Sale: 540 / Evening Sale, June 09. 2023 in Munich Lot 17


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Akte im Wald, kleine Fassung, 1933/34.
Oil on canvas
€ 350,000 / $ 385,000
€ 508,000 / $ 558,800

(incl. surcharge)
Akte im Wald, kleine Fassung. 1933/34.
Oil on canvas.
Gordon 970. With the estate stamp of the Kunstmuseum Basel (Lugt 1570b) and the hand-written registration number "Da/Bf 16" on the reverse. 43 x 60 cm (16.9 x 23.6 in).
The work can be found in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Photoalbum III" as photograph no. 295.
• Unique and clear implementation of Kirchner's particular interest in the depiction of light and shadow.
• The later counterpart of the same name is in the Wilhelm Hack Museum in Ludwigshafen (Wilhelm Hack acquired the work directly from the artist in 1937).
• The same year Kirchner dedicated one of his most important color woodcuts to this motif (on the cover of Prof. Günther Gercken's catalogue raisonné of prints).
• The intensive occupation with this motif in the form of elaborate drawings, sketches and prints, testifies to the great importance of the present work within his oeuvre.
• The detailed, meticulously composed drafts for this painting, which the artist revised several times, deliver proof of Kirchner’s background in architecture.
• Photographs from around 1929 that show Kirchner's partner Erna Schilling naked with her friends Lotte Kraft-Rohner and Ester Haufler in the forest near Davos-Frauenkirch, may have served as inspiration for "Akte im Wald".
• In May 1934 , the artist mentions working on this motif in a letter to his great supporter, the art collector Carl Hagemann (1867–1940).
• Part of the same private collection for at least 55 years

We are grateful to Prof. Dr. Günther Gercken for his kind expert advice.

The present work is documented in the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive, Wichtrach/Bern.

PROVENANCE: From the artist's estate (Davos 1938, Kunstmuseum Basel 1946, with the hand-numbered estate stamp on the reverse).
Curt Valentin Gallery, New York (around 1950).
Buchholz Gallery, New York (1950–1951).
Private collection Hamburg (acquired between 1957 and 1968).
Ever since family-owned.

EXHIBITION: Kirchner, Busch-Reisinger-Museum, Cambridge, December 8, 1950 to January 12, 1951.
Curt Valentin Gallery, New York, April 16 - May 10, 1952, cat. no. 17 (with the gallery label on the stretcher)
[Title unknown], Frankfurt am Main, 1956/1957, cat. no. 84.

LITERATURE: Hauswedell & Nolte, Hamburg, May 1957, lot 897
Donald E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, München/Cambridge (Mass.) 1968, cat. no. 541, p. 407 (with illu.)
Bündner Kunstmuseum Chur (ed.), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Die Sammlung im Kirchner-Haus Davos und die Werke Kirchners und seiner Schüler, Chur 1980, p. 58.
Roland Scotti, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Von der Schimmeldressur zum Ballspiel, Davos 1998, p. 32.
Hans Delfs, Mario-Andreas von Lüttichau and Roland Scotti, Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, Nay. Briefe an den Sammler und Mäzen Carl Hagemann, Ostfildern-Ruit 2004, no. 564.
Günther Gercken, "Aus der Farbe gestaltet", in: ex. cat. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Farbige Druckgrafik, Brücke-Museum, Berlin / Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Kunstsammlungen Böttcherstraße, Bremen / 2008/2009, pp. 35f.
Alexander B. Eiling, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Drei Akte im Walde - Entwicklung eines Bildmotivs, in: Reinhard Spieler and Alexander B. Eiling (eds.), hackstücke #1. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Drei Akte im Walde, Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen am Rhein 2010, p. 37 (with illu., no. 28, p. 39).
Hans Delfs (ed.), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Der gesamte Briefwechsel. "Die absolute Wahrheit, so wie ich sie fühle", Zürich 2010, no. 2987.

"Like the punctiform distribution of light and shadow in the first drawing that I showed you, he comes from observing nature, like this: the sun's rays fall through the treetops and paint large bright spots on the ground and the figures. If you know a little bit about descriptive geometry, the drawing should be clear to you."

E. L. Kirchner in a letter to Franz Bruhin, Wildboden September 25, 1937.

"[..] this is going to be a great picture with sunspots, also been under progress since 1933."
E. L. Kirchner in a letter to his patron, the collector Carl Hagemann (1867-1940) from June 15, 1934, quoted after: H. Delfs, M.-A. v. Lüttichau u. R. Scotti (ed.), Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, Nay .., Ostfildern-Ruit 2004, p. 435.

After Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's had made experiments with abstract forms and changing colors through light and shadow in the late 1920s, the two versions of "Akte im Wald" and the associated color woodcut crowned this creative period, in which he managed to bring both above-mentioned efforts together. The main motif for the pictorial idea of this group of works was to synergize the figurative drawing of the three women in the forest clearing with the abstract elements of the sunspots in one picture, even if the influence of Édouard Manet's painting "Breakfast in the Green" (1863) cannot be overlooked. In Kirchner's pictures, the two sunlit surfaces appear like independent geometric shapes that override the nudes to the extent that some parts of their bodies light up in yellow and a light flesh tint, while other parts sink into a dark green. The intimacy and the quest for form speak for the small version of "Akte im Wald", its whereabouts had been unknown for more than 50 years, the monumentality and the more pronounced geometry speak for the later large version (Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen). With the implementation of the composition in the color woodcut "Drei Akte im Walde" from 1933/34 (Gercken 1728), Kirchner created one of the most important prints of his late work. How much he valued the work and thus the pictorial concept behind it, is emphasized by large number of self-printed color woodcuts, which correspond more to the small than to the large version of the painting.

Günther Gercken

Author of the catalogue raisonné of Kirchner's prints.

Escape from the big city
E. L. Kirchner and his artist colleagues of the "Brücke", among them Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Hermann Max Pechstein, shared a longing for greater nativeness and were on a common quest for harmony of art and nature, as well as simpler, more calm and quiet lives. For this purpose they regularly left the city for the countryside. In the early "Brücke" years, E. L. Kirchner and Erich Heckel often spent their summers at the Moritzburg Ponds near Dresden. During Kirchner's Berlin years between 1911 and 1917, the Baltic island of Fehmarn became his favorite retreat, far away from the noisy, hectic and anonymous metropolis Berlin. In later years, after the end of the First World War, Kirchner and his partner Erna Schilling finally moved to Davos in the secluded mountains of the Swiss Alps, seeking to find relief from his serious mental and physical illnesses. From 1923, the couple found a permanent home at the so-called "Wildbodenhaus" on the Wildboden in Sertig valley, where they would both live until the end of their respective lives (EL Kirchner in 1938 and Erna in 1945).

As a former city dweller, Kirchner was used to the hustle and bustle, first in Dresden and then in Berlin, with electric trams, automobiles roaring over the asphalt and people dressed in modern clothes. However, slower paced rural life not only offered him the peace and quiet he needed to regain strength, and initially even helped him to get a grip on his mental condition, it also proved to be an important source of inspiration for his outstanding later creative years. As early as in 1919, Kirchner explained in a letter: "The good van de Velde wrote to me today, telling me to return to modern life. That's impossible for me. I don't regret it, either. I have a rich field to harvest here, that I could hardly cope with if I was healthy, let alone the way I am today. [.] You learn to look deeper than in so-called "modern" life, which is usually much more shallow despite its rich external form." (Letter to Helene Spengler, July 3, 1919).

Light, air and the forest in Davos. A photographic series
A series of photographs from around 1929 that has been preserved shows Kirchner’s partner Erna Schilling with her friend, the violinist Lotte Rohner (née Kraft) and a young woman, presumably Ester Haufler, both had previously posed for Kirchner on several occasions (cf. R. Scotti, E. L. Kirchner. Das fotografische Werk, Bern 2005, pp. 208-215). Kirchner reported: "It's still hot and very nice outside, so I can draw a lot of plein-air nudes. I have 3 nudes, because we had a young girl visiting us. Things are going great again." (E. L. Kirchner to his patron Carl Hagemann, July 23, 1928) The photographs show the three women, on some of them we can also see Lotte's husband, the painter Hans Rohner and a friend of Kirchner's, undressed and carefree doing what used to be called "light and air bathing" in the woods near Davos-Frauenkirch. The idea of sunbathing naked in nature originated in the nudist culture that developed in the late 19th century in a metropolitan environment, and gained increasing popularity in the 1920s. The photo series continues with shots of light-and-shadow studies, in which the nudes are alternately shown in the shade or in the sun, while the sun's rays falling through the treetops create an interesting pattern on the forest ground. Even years later, these photographs would have a great influence on Kirchner's figure compositions, and also play an important role in the artistic idea and compositional drafts of the work offered here.

Stylistic change and formal development. Kirchner's mature, visionary late style
At the beginning of his great artistic career, in the creative years of the artist group "Brücke" (1905-1913), Kirchner - like his fellow artists – had a strong interest in the depiction of, mostly female, nudes outdoors. Within his entire artistic work, this theme remained one of his most important up to his death in 1938. While his work, as well as that of the "Brücke" artists’ earlier works made in Dresden and Berlin, focused on an expressive and direct account of what they saw, thereby experimenting with dynamic, moving strokes, almost nervous lines, shimmering contours and sometimes sharp angular forms, Kirchner's work in Davos was subject to clear stylistic and formal developments in the 1920s and again in the 1930s. The experience of nature, the sitters’ casual nudity in the great outdoors was still the starting point, but Kirchner had attained a two-dimensional painting style and his very own form of abstraction, which impressively takes shape in the work offered here. "There is a tendency to reinterpret the natural form into large, almost geometric forms, thus the development of what the early Swiss years brought about would become a mature late style that - without being unsensual – grew into something visionary," wrote Gustav Schiefler (1857–1935), Kirchner's confidant, author of the catalogue raisonné of his prints and collector of his works (G. Schiefler, preface, E. L. Kirchner. Werkverzeichnis der Druckgrafik, vol. 2., p. 3f., quoted from: Wolfgang Henze, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Gustav Schiefler. Briefwechsel 1910-1935/1938, Zurich 1990, p. 558).

"Nudes in the forest" in the play of light and shadow
Possibly in connection with the mentioned photographs of the three women frolicking in casual nudity in the forest near Davos from around 1928, E. L. Kirchner expressed the importance of this motif for the development of his artistic work as follows: "The weather is wonderful all the time, so I can do a lot outside. With the bodies of the 3 women around, I can make a lot of plein-air nudes again. That's always good for me and helps me to progress." (Letter to Gustav Schiefler, July 31, 1928) The change in style can be identified in the present work and also in the larger version of "Akte im Wald" (Wilhelm Hack Museum, Ludwigshafen) with three female nudes lingering in a forest clearing. First of all, it is the extraordinarily ingenious pictorial idea of a scene with two different light situations, but also in the clear simplification of the forms, the reduced color and the fascinating deconstruction and alienation of the bodies, which are reminiscent of the female figures of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso or Le Corbusier. Limbs are displaced, enlarged, reshaped and abstracted - a stylistic development that began in works from between 1928 and 1930, and saw its climax in the present work. Kirchner only uses curved, soft lines and rounded, strongly simplified forms, from which he created the stylized female nude, despite the naturalistic details. But the larger concept behind "Akte im Wald" is the light incidence through treetops not shown in the picture: "Light and shadow, in connection with the means of line and surface, created their own forms. I hope that they will be lighter and more permanent than it was the case with some of the other earlier works, which had more natural but also more complex forms." (E.L. Kirchner to Gustav Schiefler, letter 588, March 9, 1932)

Several well-known preparatory drawings and sketches testify to the intensive occupation with this pictorial idea and the resulting composition. In 1933, Kirchner also created a today famous color woodcut of the motif (Gercken 1728). In a letter to the collector Franz Bruhin from 1937, Kirchner explains the idea behind the woodcut based on the motif in the paintings: "Like the punctiform distribution of light and shadow in the first drawing that I showed you, he comes from observing nature, like this: the sun's rays fall through the treetops and paint large bright spots on the ground and the figures. If you know a little bit about descriptive geometry, the drawing should be clear to you." (Letter dated September 25, 1937). As if illuminated by a spotlight on a theater stage, certain areas of the female bodies, the forest ground and some trees in the background are bathed in bright sunlight. In terms of color, they are clearly demarcated from the supposedly shadowy areas, thus anticipating later works by the artist in terms of the pictorial idea (see Gordon 972, 977, 995).Owing to the stylization of the figures, the degree of abstraction and the trend-setting, fascinating pictorial idea, "Akte im Wald" appears to be a main work from E. L. Kirchner's creative period in Davos. [CH]

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Akte im Wald, kleine Fassung, 1933/34.
Oil on canvas
€ 350,000 / $ 385,000
€ 508,000 / $ 558,800

(incl. surcharge)