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Berlin Street Scene (Berliner Straßenszene) remains one of the most famous paintings by German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. This was part of a significant series of work during this period which many consider to be amongst the most influential within the German Expressionist movement.
Over the years of 1913-1915 Kirchner produced a series of paintings that focused on the social lives of the wealthy within Germany. This would sometimes reveal the underbelly of society that others would not have been aware of, such as Berlin Street Scene which examines the role of prostitution at that time. The untrained eye would not be aware of this presence within the painting, but a broader knowledge of the artist and also his work over this period reveals a darker meaning to this piece. The main focus of this composition is two men and two women in the foreground - all are dressed smartly, with one of the women starting directly at a tall gentlemen whose facial portrait is provided in an unrealistic but expressive manner.
Kirchner's approach to portraiture was not concerned with precision or realism but emotion and energy - this approach has proven supremely popular but took time to be fully accepted by art academics and also the wider public in general. The artist's brushstrokes were long and aggressive and the more detailed image below of Berlin Street Scene will help you to fully appreciate the style adopted by Kirchner. The purity of colour is also more evident when viewing this painting up close, with relatively undiluted yellows, reds and blues contained by darker strokes of colour to create the clearest of form.
"...The street scenes developed in the years from 1911 to 1914. It was one of the loneliest times in my life, in which I wandered through the long streets full of people and wagons through day and night in agonizing unrest..."
Quote by Kirchner during this period of work and study
It is believed that Otto Mueller, a friend of Kirchner, was the model for both of the gentlemen seen in the foreground of this painting. Sisters Erna and Gerad Schilling are known to have posed as the two prostitutes. When taking a closer look at the outfits worn in this painting, which symbolise each figure's role and significance in the artwork, you will see that the women are dressed with decorative lace collars and high-end hats. They could almost be off for a day at the races. A further inspection reveals that this busy scene is along a city street, with a small carriage and bright wheels visible in the background.
In the top left of the canvas one can make out the number 15 in a white circle. This is likely to be signage for a tram line, suggesting the street may have been at the Potsdamer Platz or the Brandenburg Gate. On first viewing, this painting seems to be a collection of figures and an agressive use of abstract colour, but there is actually a large amount of detail to spot over time. Those familiar with the work of Kirchner will be more intune with this.