Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Editorial Staff

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond recently announced the acquisition of the Ludwig and Rosy Fischer collection of German Expressionist art—widely considered one of the finest groupings of material in the world. Assembled by the couple between 1905 and 1925 while living in Frankfurt, Germany, the Fisher collection comprises over 200 works that includes oil paintings, sculptures, watercolors and drawings, prints, and portfolios and illustrated books. Among the artists represented are Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Wassily Kandinsky, August Macke, Max Pechstein, Conrad Felixmüller, Otto Müller, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and Lyonel Feininger. This acquisition relates to a small number of works already in the museum’s permanent collection, but many are the first to represent a given artist.

The emphasis in the Fischer collection is on the artists’ group known as Die Brücke, or the Bridge—formed in 1905 by Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and later joined by Pechstein and Müller—that was a leading force in the German Expressionist movement. The VMFA’s curator of modern and contemporary art, John Ravenal, explains, “The genre’s vibrant colors and slashing strokes are the hallmarks of an art that values subjective feelings above objective observations.”

One particularly striking example from the collection is Two Streetwalkers, a pastel sketch by Kirchner that dates from 1914. The sketch relates to Kirchner’s celebrated series of Street Scenes made between 1913 and 1917 while living in Berlin. These images of streetwalkers transform his earlier interest in female eroticism into something more decadent and urban. Two Streetwalkers was the study for the large oil painting Two Women on the Street (1914) now in the collection of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf. It is believed that the painting was executed several months after the sketch, as Kirchner added black “widow’s” veils to cover the both prostitute’s faces—a disguise many wore after the outbreak of World War I in August of that year. In Kirchner’s painting the color palette has also changed; the sickly pink and yellow tones are more exaggerated and are emphasized by the dark green background.

Kichner was born in Frankfurt in 1880, and at the age of twenty-one studied architecture in Dresden before joining Die Brücke and pursuing a bohemian artistic life. In 1911 he moved to Berlin along with other members of Die Brücke—a productive period for the artists—but by 1913 disagreements fractured the group and it disbanded shortly after. In 1915 Kirchner joined the army, but was discharged after a mental and physical breakdown during his training, and in 1917 went to Switzerland for recovery. He stayed in a town near Davos, where he continued to make paintings using the local landscape and farmers as subject matter, adopting a more static and flat compositions that were later used as designs in collaboration with Lise Gujar to create tapestries, until his suicide in 1938.

Learn more:
* Visit the VMFA online to see an interactive video of additional works from the Fischer collection.

* In 2008 Kirchner’s Street Scenes were the subject of a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that is documented online in a capsule website that examines his paintings and sketches from the period.
* There are several books available on Kirchner, but for more detailed information about the Fischer collection, see German Expressionist Art: The Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection by Frederick R. Brandt et al. (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1987).

Do you know of other great places to see and learn more about German Expressionist art? Leave a comment below and let us know.