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Kirchner's Hollow Women

German expressionism on display at the Museum of Modern Art.

12:00 AM, Sep 10, 2008 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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DEBORAH WYE, CHIEF CURATOR of prints and illustrations at the Museum of Modern Art, laments that German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) is still "not so well known in the States as he should be." And so she has organized a show devoted to a single chapter of his work: the Berlin street scenes of 1913-15, arguably the high-water mark of German expressionism.

"Kirchner and the Berlin Street" opens with a bang. Seven street paintings, each vertical, nearly four feet tall, and hung close together, arrest the viewer like advertisements. In Kirchner's painted world, there are no straight lines or natural colors. Everything is lurid and crooked, divided into diagonals tracing the messy hems of coats, furtive bowler hats, red lips, and cigarette butts. As in illuminated medieval manuscripts, which Kirchner studied and praised, perspective does not govern space; and without it, there is no way to tell foreground from background. But out of this chaos, Kirchner finds a fragile compositional balance, which--so fraught with sick energy and color--could break at any moment.

It is with these first seven paintings that "Kirchner and the Berlin Street" proves that modest shows about middling artists can, in fact, be the best shows out there. It's concise, meditative, without pretension, and without fluff.

Wye has smartly arranged the paintings in a way that echoes the works' inherent frenzy and power. In the center of the room, they hang on a wall made of seven overlapping panels, one for each painting. In effect, she divides the wall as Kirchner divided the space in his paintings.

Coupled with the street scenes are 60 small prints, pastel works, and drawings lining the walls of the gallery. Some are 15-minute studies of nudes; others, dancers and street corners. Against one wall three sketchbooks are laid out for viewing under glass. To their left there's a wonderful device--the first I've seen--with a touchscreen that lets you navigate through the sketchbooks page by page. It's the gallery equivalent of shuffling through items on an iPhone.

Kirchner started the street series in the fall of 1913 when Europe was teetering on the brink of world war, and when Berlin itself was growing into a big city fast. In 1870 Berlin had a population of only 850,000 citizens but by 1900 had bloomed past two million, trailing only London and Paris as Europe's most populous city. In 1911 Kirchner made the move from small city life in Dresden, where he studied architecture, to Berlin, the new hub of luxury, industry, and the avant-garde art world. He considered metropolitan life glamorous, but also alienating, especially since he was working solo after the group he had formed and worked with closely for years--Die Brücke (The Bridge)--disbanded in 1913.

Kirchner used a terrific phrase--"the ecstasy of first sight"--to describe the moment when the forms he drew stopped being just forms and started taking on the same emotional intensity he felt. He called such forms "hieroglyphs." The point of creating, for Kirchner, was to capture a scene's emotion--not just its appearance or "wealth of exterior forms." In fact, as the preparatory sketches indicate, details like hat plumes, pockets, and fingers wouldn't be figured out until painting began.

Kirchner found a muse and metaphor for modern city life in the figure of the prostitute, who appears in each of the seven Berlin street paintings. Taking cues from Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Edvard Munch, among others, Kirchner crams the whole figure into the length of the canvas, letting her little black boots touch the bottom and her feathered hat the top. She commands attention like an exclamation mark.

For Kirchner and other modern artists, the prostitute was an eloquent answer to the question: What happens to the nude, that building block of Western art, when taken out of nature, out of the bath, out of the house, and plopped down in the middle of a city?