned some of the greatest artists in the nation's history.

This collection of Expressionist artists would draw in several new members after achieving a level of academic praise but would only last a total of 8 years, ending in 1913. The First World War disrupted huge parts of society right across Europe and many of these great names were lost to the world as a result of the outbreak of war. Thankfully, German art from around this period had built a strong enough reputation to last to the present day, aided by the way in which some of its contributions had influenced artists that followed on generations later. Such is the dominance of his reputation over other members of the Die Brücke group, Kirchner's name will always be used when mentioning this group, much in the same way as Alphonse Mucha is with Art Nouveau and Claude Monet is with Impressionism.