UWA-WA1:P4 Assignment

I have chosen to analyse Three bathers by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner for this Assignment. It fits with the general theme of this part of the course, “Portraiture and figure painting”, it is available for me to view personally, and it was painted by a leader of German Expressionism, one of the founders of Die Brücke, at a critical time in Western history.

Painted in 1913, the work is held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) – see http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/158.1984/. This large painting shows three women, roughly life-sized, standing knee-deep in foaming surf. A bird flies overhead, a jellyfish floats in the trough of the wave looming behind. There is no shore, no horizon, no sky to be seen.

For the assignment I traced the main shapes on the computer then printed multiple versions on A3 paper. I used these at the gallery to make notes, but have chosen here to recreate them in clean electronic versions for greater clarity.

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kirchner_toneThis is not a painting of high contrasts. On the right I’ve used a desaturated version of the image, indicating highlights in yellow and deeper tones in purple. Both are distributed across the picture.

Dark tones form a perimeter around the painting, enclosing and framing the scene. Smaller areas are used to create shadows and definition on the figures.

The areas of lightest tone are the foam of the breaking waves, a closer frame encircling the figures. Highlights on the bodies model their forms. The light seems generally to be falling from above on the left, but it is not consistent. There is reflected light on the inside of thighs. One of the lightest areas is the palm of the left hand on the rightmost figure. This draws attention to a darker area, and also emphasises the awkward stance of the woman. The jellyfish and in particular the bird also include light areas, drawing attention to these rather odd additions to the scene.

kirchner_thresholdA black and white threshold version of the image helps to identify the focus placed on the main objects by the overall use of light and dark.

The feathery, fluttering forms of gull, foam splash and jellyfish surround the solid blocks of the figures. The sea, the entire environment, is hidden in dark depths.

kirchner_linesShown in light blue/turquoise on the diagram, there is a series of lines across the width of the picture leading down to the right. They follow the crests of the waves behind and in front, connecting the figures especially along shoulders and a long, stretched leg, and in a combination of bird wing and waves in the upper right.

However the image as a whole is not sliding off to the right. The space between the front figure and the edge makes this clear. There are also bolstering, protective lines, shown in green, pushing back on the right and pulling/anchoring on the left. In red are strong vertical lines, particularly in the front-most figure, resisting the surge and providing a stability (although on a practical note, from personal experience I suggest such an attempt to maintain balance in the swell will be ultimately unsuccessful). There are no horizontal lines, although in purple I have shown a few balancing, almost restful, movements in the ocean swell.

There are lines in the figures going in almost every direction – those descending diagonals, also including heads, jaws, breasts, but these are countered by slightly less strong opposite diagonals, and also the erect front figure. This supports the idea of a captured moment in time, of dramatic change about to happen, a tense calm before the (overwhelming?) force of the wave hits and the figures are tumbled and overturned. Renée Free suggested that “the successive repetition of the line of the wave opposed by the verticality of the figures stiffening to ward off the threat, creates the sense of psychological and physical clash by compositional means” (Free, [n.d.]), and certainly the sense of threat and unease is strong.

The jellyfish provides a strange, ambiguous moment. There are so many lines, but there is no sense of a prevailing movement. I imagine it riding up the face of the wave then bobbing down, without anchor, at the mercy of the forces surrounding it – but within itself unmoved, in its element. A side note: this same object is seen by Donald Gordon as a “weed-covered rock” (Gordon (1968, p.92). I have returned to the original, but cannot accept this.


Landscape with houses Georges Braque Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

Landscape with houses
Georges Braque
Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

On first view the picture appears to have a limited colour palette – largely blue-greens and yellow-orange-tans. Renée Free in an AGNSW publication ([n.d.]) suggested Kirchner’s colours were those used by Picasso and Braque, as in this painting of Braque’s, derived in turn from Cézanne. Free also quotes Donald Gordon’s comments about the monumentality of Three bathers, evidenced in part by the “starkly simple colour scheme, playing off the blue-green of the waves against the orange hues of the figures”. I think these comments over-simplify what is actually a very complex use of colour by Kirchner. The cubists were interested in form and worked with a restricted palette. Kirchner made complex use of colour, together with brush technique discussed below, to model form.

kirchner_colourOn the right I’ve picked out just a few of the many touches of red and green that can be seen in the “orange” figures.
kirchner_colour_2The most obvious use is on the lips, suggesting lipstick and the dislocation of urban figures into a natural environment. However there are reflections and touches of red in the shadows of the jaw, the hair, a trace on the upper chest…
kirchner_handThat awkwardly turned hand of the rightmost figure is detailed in red, further highlighting its importance in the composition.

This complex use of colour is very different to the throbbing slabs of colour of works by Kirchner only a few years earlier, such as Four Bathers, 1910 (the best images I found were page 9 of https://static.royalacademy.org.uk/files/kirchner-student-guide-13.pdf and http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/full.php?ID=57263). The differences could be due to a different location and light (the Moritzburg lakes rather than Fehmarn on the Baltic coast as in the focus painting), the tension of the threatening political situation, a move away from the influence of the fauves, or the new painting techniques Kircher had developed.

kirchner_techniqueKirchner used a range of techniques in different areas of the painting. The multiple layers of hatching used to model the forms of the figures is particularly interesting.
kirchner_hatching This section shows the torso of the central figure, bounded in front on the right by the arm of one figure and behind on the left by the arm of the other. The volumes are strongly modeled by a series of vigorous hatching lines in a wide variety of colours.

An early influence on Kirchner and other members of the Brücke group was tribal art seen at the Dresden Ethnographic Museum and coming from Palau, a Micronesian island at that time a colony of Germany. An angular mode began to appear in Die Brücke works. This was followed in Kirchner’s case by an interest in Buddhist cave paintings from Ajanta, India (see examples at http://www.indian-heritage.org/painting/ajanta/ajanta9.html). Kirchner wrote of these frescos “They are all plane and yet absolute mass and, accordingly, they have absolutely solved the mystery of painting” (quoted in Gordon (1987) p. 77). Donald Gordon explained “in the course of 1911 [Kirchner] devised a zigzag hatching technique to model such rounded forms, both in his drawings and his paintings”. In Gordon’s account the frescos helped Kirchner to consider means of representing forms in two dimensions, part of the “fundamental ambivalence between sculptural and pictorial values, between representation and decoration, that lay at the heart of Expressionist style” (Gordon, 1987, p. 77). In this context it is particularly interesting to view Kirchner’s carving Lying Woman (1911 – 1912) – see http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/lying-woman/cgEFqq71_NKCYQ?projectId=art-project.

kirchner_hatching_2This section shows that Kirchner used a broader version of the zig-zags to create the volume of the waves in the upper left section of the picture. The crest of the wave behind is a dense, heavy mass of greens, reaching over to stab down on the women. There is a lovely, wide, more open zigzag in dark blue further to the left, describing the deep swell of the sea. Elwyn Lynn wrote of this work “All is vibrating. The nudes come to look unsubstantial, the brushstrokes indicate a nervous uncertainty” (Lynn, 1984). In my eyes the figures are solid and three dimensional, but certainly their situation appears temporary. The broader, more integrated brushwork on the sea generally suggests a swelling force, the descending crest a crashing power, that cannot be resisted.

kirchner_foamThe frothy mass of the smaller wave that has broken in front of the figures uses an impasto technique, with thick blobs of paint, dribbles and flutters creating depth and movement. In person the lumps catch fragments of light, creating still more life and sparkle. In the splash to the right of the picture the dribbles break up into feathery lines of foam. Elsewhere complex layers of colour suggest the depth and mystery of the turbulent waters.

In considering the symbology apparent in the picture, it is useful to review the changes Kirchner made from an initial crayon sketch to the final work.
The image of the sketch is taken from a copy in Darby (1985). The most significant change made was to the left-most figure, transforming from a male to a female. This provides a clear reference to the symbology of the Three Graces. James Hall provided a number of alternate meanings and attributes of this trio – “the personification of grace and beauty”; “the threefold aspect of generosity, the giving, receiving and returning of gifts”; “three phases of love, beauty, arousing desire, leading to fulfilment; or “the personification of Charity, Beauty and Love” (Hall, 2008, pp. 312 – 313). Given the erotic nature of much of Kirchner’s work the phases of love seem fitting, but there is a certain stiffness and remoteness about the figures which partially negates this. These Graces are awkward rather than graceful.

The Three Graces are also frequently seen as attendants to a goddess, in particular Venus. The sprays of foam around the feet of the figures is certainly reminiscent of the familiar image of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/the-birth-of-venus-by-sandro-botticelli/), although here there is no gentle breeze caressing, or shy shielding of bodies. When looking at mythological paintings earlier in the course we were asked if these could still be relevant, and I think this more modern take with its edge of unease is a meaningful update.

This is not the only instance of myth in Kirchner’s work. Judgement of Paris (1913) is held by the Wilhelm-Hack Museum (see http://www.wilhelmhack.museum/no_cache/sammlung/moderne/expressionismus-und-dada/ernst-ludwig-kirchner.html?sword_list%5B0%5D=kirchner), but I found a better image in a Royal Academy publication (see https://static.royalacademy.org.uk/files/kirchner-student-guide-13.pdf, p. 12). In this “highly unusual and modern interpretation” we see “three modern, urban goddesses, … striking, mask-like features …, parading in front of a dark and mysterious Paris”, who may be Kirchner (Miall, 2003, p. 13). The three women are again arranged tightly together in a descending line, their faces clearly showing the influence of the Ajanta paintings. This time instead of an absent artist we see him in shadows, judging, disconnected.

Another interesting comparison is La ville de Paris (ca. 1911) by Robert Delaunay – see http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/la-ville-de-paris/uQEJzCuAIO4mvQ?projectId=art-project). Here the three graces are seen in an urban environment, very clearly Paris. In this, “while still interested in portraying simultaneous views of his subjects, [Delaunay] rejected Cubism’s privileging of line over color and its virtual elimination of visual sensation through its muted palette” (The Toledo Museum of Art, [n.d.]). There is no angst or alienation here, and the colours as seen on the computer image are beautiful.

A second area of change from the sketch is the alignment of the bird to the upper right. The inward pressure in the final picture is an important structural element. Darby, following Hall, suggests this is a “symbol of air, one of the four elements”. This interpretation would highlight the absence of any land, let alone fire, to be seen. Venus can be associated with doves or swans, but this bird looks more like a seagull – which I’ve seen referred to as both good and bad omens for seamen.

The third change marked is the size, positioning and detail of the jellyfish. Darby again finds a mythological link, with “girdle of venus” a colloquial name for jellyfish. My internet search suggests this is a particular, flat, ribbon-like jellyfish, quite unlike the one shown in the painting. However the name could perhaps be used more generally. The change of position and sharpening of shape allows the jellyfish to provide an inverted continuation of the line of elbows and breasts across the canvas.

The sea is the birthplace of Venus, or Aphrodite (a name which may be associated with aphros, foam). Water is the source of life, and the threat of drowning; it can cleanse or engulf; the sea can be therapeutic, health-giving; it can be dark and mysterious; it is an unstoppable, undeniable force of nature. The figures stand in this seething mass, and their own position and nature is ambiguous. Their feet can’t be seen – are they mermaids rising from the depths? And come to that, where is the painter? He seems to be below, looking up, but there is no sign of the shore. He must be awash.

Donald Gordon wrote that “the prime emotional state of Expressionism is tension, ambiguity, ambivalence” (1987, p. xvi). The artists are reacting to their society and situation, anxious and critical of the stresses and alienation of urban life, rebelling. There was fear and hope – “central to the Expressionist enterprise was reciprocity: hope as answer to fear, decline as prerequisite for renewal” (ibid, p. 3).

In the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a canvas by Kirchner which vividly illustrates these concerns and ambivalence – http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78426. On the front of the canvas is Street, Dresden (1908; reworked 1919; dated on painting 1907). Using heightened colours, Kirchner shows “figures with masklike faces and vacant eyes in an attempt to capture the psychological alienation wrought by modernization” (MoMA, 2009). The scene is crowded, bustling, airless, but each figure is alone in the crowd. On the reverse is a natural landscape, and nude women bathing. Continuing the theme of ambiguity, Gordon discusses this same work in comparison to Munch’s Evening on Karl Johan Street. There is the same “aura of decadence” and “anxious expressions”, but Gordon concludes that “despite protestations, Kirchner at some level wanted the Munch connection to be seen – in order to stress his conversion of a gloomy attitude into a gayer one” (Gordon, 1987, p. 29).

Nature and the City
kirchner_natureThe figures in this picture have chosen to bathe in the sea, but they are uncomfortable, alien. Rather than nurturing, nature surrounds and threatens. A bird arrows in, a jellyfish comes up behind perhaps about to sting, water is everywhere, about to mindlessly destroy. The individual will be lost to greater forces.

Lynn (1984) compared this to the painting by Braque shown above: “Braque gives order and completeness to nature; Kirchner tears it asunder with a conflict of adventurousness and timidity, threats and naive aspirations to harmony”. This is consistent with the ambiguity and tension of Expressionism. Will the bathers actually be overcome? Darby (1985, p.5) suggests that while “vulnerable and at the mercy of the elements” the figures “seem set to triumph over the threat and survive to be further fortified by nature”. This suggests the health-giving, restorative qualities of the sea are ultimately stronger than its mindless force.

Around the time of this painting Kirchner embarked on his series of urban street scenes, showing the decadence and moral and personal disintegration of the city. Darby continued “[Kirchner’s] paintings of prostitutes in the streets of Berlin, painted immediately after Three Bathers provide a contrast; his bathers retain some hope.”

Hope, War and beyond
Where Darby sees hope, Gordon sees something else – “the facial expressions of all three bathers and, particularly, the protective bunching of the shoulder muscles behind the neckless head of the rear figure betray an emotion which up to now was lacking in Kirchner’s imagery: fear” (Gordon, 1968, pp. 91-92). This directly raises the political situation of the time. In the summer of 1914 Kirchner and his companions were forced to flee early from their annual retreat in Fehmarn, following the declaration of war. On the journey home Kirchner was twice mistaken for a Russian spy.

Kirchner was an ‘involuntary volunteer’, signing up as an artillery driver to avoid conscription to the infantry. He suffered a series of mental and physical breakdowns. In Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915 – see http://www.oberlin.edu/amam/Kirchner_SelfPortrait.htm) Kirchner brutally records the damage and loss he feared as both artist and human being. The model in the background shows many similarities to the figures in Three Bathers – a life and world now irrelevant and powerless.

In 1916 Kirchner painted a mural in the Sanatorium where he was staying.

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The panel on the right seems to show a return to the Three Graces. The central figure is now seen from back, a more classical presentation. The “jellyfish” is definitely a rock, the bird of omen is now nearly past. The figures are now deeper, up to their waists in water, and the black smoke of modern engines is seen above. Can we claim that the worst has happened, the cataclysm hit, and the gaunt survivors have come to some kind of accommodation to their new reality? Are individuals once more able to connect with each other, to find a measure of freedom and joy?

For Kirchner himself it seems his life continued to be a struggle. Towards the end of his life he wrote ‘Did you know that as far back as 1900 I had the audacious idea of renewing German art? … I wanted to express the richness and joy of living, to paint humanity at work and at play in its reactions and interreactions and to express love as well as hatred…’ (quoted in Gordon, 1987, p.2). Kirchner admired the works of earlier German painters such as Cranach and Dürer (in this assignment I haven’t considered Three Bathers in the context of the history of nude paintings, but there is obvious potential for comparisons with Cranach’s The Three Graces, (1535 – see http://nelson-atkins.org/collections/iscroll-objectview.cfm?id=19958) and Dürer’s The Four Witches (1497 – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Four_Witches , which could potentially be viewed as Aphrodite and the three graces)).

Instead of leading a new, vital German art, in 1926 Kirchner wrote “Modern German painting has moved so far away from me and become unintelligible in areas in which my work had, and still has, an influence…” (quoted in Kornfeld and Stauffer, 1992, p. 10). In 1933 the situation had worsened. Kirchner wrote “In the museums, the hard-won cultural achievements of the last 20 years are being destroyed, and yet the reason why founded the Brücke was to encourage truly German art, made in Germany. And now it is supposed to be un-German. Dear God. It does upset me.” (ibid, p. 12). In 1937 works by Kirchner were confiscated as part of the German campaign to ‘cleanse’ modern art, works by Kirchner were included in the “Exhibition of Degenerate Art”, and he was expelled from membership of The Academy of Arts in Berlin. In 1938 Kirchner took his own life.

Textile afternote:
I’m always happy to find textile connections when researching artists. Kirchner designed both embroideries and tapestries, although the only online images I’ve found is a small one of Black Spring, 1929 executed by Lise Gujer (http://www.bruecke-museum.de/sammlung_horn.htm) and some large stitching on a tablecloth in a photograph of Kirchner’s studio in Berlin in 1912 (http://fiftytwopieces.blogspot.com.au/2009/06/ernst-ludwig-kirchner-portraits-and.html). There was a flow-back into Kirchner’s painting, in what is called his “tapestry style” – see http://www.thearttribune.com/Ernst-Ludwig-Kirchner.html#nb2.

Darby, G. (1985) An iconographical study of E. L. Kirchner’s Three Bathers 1913 (Manuscript) Methodology Essay Fine Arts IV 1985 (University of Sydney) Typescript.

Free, R. ([n.d.] “The First Acquisition”. Photocopy sighted in Art Gallery of New South Wales Research Library. Publication details not available.

Gordon, D. (1968) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gordon, D. (1987) Expressionism: Art and Idea. New Haven: Yale University Press

Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of subjects and symbols in art. Boulder: Westview Press

Lynn, E (1984) “Nature versus humanity” in The Weekend Australian, 1-2 Sept, Surry Hills.

Kornfeld, EW and Stauffer, CE (1992) Biography Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Kirchner Museum Davos [online] Available from http://www.kirchnermuseum.ch/data/media/downloads/Biography.pdf (Accessed 12-Jul-2014)

Miall, N. (2003) Kirchner: Expressionism and the city: An Introduction to the Exhibition for Teachers and Students Royal Academy of Arts [online] Available from https://static.royalacademy.org.uk/files/kirchner-student-guide-13.pdf (Accessed 29-Jun-2014)

MoMA (2009) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Street, Dresden Gallery Label Text. [online] Available from http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78426 (Accessed 29-Jun-2014)

The Toledo Museum of Art, [n.d.] Catalogue entry [online] Available from http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/la-ville-de-paris/uQEJzCuAIO4mvQ?projectId=art-project (Accessed 7-Jul-2014)

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