Two women stand on a traffic island in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, a siren duet of sickly green flesh, high heels, feathers, and lace. Men stride across zigzagging sidewalks toward these “flowers of the asphalt” (as one contemporary described the German capital’s prostitutes in the years preceding World War I). Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) portrayed these streetwalkers with harsh colors and slashing brushstrokes, a vision of illicit sex colliding with a great city’s heedless energy. MOMA’s exhibition includes seven of Kirchner’s street paintings, in which the artist downplayed architecture and vehicles in favor of the degraded glamour of the demimonde: Flesh tones shift from pink to yellow to gray under the glare of unseen street lamps and electric signs. In numerous drawings and prints, Kirchner’s breakneck hand manifests the frenzy of early modernism, his figures abandoned to sinuous, expressionistic lines. The 1914 etching War Widows on the Street was scratched directly onto the plate like a pencil sketch, the scene’s immediacy captured in the plaintive pitch and heavy black strokes of one woman’s body against gray pedestrians. Kirchner’s women rise like angular stalks, perhaps reflecting a pair of sisters whom he met after his move to the great metropolis—he described these cabaret dancers as “architectonically constructed, severely formed,” in contrast to the “soft Saxon physique” embodied by the girls of his native Dresden. Even an idyllic 1913 bathing scene—which plunders Matisse’s supple curves and Mediterranean colors—betrays an urban grit, the lithographic inks ragged and grainy, as if the print had been left to weather in a gutter. Decades later, the Nazis caught up with Kirchner, and he was labeled a “degenerate” painter. But this focused exhibition reveals an artist acutely sympathetic to the emotional dislocations at the dawn of modernity.
Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Aug. 21. Continues through Nov. 10, 2008