Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Mädchen in Südwester
Oil on canvas 51 x 56 cm In a frame designed by the artist. Signed 'E. L. Kirchner' in blue-black lower left and titled 'Mädchen im [sic] Südwester' in blue brush verso. - Two Basel estate stamps "NACHLASS E.L.KIRCHNER" verso, the larger one inscribed "Be/Ba 1" in black brush. - A small loss of colour in the central left area of the painting, restored by the artist and backed with canvas patches verso. A short, professionally restored tear in the upper canvas overlap.
The authentically and pristinely natural state that artists like Paul Gauguin or later Max Pechstein hoped to find during their stays in the South Pacific was sought and found by Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner on the German island of Fehmarn in the Baltic Sea. There, in the summer of 1912, he arrived at a previously unimagined maturity of artistic expression, as he wrote to Gustav Schiefler in December of that year: “As you well know, I was in Fehmarn again this summer after a break of 5 years. I want to go back next year, too; the extremely strong impression of the first time I was there has become deeper, and I painted pictures there of an absolute maturity, as far as I can judge that for myself” (E.L. Kirchner to G. Schiefler on 31 Dec 1912, in: idem., Briefwechsel 1910-1935/1938, Stuttgart/Zurich 1990, no. 33, p. 61).
He was accompanied to Fehmarn by Erna Schilling, a dancer from Berlin whom he had met just prior to the journey and who would remain his muse, model and life partner from then on. The fact that “Mädchen in Südwester” is a depiction of Erna can be deduced from its comparison with other works by Kirchner, for example, the drawing-and-wash image “Frau mit rundem Hut - (Erna)”, which was also created in 1912 and displays her characteristic features and her thick black hair as well as clothing with a pattern similar to that in the painting (see comparative ill. 2). In composing the likeness “Mädchen in Südwester” which is being offered here, Kirchner additionally adhered to his notion of an exotic primitivism, featuring a person similar in type to the one he also used in the late-1911 woodcut vignette of his advertisement for the institute “MUIM-Moderner Unterricht in Malerei” (Modern instruction in painting), which he founded together with Pechstein (cf. Dube, woodcut 716).
On Fehmarn Kirchner was able to pursue the idea of paradise, the striving for the unity of humanity and nature, like never before. “More than anywhere else, sooner or later Fehmarn became a timeless Arcadia for him, all the more so when the experience of the island stood in contrast to life in the metropolis of Berlin. Erna was […] self-evidently a part of life and nature - she became the grandly viewed core of the paintings.” (Hermann Gerlinger, Die Fehmarn-Aufenthalte Ernst Ludwig Kirchners, in: exh. cat. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner auf Fehmarn, Schloss Gottorf 1997, p. 16; see comparative ill. 3). In pursuit of his idea of paradise - alongside his realisation of corresponding motifs in his images - Kirchner built a dugout outrigger canoe for occasional outings on the Baltic Sea as well as a grass hut otherwise familiar from the peoples of the South Pacific (cf. Nicole Brandmüller, Der Expressionist in Berlin, in: exh. cat. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Retrospektive, Frankfurt 2010, p. 101; Wolfgang Henze, Fehmarn in Kirchners Werk [...], in: exhib. cat. Schloss Gottorf 1997, op. cit., pp. 26-34, fig. 29-32).
In keeping with the spirit of the times, Kirchner's young Berliner with her sou'wester - a simple article of clothing that protected Holstein's seafarers and fishers from wind, rain and seawater and was generally not a part of young ladies' wardrobes in those years - points to the escapist tendencies of an artistic model of life between the urban metropolis and remote nature. This linking of exotic utopianism and a contemporary portrait founds the great appeal of this painting, which is from one of the most interesting periods in Kirchner's oeuvre and is of museological quality in terms of form and content.
The “Mädchen in Südwester” is pushed towards the viewer, in a close-up against the front edge of the painting, with the strip of coast shown ascending steeply behind her; rising up on the far horizon we see the lighthouse Staberhuk, which is crowned by its red cast-iron lantern and which is where Kirchner had rented himself a room. Human figure and tower are set in relation to one another within the landscape's network of forces, which are chromatically orchestrated, culminating in an intoxicating spectrum that is almost visionary and features colours ranging from tones of light violet and pink to purplish red and burgundy and a darkly shimmering magenta as well as a bold turquoise, petrol blue and green. Beyond these luminous hues, the South Pacific and the Baltic Sea are atmospherically linked in the dark and exotic phenotype of the figure of the girl seeking to defy the capricious weather of the North German summer with her sou'wester and coat. On account of its glowing red colour, the same hat also plays a not insubstantial role as a fashionable accessoire enchanting viewers in other paintings of that summer and the following year, such as “Badende zwischen Steinen” or “Erna am Meer”, as well as watercolours and drawings, including “Liegender Akt mit Hut” (see comparative ill. 4) or “Mädchen im Mauerbogen” (works reproduced in: exhib. cat. Schloss Gottorf 1997, op. cit., cat. no. 63, p. 118; R.N. Ketterer, E.L. Kirchner, Lagerkatalog 1963 and 1971, no. 20, p. 43).
Even years after its completion, the painting “Mädchen in Südwester” was still of such value to Kirchner that he slightly revised the already finished work. This was presumably motivated by a new frame, which demanded a different format. The photograph of the painting's first state in Photo Album I shows a square format (according to Gordon 51 x 51 cm, see comparative ill. 5), whose sides were later extended and painted by Kirchner. In the present state it becomes apparent that the artist has rejected the detail of a boat in the middle-left passage of the painting in order to depict the sea's breaking waves in a more expansive form. He has also added a lock to Erna's dark mass of hair, which nestles along the right contour of her face and provides it with a gentler expression. Kirchner himself composed the frame in tones of gold, ochre, blue and violet, which corresponding to the hues of the painting while simultaneously elaborating upon its maritime theme in a gentle wave motif. Traces of paint from the painted surface and screw holes consistent with the stretcher demonstrate that it is an original part of a collective composition.
Kirchner Estate; Werner Brunner, Sankt Gallen (1952); Private possession, Switzerland (since 1976); Private possession, Berlin
Sankt Gallen (Kunstmuseum) 1950, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, cat. no. 12; Zurich 1952 (Kunsthaus Zurich), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, cat. no. 25 (frame label verso); Dusseldorf 1960 (Kunsthalle), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, cat. no. 34 with illus. (frame label verso); Davos (Kirchner Museum) 2011/2012, "Keiner hat diese Farben wie ich." Kirchner malt, p. 57 with illus.