Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Häuser im Schnee
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Häuser im Schnee
Oil on canvas 70.5 x 60.3 cm Framed. Unsigned. - Verso backed with a loose canvas (old), held together by joint nailing. This one browned overall and with slight foxing. With fine craqueleur; the thinly painted, porous structure of pigments over visible ground with age-related rubbing in places. The lower stretcher bar showing through to the front. Two minor, rather inconspicuous dents and minimal losses of colour along the margins.
“This painter looks out into the world with eyes that understand its hidden inner life, and it is only what he sees there that he wants to capture in the painting. It never deals with the purely objective; it always deals with something spiritual. […] Because it deals exclusively with the depiction of this spiritual relationship to things, it is entirely self-evident that every object has a right to exist within the painting only to the extent that it is a vehicle of this relationship. Kirchner's art seeks the symbols that express the artist's spiritual relationships to the essence of things. Perceiving this spiritual relationship is to understand his paintings.”
Botho Graef (cited in: Ausstellung von Gemälden von E.L. Kirchner, Galerie Ludwig Schames, Frankfurt am Main (1919))
In the winter of 1917, with his composition “Häuser im Schnee”, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner created what is surely one of his first paintings from Switzerland, which would become a second home to him. He provides a detail from a steep landscape with two bulky gabled buildings in the midst of very nearby mountains. Whether wood or stone, the houses typical of the canton of Grisons have to defy the entire burden of snow and the frost with their projecting roofs and heavy chimneys, in order to guarantee the human existential needs of warmth and security all the more dependably within their interiors. The architectonic structures are piled against one another; with their solid and straight forms they develop a clear contrast to the softness and painterly indeterminacy characterising their surroundings, which are covered in deep snow. The community's position is not without danger - indeed, the ridges and faces of the mountains barely seem to keep hold of the masses of snow. No pathway, no trail is visible in this snowed-in alpine world. A deep, triangular section of sky corresponds to the pointed gables of the houses and is formally of equal weight. An elongated, semi-abstract female figure appears at the lower edge of the painting; cut off and turned to the left, she also balances out the composition in an important way. She is small compared to the scale of the overwhelming natural setting and seems as though she is lost. With features reminiscent of Erna Schilling, she sets a striking accent on the surface of a painting that cannot be imagined without her.
Using thin but heavily saturated washes, Kirchner has apparently very rapidly painted over the canvas ground, which retains a voice in the composition. Typically for his work, he has incorporated almost graphic elements in dashed and zigzag patterns. In addition, dense and broader brushwork stands in contrast to highly fluid, translucent movements of the brush, which flow out in linear or indeterminate wave-like marks, as though lying behind the veil of an atmospheric haze from the snow and cold. The painting's chromatic effect is impressively successful and causes the wintry landscape motif to glow in an unreal manner. Kirchner's colours are to be understood in terms of expressive complementarity as well as symbolically. A transcendental white and the deep blue are joined by saturated shades of orange and green as well as a flickering and invigorating red light that provides an affective accent: “orange/pink, the colour of life” is what Kirchner later wrote while discussing a different painting in a letter from Frauenkirch to Nele van de Velde, the daughter of Henry van de Velde (letter of 21 May 1920, cited in E.L. Kirchner, Briefe an Nele und Henry van de Velde, Munich 1961, p. 27).
E.L. Kirchner and Henry van de Velde were both initially exiled from Germany through the events of World War I; they would meet in person for the first time in Davos in June of 1917. Trust and a deeply felt friendship immediately developed. In this context an artistic circle formed which was of momentous significance for the present painting - and certainly not in an entirely coincidental manner.
Karl Ernst Osthaus was deeply attached to Henry van de Velde and his impact on the arts and had also been personally familiar with the works of the “Brücke” artists since 1907. It was Osthaus who organised the sale of Kirchner's “Häuser im Schnee” in 1918, shortly after it was painted, to a private collection at the Schede manor near Herdecke, in Westphalia. His cousin Elisabeth Funcke had married the factory owner Hermann Harkort in 1904, and the couple had the family's old estate from the early 19th century redesigned and refurnished by van de Velde and Peter Behrens. Looking back Osthaus stresses: “The owner of this beautiful, old Westphalian manor, Mr Hermann Harkort, was the first major industrialist in the West to convert to the modern movement with conviction and determination.” (K.E. Osthaus, Van de Velde, Hagen 1920, p. 52). The painting “Häuser im Schnee” was placed in a well-lit corner next to the window of the dining room designed by van de Velde. With its elegant, darkly polished mahogany furniture from a Weimar workshop, the light leather upholstery and an ornamental sisal carpet, this room offered the piece an artistically designed ambience (see comparative ill.). Kirchner would probably have been very happy about this - and his brief remark to Van de Velde in November of 1919 may indeed be a (deliberate?) allusion: “You know that I would be happy to give you paintings by me at any time. I cannot think of a better place for my works than your rooms.” (letter of 22 November 1919 from Frauenkirch, cited in E.L. Kirchner, Briefe an Nele und Henry van de Velde, op. cit., p. 101).
Osthaus had arrived at a selection of paintings to be purchased in December of 1917, during a visit to Kirchner's studio in Berlin (cf. Herta Hesse-Frielinghaus et al., Karl Ernst Osthaus, Leben und Werk, Recklinghausen 1971, p. 196); the present painting “Häuser im Schnee” was presumably among them. In a thank-you note subsequently sent from the Sanatorium Bellevue in Kreuzlingen to the admired founder of the Folkwang, the painter seems to refer to the work in his explicit mention of two “winter paintings”. Because of its interest this passage will be quoted in full: “I am particularly pleased that you have chosen the Schlemmer portrait and the parrot tulips. The parrot tulips are surely my most colourful painting. The Schlemmer portrait, fully realised in terms of its brushstroke, does indeed depict the man in such a way that everyone can see him. The two snow-covered landscapes will surely remain the only winter pictures that I ever painted. If the paintings are photographed at some point I would like to ask you to have a print sent to me. I am gathering together every available photograph for Van de Velde, who is writing a book about my work. Unfortunately I don't have any frames for the pictures. Simple gilded wooden frames (preferably a greenish gold) would surely suit them best. The fact that I can now also speak with paintings in your presence makes me extraordinarily happy and spurs me on to continue to work, if only I could.” (letter of 24 January 1918, cited in Herta Hesse-Frielinghaus, Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner und das Folkwang-Museum Hagen, in: Westfalen, vol. 52, nos. 1-2, Münster 1974, p. 61).
“If only I could”: since 1915 a small circle of important figures had been compassionately taking care of Kirchner and serving him as patrons. The critical and unstable state of the artist's health following a physical and mental breakdown was repeatedly a source of concern. This circle included not only the Jena archaeologist and art historian Botho Graef and Essen's Ernst Gosebruch but most importantly - particularly regarding the financial aspect - Frankfurt's Carl Hagemann and Hagen's Karl Ernst Osthaus. Their direct financial assistance enabled Kirchner to repeatedly stay at the Sanatorium Kohnstamm in Königstein/Taunus in 1916. In mid January of 1917 - following a rather brief stay at a clinic in Berlin in the winter of that year - Eberhard Grisebach recommended Kirchner, who was severely addicted to medications, to his father-in-law Dr Lucius Spengler in Davos in an apparently sudden process. Grisebach volunteered as head of the Jena artists association, which is of so much historical interest for the aspirations of modern art. He had organised a first exhibition on Kirchner's work in 1914 and then another in the spring of 1917. Together with Dr Spengler and his wife, Grisebach helped the artist not least by preparing the way for his permanent relocation to Switzerland. Kirchner created the painting “Häuser im Schnee” in the context of his brief (but for him extremely decisive) stay in the mountains from 19 January to 5 February 1917. Once again it is a letter - from Helene Spengler to her son-in-law - that vividly conveys to us the situation at that time: “Kirchner is going back, he thought that Davos lay in the south, beneath the palms! Truly. He doesn't want to get up at all, except to come to me in the dining room. He is paranoid and thinks he is being stolen from etc. at the pension. He arrived to a coldness we haven't seen in 20 years and is furious about it, he says he couldn't even bear the winter in Berlin, he wants to go to the stove in his studio. So he will presumably be going in the next few days, and that is surely for the best ...” (Lucius Grisebach, “Kirchners erster kurzer Aufenthalt in Davos und Flucht”, in: Von Davos nach Davos, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner und die Familien Grisebach und Spengler in Jena und Davos, Davoser Revue 67, 1992, p. 39). At any rate, a warmer summertime stay on the alpine high pasture Stafelalp would soon follow. The works and projects created during these first years at various sanatoriums have always been among the most important in his oeuvre.
List of works
Gordon 474 ("whereabouts unknown"); documented in one of the artist's four photo albums, Fotoarchiv E.L. Kirchner (II, 177)
Purchased from the artist through intervention by Karl Ernst Osthaus in 1918; formerly Gut Schede, Herdecke, in family possession for three generations since, at last in private possession, Westphalia; on permanent loan and deposit at the Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal-Elberfeld from 2011-2016
Karl Ernst Osthaus, Van de Velde, Leben und Schaffen des Künstlers (Die Neue Baukunst, Monographienreihe Band I), Folkwang-Verlag Hagen 1920, p. 52, illus. p. 28; Lucius Grisebach, Von Davos nach Davos. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner und die Familien Grisebach und Spengler in Jena und Davos, in: Davoser Revue 67, 1992, pp. 30-47; Donald E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Mit einem kritischen Katalog sämtlicher Gemälde, Munich 1968, pp. 107 ff., no. 474, illus. p. 343; Herta Hesse-Frielinghaus (ed.), Kirchner und das Folkwang-Museum Hagen, Briefe von, an und über Kirchner zusammengestellt aus den Beständen des Osthaus-Archivs Hagen, Sonderdruck aus der Zeitschrift Westfalen, vol. 52, issue 1-2, Münster 1974, pp. 60 f. illus. 10, p. 61
Cf. also in general: Nele van de Velde (ed.), E.L. Kirchner, Briefe an Nele und Henry van de Velde, Munich 1961; Herta Hesse-Frielinghaus, August Hoff et. al., Karl Ernst Osthaus, Leben und Werk, Recklinghausen 1971, pp. 195/196, 211; Ulrike Ittershagen, Gut Schede und das Privatkontor Harkort in Wetter (1904), in: Birgit Schulte (ed.), Henry van de Velde in Hagen, Hagen undated (1992), pp. 227-239; Freimut Richter-Hansen, Kirchner in Königstein, in: Exhib. cat.: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Kirchner in Königstein, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen, Druckgrafik, Fotografien, Galerie Jahrhunderthalle Hoechst 1999/2000, pp. 7 ff.
Bielefeld 1969 (Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Richard Kaselowsky-Haus), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner aus Privatbesitz, Gemälde, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen, Grafik, cat. no. 197 (addendum)