Lot 14
  • 14

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

3,500,000 - 5,000,000 GBP
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  • Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
  • Vier Akte unter Bäumen (Four Nudes under Trees)
  • incised K (lower left); signed E L Kirchner and stamped with the Nachlass mark on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 120.5 by 90cm.
  • 47 1/2 by 35 1/2 in.


Estate of the artist (until at least 1968)

Galerie Roman Norbert Ketterer, Campione d'Italia

Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1981


New York, Curt Valentin Gallery, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1952

Turin, Galleria d'Arte Contemporanea, Kirchner, 1964, no. 6

Campione d'Italia, Galerie Roman Norbert Ketterer, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Gemälde, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen, Graphik, Plastik, 1980, no. 11, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Munich, Galerie Thomas, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Graphiken, 1991-92, no. 19, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Moritzburg, Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg Halle, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Akte im Strandwald, 1996, no. 9, illustrated in the catalogue

Lugano, Museo d'Arte Moderna della Città di Lugano, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 2000, no. 34, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Darmstadt, Institut Mathildenhöhe, Die Lebensreform: Entwürfe zur Neugestaltung von Leben und Kunst um 1900, 2001, no. 4.18, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Arona, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Villa Ponti, Fantastico Novecento ad Arona. Da Picasso a Kandinsky, 2003, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Arona, Villa Ponti, Femme fatale da Modigliani a Warhol, 2004, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Barcelona, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, El naixement de l'expressionisme alemany: Brücke, 2005, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Berlin, Brücke-Museum, Brücke: Die Geburt des deutschen Expressionismus, 2005-06, no. 180, illustrated in colour in the catalogue


Will Grohmann, Das Werk Ernst Ludwig Kirchners, Munich, 1926, illustrated pl. 34

Donald E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Munich, 1968, no. 355, illustrated p. 325

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner und Fehmarn (exhibition catalogue), Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmuseum, Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, 1997, pp. 35-48

Mario Andreas von Lüttichau, 'Two Nude Figures in a Landscape: A new Attribution', in North Carolina Museum of Art Bulletin, XVII, Raleigh, 1997, illustrated pl. 4

Catalogue Note

‘The lives of Kirchner and his colleagues were of course unconventional by the bourgeois standards of the day, and their art completely reflected their way of life.’

Norman Rosenthal in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Dresden and Berlin Years (exhibition catalogue), Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2003, p. 11

Painted in 1913, the last year of the avant-garde collective Die Brücke, Vier Akte unter Bäumen exemplifies the zest and vigour that characterised this important artistic movement and the ambitions of the young artist who was its founder and author of its governing philosophy. In 1911 Kirchner moved from Dresden to Berlin, and whilst he was ineluctably drawn to the dynamic city life, he felt a need to counteract it with visits to the country. The theme of the nude moving freely and uninhibited within a landscape was a key theme in the work of Kirchner and his fellow Die Brücke artists. During this time, Kirchner often joined Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff on painting trips in the country (figs. 1 & 2), such as the Baltic island of Fehmarn and the Moritzburger See. The artists would spend several weeks with their female companions and models, bathing and playing nude and living in tents or huts. It was this experience of Freikörperkultur, coupled with tribal art that Kirchner had encountered in Dresden museums, that inspired his paintings of nude bathers (fig. 3) and erotic scenes that covered the walls of his studio.

Kirchner spent the summer of 1913 at Fehmarn with a group of friends including Erna Schilling, who would remain his partner for the rest of his life. Wolfgang Henze wrote about the present work: ‘Kirchner, depicted with a high hat and a pipe, is surrounded by three female figures, each of them behaving very differently. They entrap him in an egg-shaped cocoon, not letting go of him before he makes his choice. From the right side, a slender, young, innocent figure is approaching hesitantly. From behind, a more mature beauty wants to enfold him with her gown and pull him to her tantalising bosom. Still, he does not see them but instead looks at the one sitting in the lower left who, half naked, covers her bosom with her left arm and blushes as if she had been surprised. This Judgement of Paris takes place in the summer of 1913 in a green clearing in the beach woods of Fehmarn. Behind the yellow tree trunks one gets a glimpse of Fehmarn under a deep blue sky’ (W. Henze in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., 2000, p. 271, translated from German).

In the programme of Die Brücke written in 1906, Kirchner had proclaimed: ‘With faith in progress and in a new generation of creators and spectators we call together all youth. […] As youth, we carry the future and want to create for ourselves freedom of life and of movement against the long established older forces. Everyone who reproduces that which drives him to creation with directness and authenticity belongs to us’ (quoted in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (ed.), Art in Theory, 1900-1990, Oxford & Cambridge, 1993, pp. 67-68). What Kirchner and his colleagues Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff were promoting was a freedom of expression and a rejection of the traditions of painting that they had encountered as art students in Dresden in the early 1900s. Although the style of their art was rooted in German folk tradition and influenced by the perspectival advancements of French Post-Impressionist painting, the members of Die Brücke invested their art with a freshness and naivety that expressed the self-confidence of youth. Theirs was the first distinctly German artistic movement of the twentieth century, and their bold aesthetic established Kirchner and his colleagues as an important force among the European avant-garde. 

By the time Kirchner painted Vier Akte unter Bäumen, his artistic gleanings had become more international in scope. In 1909 he saw an exhibition of Matisse’s Fauvist compositions at the Paul Cassirer Gallery in Berlin. He was so impressed with the wild colouration of these pictures that he tried to recruit Matisse to join Die Brücke. Nothing ever came of this offer, but the effect that Matisse’s influence had on the members of Die Brücke was profound. Paintings created by Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff over the following years demonstrate an exuberant application of paint and their preference for unmitigated pigments and broad, sweeping brushstrokes is clearly indebted to Matisse. The flatness of the composition and the use of bold black outlines defining the bodies and the trees in the present work also reflect the influence of prints, particularly woodcuts, on Kirchner’s painting.

Since the early Die Brücke years Kirchner was fascinated with the subject of the human body. Like Emil Nolde and other group members, he was interested in the simple, expressive rendering of shapes and forms of African sculptures from New Guinea which he had seen in the Dresden Ethnographic Museum. Exposed to academic studies, it was nevertheless through long self-training that the artist gradually learned that exact representation could not be achieved through objective faithfulness to nature. The reductive, highly stylised manner of African sculpture had a great influence on Kirchner’s own sculptural work (fig. 4), examples of which were scattered around his studio, and often featured in his oils. His primary concern during this key period in his career was the representation of the human form in its most primitive or uninhibited state, and the present painting strongly reflects that aesthetic goal. Kirchner was a key proponent of spontaneous, unmediated depictions of the body, divorced from the rigorous constraints of academic painting or the influences of precedents within the Western canon. 

Writing about Kirchner’s figure paintings, Norman Rosenthal commented: ‘His depictions of men and women, naked or clothed, together or alone, are made so remarkable by their truthfulness, their sense of happiness, ecstasy, sadness or thoughtfulness, seemingly “betraying”, as Lucius Grisebach has pointed out, “no allegorical or symbolic intent. He painted and drew his subjects in everyday attitudes without troubling over deeper meanings.” The lives of Kirchner and his colleagues were of course unconventional by the bourgeois standards of the day, and their art completely reflected their way of life’ (N. Rosenthal in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Dresden and Berlin Years (exhibition catalogue), Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2003, p. 11). With its autobiographical subject matter, its daring imagery and a vibrant palette, Vier Akte unter Bäumen is a testament to the painter’s avant-garde vision, which informed both his life and his art.