At the age of 21, Kirchner was in Dresden studying architecture. Whilst there, he met three other young architectural students, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff,
and Fritz Bleyl. All not only wanted to become painters but also shared a dislike of modern painting. Thus the group Die Brücke was born. Their inspiration was found in the revolutionary work of luminaries such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Munch and the primitive arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands.
Once Kirchner had completed his architectural studies, he turned to studying painting in Munich. Art Nouveau styles and the influence of the
Albrecht Dürer are clearly prevalent in his work from these years. Gradually, his style of painting developed. He began using bold colors and wild brushstrokes.
Kirchner entered military service during World War I. In 1915, he suffered a nervous breakdown and physical collapse. He moved to a sanitarium near Frankfurt, worked on wall frescoes in 1916, but was struck by a car and severely injured. In 1918 he moved to near Davos, Switzerland to convalesce, but continued to suffer from depression despite solo shows held in Munich, Hamburg, and New York.
He wrote critical appraisals of his own work under another name. He repainted earlier works, and also changed the dates on some in order to pre-date Fauvism, which he claimed not to be influenced by. His position in the artistic vanguard had also been threatened by the emergence of Cubism and for a time he worked in a manner derived from it. The works for which he is most noted are those prior to his war service, in particular a series of graphics and paintings depicting street life in Berlin.
His inclusion in Entartete Kunst, the Nazis’ 1937 exhibition of so-called degenerate art, along with the destruction of approximately 600 of his works, caused him further distress, exacerbated by the closeness of his Swiss home to the German border.
Kirchner committed suicide in 1938 in Davos.
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