Expressionist Art

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German, Aschaffenburg 1880 - 1938 Davos)
Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915
Signed lower right: E. L. Kirchner
Oil on canvas
27 1/4 x 24 in. (69 x 61 cm)
Charles F. Olney Fund, 1950
AMAM 1950.29

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Painted in 1915, Kirchner's Self-Portrait as a Soldier documents the artist's fear that the war would destroy his creative powers and in a broader sense symbolizes the reactions of the artists of his generation who suffered the kind of physical and mental damage Kirchner envisaged in this painting.

A photo of Kirchner in his studio, wearing a soldier's uniform1 probably dates to 1915, when he volunteered to serve as a driver in the artillery in order to avoid being drafted for less desirable duties. The photograph shows him confident and relaxed, standing at ease and holding a cigarette in his right hand. Soon after this moment, however, Kirchner was declared unfit for service (due to general weakness and lung problems) and was sent to recuperate in Halle on the Saale. He painted the Self-Portrait as a Soldier during this reprieve; a "metaphorical autobiography," it reveals his unshakeable, almost pathological, fear of the effects of war on himself as an artist and a human being.

In the Oberlin painting Kirchner depicts himself in the uniform of the Mansfelder Feldartillerieregiment Nr. 75 in Halle/Saale. His face is drawn, a cigarette hangs loosely from between his lips, and his eyes remain unseeing and empty, without pupils and with the iris reflecting the blue of his uniform. The lost right hand and bloody stump stand for a terrible litany of losses: of his ability to paint, and of his creativity, artistic vision, and inspiration. In a larger sense, Kirchner also expresses anxiety for his potency and manhood.

There is little compositional connection between the artist and the nude woman seen behind him; earlier self-portraits, on the other hand--the Self-Portrait at Dawn, a lithograph of 1906, or Self-Portrait with Model, an oil painting of 1907 2 --are dominated by an erotic tension between the model and the artist. In those works the artist paints confidently while smoking a pipe. In the Oberlin self-portrait, the model and canvas function as quotations from a past that had become completely irrelevant in the face of the artist's mutilation.

Another important self-portrait from this period, The Drinker, was painted in 1915 in Kirchner's Berlin studio, before he was sent to Halle.3 This self-portrait conveys Kirchner's despair about his situation, a despair that turned into horror in the Oberlin painting.

On the intervention of his commanding officer, Hans Fehr, a former lay member of Die Brücke and a friend of Emil Nolde, Kirchner was sent to a sanatorium at Königstein in Taunus, where he spent 1916. The artist's weakened condition, exacerbated by alcoholism and drug abuse, failed to improve, and in 1917 Kirchner was sent to Davos for further treatment. He later was moved to the Staffelalp in Davos/Frauenkirch, where he created numerous woodcuts, portraits, and landscapes. In October of 1917 he began to suffer from paralysis of the hands and feet, for which he sought a cure in Kreutzlingen in Switzerland. Kirchner's nightmarish vision in the Oberlin self-portrait seems eerily prescient of this condition.4

Stylistically, the Oberlin self-portrait is comparable to Kirchner's Berlin street scenes of 1913-15, in which he employed a similarly "primitive" and sculptural manner with broken, angular lines and short crosshatched brushstrokes, indicative of his increasing interest in woodcuts.5 In 1919, after Kirchner settled in Frauenkirch near Davos, his style became calmer and more monumental in keeping with his new subject matter, the alpine landscape and its inhabitants.

Kirchner continued to work productively after his retreat to Davos. Yet the fears expressed in the Oberlin self-portrait were realized to the extent that his mental and physical health were shattered and, in order to be able to work, he remained a recluse. Kirchner's experiences in the war certainly hastened his untimely death.6

D. Hamburger

Work (C) Ingeborg and Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer, Wichtrach/Bern.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a draftsman,7 a printmaker,8 a painter,9 sculptor, and photographer;10 he also designed textiles and rugs, wrote diaries11 and theoretical essays on his art under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle, and engaged in a voluminous correspondence.12 He was a dominant figure in the German Expressionist movement.

Kirchner was born on 6 May 1880 in Aschaffenburg to an upper-middle-class family. He studied architecture at the Technical University of Saxony in Dresden, following his father's wishes, and then enrolled at the Technische Hochschule (Technical School) in the Lehr- und Versuchatelier für Angewandte und Freie Kunst (Teaching and Experimental Studio for Applied and Fine Art) in Munich. There he was exposed to a variety of influences: the exoticism and primitivism of Art Nouveau, the art of Vasilij Kandinsky and his Phalanx group, Post-Impressionism, drawings by Rembrandt, and prints by Dürer. In 1904 Kirchner returned to Dresden to continue his study of architecture and began to paint with Erich Heckel. Within two years the two artists, along with Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Emil Nolde had formed Die Brücke, an association that lasted until 1913.

From 1913 until 1915 Kirchner painted large street scenes of Berlin showing elegant and colorful young women caught up in the nervous, hectic activities of city life. In these Expressionist images, Kirchner abandoned his earlier fluid Art Nouveau style for the quick, broken crosshatchings and angular brushstrokes of his mature work.

The war years changed his artistic production and changed his life (see Main Text above). Partially cured, he settled on the Längmatte in 1918, and five years later on the Wildboden at the entrance of the Sertig-valley near Frauenkirch. His companion and executrix, Erna Schilling, took care of his Berlin studio.

Kirchner went on to have major exhibitions in Berlin (1921), Basel (1923), Berne (1933), and Detroit (1937). But from 1926 he suffered from depression, which worsened in 1937 when 639 of his works were confiscated from public collections; thirty-two were included in Hitler's Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition held in Munich. In despair about the political situation in Germany, his physical health, and overwhelming loneliness, Kirchner committed suicide on 15 June 1938. For a detailed biography, see Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938(exh. cat., Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1980), pp. 46-74.

Städtische Galerie, Dresden (1916-19)

With Kunsthandlung Schames, Frankfurt (1919)

Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt (1919)

On loan to the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt (inv. S.G. 299 in 1919 inventory book and 1924 catalogue) until 1937

Confiscated by the National Socialists and removed to a Berlin warehouse in 1937 (inv. 15999)

Collection Dr. Kurt Feldhausser (1943-45)13

Collection Mrs. Marie-Louise Feldhausser, his mother (1945-?)

Sold to Gallery E. Weyhe, New York, from whom purchased in 1950

Munich, Bibliotheksbau des Deutschen Museums, 1936. Der Bolschewismus. No cat.

Munich, Ausstellungsgalerie in den Hofgartenarkaden, 1937. Entartete Kunst: Bildersturm vor 25 Jahren. 25 October - 16 December. Unnumbered cat (as "Soldat mit Dirne" [Soldier with Whore]).

Cincinnati, Modern Art Association, 1952. In the Flat and the Round. 29 February - 25 March. Unnumbered cat.

New York, Curt Valentin Gallery, 1952. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. 16 April - 10 May. Cat. no. 8.

New York, M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., 1954. Paintings and Drawings from Five Centuries: Collection Allen Memorial Art Museum. 3 - 21 February. Cat. no. 70.

Cambridge, Mass., Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, 1957. War and its Aftermath: 1914-1925. 4 March - 6 April. No cat.

Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art, 1958. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, German Expressionist. 10 January - 9 February. Cat. no. 23.

Toledo Museum of Art, 1960. What is Modern Art? 6 - 27 March. No cat.
Kansas City, Mo, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 1961. The Logic of Modern Art. 19 January - 26 February. Cat. no. 9.

Kenwood, London County Council, 1962. An American University Collection: Works of Art from the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio. 30 May - 30 October. Cat. no. 26.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1966. Treasures from the Allen Memorial Art Museum. 21 July - 11 September. No Cat.

Seattle Art Museum, 1968-69. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. 23 November - 5 January (also shown at Pasadena Art Museum and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Cat. no. 43.

Chicago, The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1978. German and Austrian Expressionism, Art in a Turbulent Era. 10 March - 30 April. Cat. no. 19.

Berlin, Nationalgalerie, 1979-80. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938. 29 November - 20 January (also shown at Munich, Haus der Kunst' Cologner, Museum Ludwig; and Zurich, Kunsthaus). Cat. no. 236.

London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1985. German Art in the 20th Century, Painting and Sculpture 1905-1985. October - December (also shown at Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie). Cat. no. 10.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991. "Degenerate Art": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. 17 February - 12 May (also shown at The Art Institute of Chicago; and Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, The International Gallery). Cat. p. 275.

Schwabacher, Sascha. "Moderne Bilder im Städel-Neubau." Jahrbuch der Jungen Kunst(1923), p. 363.
Myers, Bernard S. The German Expressionists. New York, 1957, p. 132.
Selz, Peter. "Kirchner's Self-Portrait as a Soldier in Relation to Earlier Self-Portraits." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 14, no. 3 (Spring 1957), pp. 91-97.

Grohmann, Will. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Translated by Ilse Falk. New York, 1961, p. 68.

Gasser, Manuel. Self-Portraits from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day. London, 1961, pp. 264ff., ill.

Roh, Franz. "Entartete Kunst": Kunstbarbarei im Dritten Reich. Hannover, 1962, p. 185.

"Kirchner." In Kindler's Malerei Lexikon. Edited by G. Tolzinen. Vol. 3. Zurich, 1966, pp. 601-2, ill.

Rathke, Ewald. "La Brücke: Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff." L'Arte Moderna 3, no. 22 (Milan, 1967), ill. p. 146.

Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, pp. 92-93, fig. 124.

Steingraber, Erich, ed. "Der Trinker." In Anzeiger des Germanischen Nationalmuseums. Nuremberg, 1968, p. 164.

Schmidt, Diether. Ich bin, ich war, ich werde sein: Selbstbildnisse deutscher Künstler des 20. Jahrhunderts. Berlin, 1968, p. 256, ill. no. 10.

Gordon, Donald E. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Cambridge, Mass., 1968, p. 20, 330, cat. no. 535, ill. pl. 66.

Gasser, Manuel. Das Selbstbildnis: Gemälde großer Meister. Munich, 1979, ill. p. 265 (detail).
Henze, Wolfgang, Ingeborg Henze, et al. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880-1938. Exh. cat., Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1979-80, pp. 14, 70, 220-21, cat. no. 236.
Mashek, Joseph. "The Horror of Bearing Arms: Kirchner's 'Self-Portrait as Soldier,' The Military Mystique and the Crisis of World War I (with a slip of the Pen by Freud)." Artforum 19 (December 1980), pp. 56-61.
Roters, Eberhard. "Big-City Expressionism: Berlin and German Expressionism." In
Expressionism: A German Intuition 1905-1920. Exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1980, p. 247.

Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New. London, 1980, p. 70, ill. no. 37.

Leshko, Jaroslav. "Oskar Kokoschka's 'Knight Errant.'" Arts Magazine(January 1982), pp. 126-27, fig. 5.
Schmied, Wieland. "Points of Departure and Transformations in German Art 1905-1985." In German Art in the 20th Century, Painting and Sculpture 1905-1985. Exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1985, p. 26.
Dube, Wolf-Dieter. Expressionists and Expressionism. Geneva, 1983, p. 98.

Willett, John. The Weimar Years: A Culture Cut Short. London, 1984, pp. 20-21.
Schwander, Martin. "Der Tanz zwixchen de Frauen: Zu Ernst Ludwig Kirchners Skulptur der frühen Schweizer Jahre." Bruckmanns Pantheon44 (1986) p. 107, 111 n. 109.

Taylor, Sue. "The Iconography of Loss." The New Art Examiner (Summer 1986), p. 29.

Meixner, Laura L. "Max Ernst's 'Aquis Submersus' as Literary Collage." Arts Magazine, no. 5 (November 1986), pp. 84, ill.

Gordon, Donald E. Expressionism: Art and Idea. New Haven and London, 1987, pp. 145, 147, fig. 145.
Elger, Dietmar. Expressionism: A Revolution in German Art. Cologne, 1989, pp. 40-44. Originally published as Expressionismus: Eine deutsche Kunstrevolution(Cologne, 1988).

Awazu, Norio. "Self-Portrait." Shincho 45 (March 1990), pp. 80-83.
Barron, Stephanie. "Degenerate Art": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. Exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991, pp. 54, 56-57, 264 ill., and 275.
Beller, Thomas. "Timely Recreation of Nazi Art Censorship." The Journal of Art (February 1991), p. 12.

Wilson, William. "Revisiting the Unthinkable: Nazi Germany's 'Degenerate Art' Show at LACMA." Los Angeles Times, Arts Calendar Section, 15 February 1991, F1, F20-F21.
Kimmelmann, Michael. "Examining Works by Artists the Nazis Hounded and Scorned." The New York Times (25 February 1991), pp. B1, B6, ill.

Hughes, Robert. "Culture on the Nazi Pillory: The Third Reich's mocking exhibit of 'degenerate' works is re-created for the first time." Time Magazine(4 March 1991), pp. 86-87, ill.

Braun, Emily. "Return of the Repressed." Art in America 79, no. 10 (October 1991), pp. 118.

Polcari, Stephen. Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience. Cambridge, England, and New York, 1991, pp. 220, 223, ill.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Von Jena nach Davos. Exh. cat. Stadtmuseum Guehre, Jena, 1993, pp. 51, 225, cat. no. 18 (not exhibited).
Röske, Thomas. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Tanz zwischen den Frauen. Frankfurt, 1993, p. 20, no. 3, p. 24, ill.

Cork, Richard, ed. A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War. New Haven, 1994, pp. 108-9, fig. 138.

Technical Data
The paint is applied evenly with visible brushstrokes completely covering the ground. Forms are outlined in black; colors are worked wet-in-wet. The original plain-weave canvas was line, restretched on an ICA-type spring stretcher, and coated with a synthetic varnish in 1956; the back of the lining canvas was treated with an aluminum paint and the edges covered with black tape. This tape has since caused some staining to the perimeter of the original paint surface. Otherwise the painting is in excellent condition, wiht only minor inpainting and fills at the corners and along the top edge. The initials of the artist's signature (E. L.) are visible ony under UV light. Uneven saturation of the present varnish gives a slightly matte appearance to darker tones in the composition.

1. Kirchner sent this photo of himself in uniform along with New Year's greetings to his friends Hans and Erika Staub. See Anna-Maria Ehrmann and Dr. Volker Wahl, eds., Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Von Jena nach Davos (exh. cat., Stadtmuseum Guehre, Jena, 1993-94), pp. 70-71, nos. 31-32.

2. See Peter Selz, "Kirchner's Self-Portrait as a Soldier," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 14, no. 3 (Spring 1957), pp. 91-97, figs. 3 and 4.

3. Oil on canvas, 119.5 x 90.5 cm, Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, inv. GM 1667; reproduced in Anna-Maria Ehrmann and Dr. Volker Wahl, eds., Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Von Jena nach Davos(exh. cat., Stadtmuseum Göhre, Jena, 1993-94), cat. no. 14.

4. Even in 1917, when his worst fears had been realized, Kirchner continued to carve woodcuts.

5. On the street scenes see Magdalena Mueller, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Die Strassenszene, 1913-1915(Munich, 1993); and Ewald Rathée, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Die Strassenbilder(Stuttgart, 1969).

6. Richard Cork (A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War [New Haven, 1994], p. 109) suggests that Kirchner never fully recovered from his military ordeal and was always "haunted by the suspicion that his central identity had been lost at the front."

7. Will Grohmann, Zeichnungen von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner(Dresden, 1925); and Roman N. Ketterer, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Zeichnungen und Pastelle(Stuttgart, 1979).

8. Magdalena Möller, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Meisterwerke der Druckgraphik (exh. cat., Braecke-Museum, Berlin, 1990); and Gustav Schiefler, Die Graphik Ernst Ludwig Kirchners, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1926), until 1916; vol. 2 (Berlin, 1931), 1916-27; and Annemarie and Wolf-Dieter Dube, E. L. Kirchner: Das Graphische Werk, 2 vols. (Munich, 1967; 3rd ed. 1991).

9. Donald E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Mit einem kritischen Katalog der Gemälde (Munich, 1968).

10. Karlheinz Gabler, E. L. Kirchner. Vol. 25, Dokumente, Fotos - Schriften - Briefe (exh. cat., Museum der Stadt Aschaffenburg, 1980/81).

11. Lothar Grisebach, E. L. Kirchners Davoser Tagebuch(Cologne, 1968).

12. Nele van de Velde, E. L. Kirchner, Briefe an Nele und Henry van de Velde(Munich, 1961); Wolfgang Henze, ed., Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Gustav Schiefler, Briefwechsel 1910-1935/38 (Stuttgart, 1990); Annemarie Dube-Heynig, in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Postkarten und Briefe an Erich Heckel im Altonaer Museum in Hamburg, ed. Roman N. Ketterer (Cologne, 1984).

13. Dr. Kurt Feldhausser resided in Berlin from 1933 until 1943, then moved to Kirchberg/Württemberg; he was killed during an air raid on a trip to Nuremberg in 1945.