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Kirchner, Street, Dresden

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street, Dresden, oil on canvas, 1908 (MoMA) Speakers: Dr. Juliana Kreinik, Dr. Steven Zucker, Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(bouncy piano music) >> We're looking at a painting at the Museum of Modern Art by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It's Street Scene Dresden and it dates to 1908. >>Kirchen is known as an expressionist artist. That's his classification. >> He would become part of a group called Die Brucke. >> Yes, The Bridge. >> The Bridge, as they called themselves. >> What did the bridge mean? What was it a bridge to and from? >> From the past to the future. >> Well yes, from the past to the future, but it refers really directly to Nietzsche. >> Really? >> I didn't know that. I didn't know that either, but it makes it much more interesting. >> Thus, speak Die Brucke. The bridge from civilization to the Uberwanch, Crossing the bridge, it's a journey of self-discovery, of individual self-actualization. >> There were so many German artists and craftsmen that were really interested in Nietzsche at this moment, right? >> Obsessed is a better word. >> Yes, yes. >> What was it about Nietzsche? >> Well, he was interested in taking apart ideas of morality which constricted culture so much, I think all over Europe but especially in Germany. I think the young artists, I think Kirchen was not even 30 at this point, they're all pretty young, and they're really interested in renewal and the new. >> Germany was late coming to the Industrial Revolution, right? >> Yes. >> There's a lot of change that's happening in a very compressed time period. >>They, in the later 19th Century, really tried to catch up to England and France and they worked really hard to do that. Then there was a lot of growth really fast, but there are all these culture morays that they worked really hard to break out of and Nietsche was totally influential and inspirational because he posited all these ways of breaking out of. >> It was very constrictive, proper. >> Accountable for.. >> Yes, yes so that you wouldn't be proper and contained. >> Even in this painting, there is a kind of isolation amongst those figures, isn't there? >> Definitely. >> Even though it's a crowded, really dense scene; this is a pretty wild painting really. >> I have to say I know that you like this painting. >> I do; I love this painting. >> I have always really not. >> I love this painting. (laughter) >> Right, so I want to hear from both of you then. >> Why do you not like this painting? >> It feels very like a man looking at women on the street and I know that they're... I don't know; I guess for me it doesn't build all that much more on the 19th Century, on Munch's Street Scene of Karl Johan Strasse. >> Right, from 1892. >> That kind of interest in psychological angst and alienation in the modern world and using color to describe those things and brush work. This, as a symbolist artist, I really like this. >> So did the Germans by the way. >> Yeah. >> They really heroized him, right? >> Then when I get to this and the colors become more garish and more difficult, the composition a little more disjointed, the brush work more open, I'm not sure how much this adds. I guess there's something uncomfortable to me about the way that he's looking at the women here. >> For me, the color and garishness is what attracted me to it. I love the distortion. I love the green; I love the orange. I love the orange tracing around the woman's hat. It's glowing. I just love looking at that. I feel like it's neon. If you look again at the entire composition, I love things that kind of pop out at different moments. I think it is about looking and it is about voyeurism and it is about the male gaze. If you look on the right side of the painting, I love that he's caught halfway out of the composition. Degas did that in 1872. I think for me this sort of feels very much about isolation and German angst. >> The point that you were making about Degas I thought was an interesting one because in some ways France is going through those issues when Degas was painting and Germany is a little bit later, but that doesn't make this not authentic, an authentic expression of that moment. I'm not saying that they're the same thing, but the issue is industrial alienation and the issue of urban alienation I think are both very important issues in both of those painter's work. This is clearly a 20th Century work. There are lessons that have learned and freedoms that have been generated from post-Impressionism and from other artists. >> I think of Fauvism. >> Exactly. >> Just the coloration I think for me is something that makes it extremely early 20th Century. >> It's not the beauty of Fauvism. >> No, it's not. >> This is really a kind of aggressive. >> I like that. >> So Van Gogh's Night Cafe, he wanted to give the Night Cafe a sense of darkness and misery by means of red and green. That's what Van Gogh said 20 or 30 years before this. He's got that horrible pink color in that painting. >> Maybe the power here is the very thing that you don't like which is the women as subject. >> Well, I know that he's doing images of prostitutes on the street and I guess that knowing that informs my looking at this painting. It starts to make me really worried about the way that modern historians look at these images. >> I think that his, because I think of his prostitute, the streetwalker scenes as five years later. >> He's in Berlin, right? >> He's in Berlin and they're in like Potsdam or Platts and Friedrichshafen, those main city centers and where the women... That's a lot more strident and the women are definitely the focus of the male gaze. There are a lot of men kind of circling around the women. Those are less interesting to me. Also, I think just even in terms of looking at the color and composition for some reason and I know that a lot of people like those more. His style is more developed and he's more mature as an artist. I like that this is more raw. Kirchen, he's really focusing on that authentic, kind of direct engagement with the experience of the city, the electric, the movement. >> A kind of constant shift and change here as if all of those voids, that wonderful pink area, is constantly changing and shifting as the figures that define that space move. >> I feel like he's experimenting with something. >> Could we see the women here as sympathetic in some way, maybe if I wasn't reading it through the guise of those later images of prostitutes on the street. She does look out at us. She's lit by the lights of the city. When you said neon, I could sort of feel that, those kinds of lights maybe in the dusk in the city. She looks out at us. >> Well, they don't look to me honestly like prostitutes. >> Right, I'm saying they're bourgeois women, but maybe there is something sympathetic about her if we don't look at her through the lens of those later images. >> I think there is. I guess to me it just seems like these isolated figures and that's what attracts them to me. Like it's a theater; if you look at the side, there's almost like a pillar figure, of that male figure, kind of holding the picture together and it pulls your eye in and he's right there and he's sort of between you and the female figures. Then everything kind of recedes behind that diagonally to the left in the back. You see the girl in the center stage. >> What makes it theatrical? >> I think the lighting and the way the figures are arranged. >> That could almost be limelight coming from below. What I love about it is, although it's a city and you have the slightest trace of the trolley track, there's no architecture. The entire space is defined by the occupation of these figures or their occupation in space. In a sense, it's the city defined by these people, defined by space itself shaped by this changing crowd which I think is really an interesting idea. He's not using buildings. He's not even really using intersections. He's using people to define the space and then in a sense to build a city out of the people... >> Out of the shifting masses. This is Koenigstrasse in Dresden which is a main thoroughfare of shopping so there's a lot of traffic and movement and this is definitely part of a very well-known street and a very well-known area and it's very populated. >> In the second half of the 19th Century when artists' painted street scenes, like Degas because this looks to me like he's looking at Degas, but there is more of a sense of architecture and place. >> Yes, there's nothing here that's stable. Everything here will be different in a moment and there's something sort of wonderful about that. >> Yeah. I think I like also just looking at that little girl and her big hat and her ugly, kind of claw-like hand. I think she's holding some kind of toy. >> Or flowers maybe. >> Or flowers or something, but in the painting it really looks scary. >> Yes, yes. There's also the way that her legs are slightly splayed and there's something very ungainly. >> Her hair is kind of dripping down the sides of her face. >> Yes, that kind of inelegant. Actually throughout the entire painting, there's this really interesting tension between the effort and elegance in the dress but then the ungainliness or the aggression of the representation. This is sort of wonderful sort of back and forth. (bouncy piano music)