Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
In 1905 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner joined Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff—all former architecture students who had turned to painting in search of greater self-expression and more immediate means of communication—to found a new art coalition: Die Brücke (The Bridge). The Dresden-based group, part of the larger German Expressionist movement, developed an aesthetic style defined by agitated, coarse lines and intense, blunt colors. Their intention was to wage battle against the constricting forces of bourgeois culture, which they associated with mediocrity, corruption, and weakness. Kirchner’s emphasis on self-empowerment and absolute freedom from convention was manifested in his early art by the predominance of erotic subject matter. The female nude—crudely rendered as “primitive” and submissive—served him and his colleagues as a sign of male domination and virility.
Artillerymen, painted two years after Die Brücke’s dissolution, marked a change in subject matter. The picture depicts an assembly of naked male soldiers, overseen by a clothed military official. Their attenuated bodies are compressed into an airless, low-ceilinged chamber. Created after Kirchner had been drafted into the German army in 1914 and subsequently released on the grounds of mental instability, this image suggests the artist’s sense of overwhelming vulnerability. The naked, showering soldiers are powerless as individuals; their wills have been subjected to the rigidity and anonymity of military life. The view that Artillerymen represents Kirchner’s horror of the war (and fear for his own life) is corroborated in a more overtly autobiographical painting from the same period, Self-Portrait as Soldier. In this oft-reproduced work, a gaunt uniformed Kirchner presents his own severed arm to the viewer, an allusion to the terror of artistic impotence and, ultimately, of death. The presence of a nude female model behind him extends the metaphor to include the possibility of castration, the fear of which would be particularly powerful given Kirchner’s conflation of sexual prowess, cultural liberation, and aesthetic achievement.