ELK's Bathing and More - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum

(Berlin.) Hamburger Bahnhof Museum’s newly appointed director is not one of the grey gentlemen in black high street suits so typical for Berlin’s public art sector, and not a radical feminist sporting the Berlin curatress bowl cut either. No, this August, Mrs Gabriele Knapstein who was previously in charge of exhibitions like Black Mountain College, was promoted to the top job. To celebrate this, the museum put some new sculptures in its front garden, a Baselitz (? - our uninformed guess) and one of the countless manifestations of Robert Indiana sending Love.

 

Inside, we were allowed to keep our backpack (not an army sized rucksack, but one of those tiny hipster things. Still it would be enough to get sent to the floor elsewhere). The guard seemed not amused by the policies, silently loathing the new manners as she muttered in her moustache: “Don’t wear it on your back, put it on the breast”, which is a reasonable order. We are not sure, but might it be the prices have changed also? Was it not required to buy a €14 full museum package when all you wanted to see was a temporary exhibition before (we may be wrong about this)? 

With the ticket for Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphics, we passed through another show by Gülsün Karamustafa, with a giant’s dervish costume and monochrome pictures from Turkey, but feeling watchful eyes piercing our back, we hurried on, turned right behind a Beuys, and up the stairs.

For a start, visitors get acquainted with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s quote, ‘to capture the immediate xtasy of an urban environment results in finished hieroglyphs’. Alright, every artist has his iconography, his system of signs. But are they really decipherable, unvaried repetitions of signified and signifier? Hieroglyphs are not pictograms (or cuneiforms). You should never take an artist literal, we guess. Nor a museum when it’s telling you, all paintings in a show were sourced from its own collections. The labels reveal several Kirchners to have been borrowed from other private or public institutions, right up to Mr Olbricht. But enough of the bad vibes. We liked the show. 

 

Before Kirchner, there’s Rosa Barba; in space not time. In a dark antechamber, a historic film projector is used to show a video of the contemporary artist. No digital here, not even plastic to cover up the raw mechanics, you literally see the machine’s skeleton. Its workings are no mystery but open to everybody’s eyes; who would not become a conservative longing for bygone times when faced with this, the individual almost believes himself a master of the technic, technic that appears to be an empowerment, not overpowering human existence (you tell us when we exaggerate once again). And it serves a purpose. Barba spent the night in a museum to film the storerooms. Her images create “silent encounters of artworks from different eras” (in-film text). Between sculptures and artefacts appears a silhouette that potentially resembles a famous artist. The projector’s noise adds to the silent movie ambiance, and later, music gets added. The grainy image quality of 20th Century school educational films fits well as different time zones fall together.

 

Every two minutes, a guard enters to lead confused visitors on their way to the rest of the show. The entrance is well hidden in the back, behind the wrong corner wait only litter and unused furniture. Once inside with the paintings, the eyes slowly adapt to bright light, and discover an overview on the Brücke cofounder’s œuvre from the portrait of buddy Max Lieberman in his Studio (1926-28) to two much brighter, sharper contoured, Bather scenes (1912/13) and the Picasso-y Female Singer at the Piano (1932). Expressionism may refer not to the painter but the painted: Erna Schilling’s facial expression in her 1913 portrait seems perfectly true; while A House Beneath the Trees (Fehmarn), 1913, approaches some sort of savage Impressionism. Also land-, or: city-marks from a Rhine Bridge in Cologne to Berlin’s Belle Alliance square and the Potsdamer Platz when it still was what adjoining Potsdamer Straße is today. Kirchner’s streetwalker appears zoomed in on the street, progressive painting and early film influenced each other during those years, Babelsberg is not far from Berlin.

 

Once more we are told, lines and geometrical forms were Kirchner’s code for streets - his “hieroglyphs”. Well, that’s painting: lines on a surface.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner did use his proper RGB colour model, in general one of them – red, green or blue - dominates, but they’re all present, almost always. Not all is painting at Hamburger Bahnhof, you find (chalk) drawings like the abstract Bathers Amongst Overhanging Tree Branches (1914) and a lot of photos. The latter might be the most surprising part of the show, at least if you’re not familiar with the life and times of an expressionist painter. There’s a 1915 nude performance in Kirchner’s studio with Werner Gothlein, Hugo Biallo and Erna Schelling participating, and Werner Suhr’s 1927 book The Naked Dance to document the first ever edition of Burning Man festival(?). There’s even more nudity with a certain Nina Hardt in front of what seems to be a sculpture of hers.

And it was the time to discover African arts. Kirchner’s inspiration by and experiments with African sculpture show in the books he studied (why is the description of Carl Einstein’s Negerplastik not translated to English as are all others?), and another photo of a naked couple of African acrobats in the artist's studio. The African influence might also explain Kirchner’s triangular heads (not because Africans would have triangular heads, but some of their sculptures do, don’t they?). For an African Throne with Three Figures Supporting the Seat (1920), Kirchner used rosewood coloured with cattle blood.

An early marketing genius, the master not only kept track with the latest developments in art history, but published critics on his own work under a pseudonym already in the 1920s. 

 

And finally, there’s a second contemporary artist, painter Rudolf Stengel with monochrome painted “photographs”, i.e. photorealistic paintings. Several portraits of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner gradually smeared over and blurred out, and an alpine farm. We may compare it to Kirchner’s home in Switzerland in more photos and a painting of the surroundings. The artist had moved to Frauenkirch near Davos after a nervous breakdown, from this period also date the atypical Wildflowers and Cat and a carpet, or blanket, at Hamburger Bahnhof.

Hieroglyphics is not a huge exhibition, but it’s a nice one. Downstairs we noticed the lights illuminating Joseph BeuysThe End of the Twentieth Century in Kirchner neon green, then visited the small Beuys show to the side not knowing if that was included in our entry fee (“Ja ja ja, nee nee nee”, as Beuys would say). On our way out, the guards were distracted and we could see some more of Karamustafa, a two channel video and a lot of porcelain. She seems to summon yesterday’s, Atatürk’s, Turkey when the military was still capable of pushing the country back to democratic order whenever needed.

That night, another performance of Angst 2 took place at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, but we didn't stay. We’ll come back soon, we guess.

 

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphics, 23 September 2016-26 February 2017, Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, Berlin

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