Prostitutes were the big difference in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s life. When he lived in Dresden he showed definite artistic talent but he didn’t have anything in particular to say. His paintings and drawings weren’t yet fully his own. He was still learning about the world and still learning about his own talent.
Then, in 1911, he moved to Berlin. He quickly acquainted himself with the new Berlin prostitutes. They were out there in the streets, roaming, hunting. He was out there too, alone with his sketchpad. He was watching the movement of people in the late night air, a certain flickering of the streetlights along Potsdamer Platz. His sketches from that period take on a mania. The lines are flying all over the page. Kirchner is after something now, a specific tempo and density, a tightening of perspective that pulls the visual field right up around your face like a fisheye lens. At the center of the frame, the prostitute.
Ernst Kirchner’s studies of the Berlin street have a similarity to the writings of social critics like Georg Simmel, poets like Baudelaire, and philosophers like Walter Benjamin more than they relate to the history of painting or to German Expressionism. Certainly he was affected by the revolutionary techniques emerging out of Cubism, Futurism, and ongoing experiments in painterly abstraction. But Kirchner was driven by something more fundamental. Like Simmel and Benjamin, he was obsessed with experience and the way that it was being transformed by the modern city. He was looking for a way to express that transformation. What he discovered, perhaps to his surprise, was that the coquettes of the Berlin street were the embodiment of this new form of experience, the way it moved and the way it felt. The modern world was expressing its deepest nature in the strut of the prostitute.
The “sociological” aspect of Kirchner’s painting has been discussed for almost a century. The centrality of prostitutes is generally interpreted as a form of commentary and/or critique of modern life. The naked commercial transaction at the heart of the prostitute’s trade becomes a metaphor for the empty and brutal commercialism of modernity itself. Well, that’s true as far as it goes. But I’m not sure it tells us much about the power of Kirchner’s Berlin street paintings. The paintings are almost strangely value-indifferent. They are more like studies than like commentary. They are about the phenomenological situation of the prostitute, not the political one.
Kirchner shows, in paint and canvas, that the streets of Berlin just before the first World War met their perfect compliment in the prostitute. Prostitutes knew how to walk that street, how to move on its terms, how to inhabit it as a natural environment. One of the excellent things about the exhibit at MoMA (and its online compliment) is you can compare the finished paintings with some of the drawings and sketches that precede them. The female figures in the sketches are basically just lines, quick pencil marks on a page. Kirchner saw prostitutes as a form of movement more than anything else. This form of movement is isomorphic, it shares a basic look and feel, with the urban background from which it emerges. The lines that delineate the form of the prostitutes in Kirchner’s sketches are continuous with the lines that make up the street itself. They are extensions of one another. They can’t exist without one another. The Berlin street is the form whose proper content is the prostitute, and the prostitute is the character whose natural mode of behavior can only be realized on the Berlin street.
A painting like “Five Women on the Street” (1913), for instance, doesn’t really show us the street at all. The five women are enough. They are the background, they are the street. One of the sketchbooks, Sketchbook 53, gives us a clear sense of how this painting came to be. The sketch is wild and pointy with a central figure who defines the space. As Kirchner turned the sketch into a painting he filled out the figures and added color. Bodies, faces, and clothing become more distinct. Kirchner isn’t interested in abstraction. He wants us to see the scene for what it is, for what it represents. But he doesn’t want us to forget that it is all about lines either. The prostitute at the center of the painting is nearly cut in half by a strong line the separates one half of the painting from the other. It’s as if the line resolves itself into a woman and the woman simultaneously dissolves again into the line.
In an amazing painting from 1914 — “Street Scene” — a pair of prostitutes slink toward the viewer while a long line of men in black hats follow behind. Three of the men hold their left legs out like dancers or figure skaters. They are in training, learning how to move. The prostitutes, cool and blasé, are showing the men how to be modern. Being modern, it turns out, is a way of gliding along the street, which Kirchner portrays in “Street Scene” (1914), as well as in a number of other paintings, as a curve of lime green. Here, strict realism is abandoned in the name of a more important realism, the realism of line and movement and experience. Kirchner takes the street away in order to portray what it is actually like.
As the street itself became the subject of his art, the importance of actual architectural elements within his paintings receded further to the background and the human figures jumped to the fore. His early paintings of street scenes in Dresden are much more literally about streets and buildings. But they aren’t showing us very much about how the street is experienced. The Berlin street scene paintings are exactly the reverse. They portray very little of the actual street and show us everything about what the street is like. Later in life, when Kirchner left Berlin for Switzerland he took up the street scene now and again. But the immediacy of experience was no longer there. “Street Scene at Night” (1926-7) returns to the detachment of the earlier work in Dresden. There isn’t a prostitute to be found. • 6 August 2008