It was a tumultuous time in Germany as Kirchner was making work at the turn of the 20th century. The country was still adjusting to its relatively new industrialization, as well as coping with the first World War. Both historical circumstances influenced Kirchner’s work. The Die Brucke movement (of which Kirchner was an integral part) saw their art as part of the solution to their impersonal, industrial society – they intended to show “imprint of the artist’s emotions and hands.” These artists also sought to glorify nature while vilifying urban settings. As for the impact of WWI, Kirchner was inducted into military service then discharged due to a nervous breakdown in 1915. It was this same year that he illustrated The Amazing Story of Peter Schlemihl in which the metaphor for personal and societal alienation takes on a personal relevance for Kirchner.
The artist’s hand, and the materials used, are very apparent in Kirchner’s work. His marks also bare a sense of rare emotion (i.e. the woodblock is cut with gashes to convey brutal emotions). The transparency of both process and feeling communicates an inverse response to the impersonality of industrialization. Kirchner lets his process of making be apparent, speaking to the importance of the human touch and the human experience.
Certainly Kirchner’s strengths lie in his expressive, gestural mark-making. His work conveys a raw emotionality; his art is a personal, visceral experience. Another strength is his responsiveness to his materials – whether it be a sensitivity to the wood grain or an experimental approach to treating the surface of the litho stone. A weakness I see in his work is his color choices – I wish they were more complicated tones, or perhaps just more subtle variations (moving away from bold red, bold blue, etc.). I appreciate the intentional abrasiveness of the coloration, but his pieces are more successful the more complicated the color spectrum is. To me, his most successful piece is Winter Moonlight. The treatment of the woodblock is beautiful, and conveys the ecstasy and wildness of the scene. And here, the use of colors is more interesting – particularly in the clouds.