Kirschner’s Black And White Rainbow.

Kirchner's painting shows the rainbow standing between a dark sky and a lighter one inside.
Kirchner’s Tinzenhorn showing the reality of the rainbow.
Kirchner Museum, Davos CH.

The first time I met Kirschner was in Stuttgart in the 1980s, and to tell the truth, I didn’t like his paintings. But then, painters don’t paint to please people – not the proper painters anyway – they paint because it is their means of self expression. That means if it doesn’t please me, that’s my problem. Taken to extremes, in the way our culture does today, this means that a person can paint red rectangles and still call it art because that’s all they are capable of. For some, like Malevich, it’s sufficient that people have to know what he’s talking about to know what these piles of rectangles actually mean. For Kirschner to have to paint rectangles would have felt like an imprisonment!

Only Malevich didn’t know he had imprisoned himself; he imagined that the little he could imagine was all anybody could. Which is the point of art: after all, it’s a process of breathing. It is an exercise in the artist’s expressing themselves and seeing how other people react, and seeing if the artist’s ideas were conveyed effectively.

Or not.

Malevich himself didn’t fuss himself over what other people thought, because what he was saying was perfectly obvious. That to us it wasn’t obvious is our problem, and that’s because we’re wrong because we don’t think like he does. Did. He’s been dead a while. This is the point though, because where Malevich can’t convey what he means isn’t a problem to people who only look at the surface of a painting and not what the artist is trying to say. There are enough people who like red rectangles on white backgrounds to want to have one on their walls and on that account alone deem Malevich a successful artist, so as to convince themselves that it is actually art.

That anybody could satisfy themselves by painting rectangles is another story, but then, that’s not the point: who was painting rectangles in 1904? It was ground breaking at a time when everybody else was treading the same well trodden paths. That Malevich was actually treading the same path is something he was completely unaware of.

Well, there were a few like Ernst Kirschner, August Macke and Oskar Schlemmer who were treading their own paths. Now I happen to love Macke and Schlemmer – but not Kirschner! The question is that he simply doesn’t fit into my own subjective likes and dislikes, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad artist.

Far from it!

I met Kirschner at the Turner exhibition in Enschede in January, and I simply didn’t take much notice. My friend Jasper brought my attention to his painting though, mentioning how the rainbow in his painting was darker on one side than the other. Now to those who know anything about anything, the rainbow stands proud and clear above all other things: after all, we all see rainbows. How many of us see that the sky is lighter on the outside than the inside of the rainbow?

Not many, I can tell you. I know this because I ask people when I see a rainbow, and to most it’s simply irrelevant. But then, if you live in a world sterilized by Newtonian thinking – yes, Isaac Newton, the greatest physicist that ever lived – rainbows have little meaning because it’s just a prismatic effect. To the few who understand Goethe’s subtler arguments, the situation changes radically. I will be studying Newton in an upcoming series on why he pleases so many people in our day and age, and why Goethe doesn’t. After all, Goethe was only a poet, wasn’t he?

But then, I’m a fifty something frump – and a wise man can learn from a frog or a frump.

I’ll let you work out what stupid people do, and this will tell you why Newton is a respected scientist and Goethe can’t be.

Ernst Kirchner, self portrait in a woodcut. Dark and light are stronlgy contrasted. 1906 Kirchner Museum, Davos
Ernst Kirchner, self portrait in a woodcut.
Kirchner Museum, Davos

Ernst Kirchner is an artist who doesn’t please me; but that doesn’t mean he’s not an artist. To someone who thinks Newton is a scientist means that people like Goethe can’t be. Now whilst this sounds an odd comparison to make, you do have to realize that people accept Newton as the epitome of scientific thinking because it pleases them to think of him this way. I am happy to accept Kirchner’s art even if he doesn’t please me.

And I’m going to tell you why: it’s because he could see what Goethe saw when he looked at a rainbow. What’s more, it’s something that Newton overlooked. Most people think of Newton as the finest scientific mind that ever existed; what most people don’t know is that three quarters of Newton’s papers concern his investigations into alchemy. But that’s something that’s easy to brush off because alchemy was

Dodo in a striped dress. The balance of black and white is less stark here. 1906 Kirchner Museum, Davos
Dodo in a striped dress. The balance of black and white is less stark here.
Kirchner Museum, Davos

disproved by Newton, wasn’t it?

That didn’t stop Newton trying to unveil its secrets though… but he’s the greatest excuse for those who can’t be bothered to unveil them. Goethe – and Kirchner for that matter – could see what Newton could not. Yet on any day when the rain had just stopped, the answer to Newton’s agonized strivings into alchemy was staring him in the face. Well, it would if he’d looked up from the papers he was trying to decode. But then, Newton wanted alchemy to fit into his ideas of science – and alchemy isn’t alchemy because it fits the narrow mind of a modern scientist like Newton. Or anybody else’s for that matter.

If you want to know if a person has an open mind, just ask them to look at a rainbow. And then ask them to look at the sky on each side of it. Those who have open minds will see the difference, those who don’t won’t. Alchemy isn’t hard, it’s just perplexing to people like Sir Isaac Newton.

Kirchner’s Tinzenhorn

Which is why Jasper is still a friend: he can see the rainbow. As it were. What’s more, he pointed out Kirchner’s painting of the Fichtelberg which shows a rainbow along with the sky around it – it’s the picture at the top of the page. To anybody with a mind that is open, the message is quite clear. To a mind like Newton’s, it’s an irrelevance.

It’s so stunningly simple, and there are narrow minded people who are genuinely offended when I find it frustrating trying to explain something like this to them. Because the subtleties just float past their minds.

What’s more, like Newton wanted to be an alchemist, he just didn’t get it. What’s more, when they’re perplexed and can’t understand something, they’ll usually ask if you’re on medication. Because they can’t understand. Work it out.

Kirchner’s Woodcuts.

Ernst Kirchner's woodcut of his friend Dodo, with her head resting on a cushion. 1906 Kirchner Museum, Davos
Ernst Kirchner’s woodcut of his friend Dodo, with her head resting on a cushion.
Kirchner Museum, Davos

It wasn’t beyond Kirchner though, and his woodcuts are a clear message to anybody that he really understood rainbows. Now I’ve made enough woodcuts to know that I simply wanted to depict something; Kirchner took the process a step further in that he considered the wood itself. He did something quite radical in that he included the medium of his art in the art itself.

That is to say, he wanted to balance the light and the dark, he wanted to carve a block of wood so that the areas he carved away were as descriptive as those he left untouched.

Whilst the prints are black and white, the effect is quite different on the eye than say a Dürer where the image is all. With Kirchner, black and white become a rainbow in the mind of the viewer.

Emmy Nolde, wife to Emil. Woodcut by Ernst Kirchner, 1906 Kirchner Museum, Davos, CH.
Emmy Nolde, wife to Emil. Woodcut by Ernst Kirchner, 1906. This woodcut is to me, the least successful.
Kirchner Museum, Davos, CH.

I want to add that Kirchner’s work is usually brightly coloured, it was the thought he had to balance the cutting of the wood with that which remained that impressed me so much. It must also be understood that Kirchner suffered severe shell shock during the war, which led to his being hospitalized in a sanitorium in Switzerland. He was the victim of the Nazis in that they categorized him as a “non artist” (under the Entartete Kunst laws); this was a defamation too great for his weakened mind, and the result was he took his own life in 1939.

All I can say is that I am glad he survived that long, and did not face a more sinister end at the hands of freedom loving Anglo-Saxons in the First World War. They, like the Nazis, were more than ready to kill others to get their way.

The Exhibition “Kirchner: Paradijs in de Bergen” is to be seen at the Singer Gallery in Laren until the 10th of April this year. I will be going again, for all his not being my favourite painter: my favourite or not, he still has something to tell me.



Related Posts:

Biting Criticism

You see when I am writing something, I can’t make a mistake. It is art, after all! Yet, on occasion I get responses from readers that point to annoying details of the P 504i Military_dog_barkingstory that I wrote. It is the kind of thing that shows that they have not read the whole story and have just picked at whatever they saw as an easy target. There there was some confusion that led to it being hard to follow or some such rubbish. Now isn’t it quite natural that I should take this with affront? After all, there is good reason: such a critic is acting in a manner that is both offensive and unkind.

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Kazimir Malevich: Supremus 1915-16.

Modern Art  

Supremus 1915-16

In 1913 Kasimir Malevich drew a pencil figure of a square on a white piece of paper. It became Malevich’s central motif: whatever he did it was tightly formed and rigorously geometric. It was his protest against all he saw around him: mere depiction in paint or film. Paintings in embellished frames whose painters sought to catch the shadow of each leaf.


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