While visiting Munich in 1903 Kirchner saw an exhibition of Post-Impressionist paintings which had been mounted by a group (The Phalanx) led by Vasily Kandinsky. The work of Paul Signac, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and others, which he saw at this Munich exhibition, had a profound effect on Kirchner, an influence which was equalled by the advent of the Fauves a couple of years later, whose use of colour is an obvious inspiration for this painting.
In the same year that Matisse and Derain were at work in Collioure on the Mediterranean coast of France, producing the first colour-saturated Fauvist pictures, many miles to the north, in Dresden, not far from a much colder sea, Kirchner and three friends (Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff - all four were architecture students) were forming an influential group which they called Die Brücke – the Bridge. The name was symbolic of a bridge to a new art, direct and youthful, an art which was presented to the Dresden public for the first time in 1906 at an exhibition mounted in the showroom of a lamp factory.
The members of Die Brücke may have used Fauve-like colour in their work but the results are markedly different. Whereas the Fauves use of colour creates a feeling of warmth and well being (one thinks of Matisse and Derain working in their Mediterranean arcadia at Collioure), here the clashing colours induce a sense of angst. Apart from a startling expanse of pink representing the Dresden street, the canvas is packed with a predominantly female crowd. A number of these women are sporting huge belle-époque hats which seem to add to the latent claustrophobia. The tram track rears upwards at an acute angle creating an uncertain perspectival space and increasing the general sense of unease. The tram, seen in a central position at the top of the picture, blocks our line of sight (in a similar way to all those hats) and looks as if it might topple towards the child in the centre of the composition. Three women stare disconsolately out of the picture – they seem apprehensive, uneasy, infected by the anxiety inherent in city life.
The work of the Brücke group came to exemplify all that is understood when we speak of Expressionism – an art which is searching for emotional impact through deliberate exaggeration of outline and colour, and where traditional ideas of beauty are sacrificed in order to emphasise the expression of emotion. Kirchner’s experiences in the army during First World War resulted in a nervous breakdown; his recovery necessitated a lengthy spell in sanatoriums in Switzerland where he subsequently settled. The Alpine scenery, a far cry from the crowded streets of Dresden, inspired a shift to a more serene style in which Kirchner painted landscapes. But in the late thirties the angst returned and he committed suicide.
1908 Odilon Redon: Ophelia among the Flowers, London, National Gallery
1908 Georges Braque: Houses at L’Estaque, Berne, Kunstmuseum
1908 Pierre Bonnard: La Loge (The Box), Paris, Musée d’Orsay