INTERVIEW WITH DR. FELIX KRÄMER
A new retrospective of the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the first in 30 years, will be shown in Germany—and it will change the way Kirchner’s work is seen. Art critic Dorothee Baer-Bogenschütz spoke to Felix Krämer, who is curating the exhibition at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.
Does the show at the Städel signify a breakthrough in research on Kirchner, or was the re-assessment of his oeuvre already previously underway?
It began before; after all, we are all children of our time.
When did the view of Kirchner begin to change?
Let’s say around the turn of the new century. When we began preparing for this show, I was surprised to learn that there hasn’t been a Kirchner retrospective in Germany in thirty years.
The order of the day—or sudden inspiration?
Coincidence. I joined the Städel in summer 2008, although not with a firm intention to be the first to show Kirchner. But during my first thorough examination of the collection, I realized how large the inventory actually is—around four hundred works. We own 280 prints, a good hundred watercolors and drawings, fifteen paintings, two sculptures, and a carpet.
Including as-yet unfamiliar gems. What is it about the Nude at the Window?
On the reverse is one of the rare, early works that was not re-worked. Since the painting is signed, we know that it is a finished composition, because Kirchner only signed his work when he wanted to exhibit or sell it. Its large size and the motif of his lover at the time, Dodo, ensure it an important place in his body of work. It will be on public display for the first time.
Kirchner regarded the Bathers triptych as one of his best pieces. It was last shown in 1933. The reason . . . ?
Yes, the panels are divided among three owners: the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Kirchner Museum in Davos, and a private collection.
Now, after three-quarters of a century, the paintings will be reunited.
Yes; actually, in Germany, the triptych hasn’t been seen since 1926.
Does Kirchner’s work reflect much of his life and the ruptures that occurred during it?
In the show, I try to put that into perspective. What we see in his work is not necessarily life in pictures.
Did he work hard instead at presentation and stylization?
That’s it. In this respect, I am distancing myself from Kirchner’s rhetoric. He wanted people to believe that life had a direct effect on him, and that he then transformed this into artistic work.
At the same time, he felt immensely German, like van Eyck, and wanted to be sure that that was being communicated, especially internationally.
Albrecht Dürer was his hero. He wanted to be the modern Dürer. I can imagine that the self-portrait in Munich impressed him as a good idea of the artistic persona.
He wanted to be the new Dürer, rather than the German Picasso?
And he had a French critic—a fictitious one—attest to his stylistic heritage? This painter certainly didn’t shrink from anything when it came to building his own legend, did he?
In those days, anyone who wanted to have an international reputation had to succeed in France. But there was an attempt to present a formative German school as an alternative to French art. We can see from his work that Kirchner was influenced by French art, but he denied it. He invented his own art critic as a sort of chief witness. If a Frenchman said that his art had nothing to do with France, then any number of Germans might see Matisse in it.
How is the exhibition organized?
Since I am personally very interested in the way that Kirchner presented himself, we’re starting with a chapter called “A View of Kirchner.” The idea is to provide an overview of his broad spectrum of styles, which will surprise many. Many Germans have only the Brücke Kirchner in their heads. The set-up is chronological, but there are certain groups within that. The second chapter is devoted to Kirchner’s early years, the third deals with his time as an Expressionist in Dresden, and the fourth is set in Berlin. The latter includes a room full of street scenes only, but there are also the cocottes and the pictures he did on the island of Fehmann. Then there’s the war and the breakdown, his first years in Davos, and then his late work, the so-called Neue Stile, or New Style. Altogether, there are 170 works in the retrospective, including many first-class works on loan from various places around the world.
Do you allow yourself to get carried away by the crazy things, such as the rebuilding of the studio?
I am against recreating history. Authenticity is the only thing that recreations can lay claim to. I was just in Davos. The floorboards are creaky, the wind whistles through the walls, the fabrics no longer have the same scent. It would be like dumping sand in a museum and then laying out some fishing nets. You still wouldn’t have a sense of what it is like to be at the beach.
Or to be a fish and move around in the utmost privacy.
Just so. By the way, we are not going to show the bed or the stool that he carved; that was furniture for his house.
Apropos private life: how do you see his relationship to little girls, especially in light of recent revelations of pedophilia?
A great deal of time was spent on the passages dealing with that subject in the catalogue. There is a group of pornographic works in the show. I wanted to address the topic of sexuality among the young artists of Die Brücke, since it was a crucial force.
Fränzi is eight.
I write that these children were exploited. We know what the studios looked like, that there were copulation scenes on cloths, and that sex acts are even depicted on the stove tiles. There are very clear sketches of Fränzi with her legs spread, which I am not showing, because I don’t want to be applauded by the wrong side. When the literature today claims that the relationship to Fränzi probably went beyond the platonic, then it is making light of it, on one hand, and on the other, it enters the realm of speculation.
What does the exhibition convey?
A fresh perspective of Kirchner. I hope that a younger generation, in particular, will discover him. After all, it’s been thirty years since we’ve been able to create a comprehensive overview. It would be presumptuous, however, to say that this is a whole new Kirchner.
Perhaps a more contradictory one?
The contradictions have definitely been addressed before, but as a problem. I see them as an opportunity. It’s still fascinating.