Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
In Dresden in 1905 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner banded together with Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and others to form Die Brücke (The Bridge), a group devoted to the cause of shaking German art to its academic roots and transforming it into something contemporary and revolutionary. In their manifesto, they declared: “We wish to establish our freedom of action and life against well-established older forces.” Taking their cue from the French Post-Impressionists and Fauves, they chose their subjects from the world around them, depicting city life, friends, landscapes, and music halls. Disparaging the studied classicism of academic painting, they filled their art with emotional energy rendered in acrid colors and with frenzied brushstrokes, thus defining the signature style of German Expressionism.
Gerda, Half-Length Portrait was painted after Kirchner had moved to Berlin and Die Brücke had disbanded. The stylized pose and angularity of the figure set within a radically foreshortened background are typical of the artist’s mature style. The rough-hewn features of her face also call to mind Kirchner’s interest in African masks. The intensity of the composition, the combined result of a harsh palette and sketchlike drawing, is made more dynamic by the highly abstract space surrounding the figure. The seductive, confrontational pose of the subject, the dancer Gerda Schilling (who was the older sister of the artist’s future common-law wife), has an affinity with Kirchner’s psychologically charged Berlin streetscapes of prostitutes and bourgeois life.
After World War I Kirchner suffered from medical problems that occasioned his resettlement to the Swiss countryside. There, living in relative seclusion, he shifted to painting landscapes and other nature scenes invested with a mystical aura. In 1938 (the year after the Nazis included his work in the Entartete Kunst [Degenerate Art] exhibition), despondent and in failing health, Kirchner took his own life.