Amidst the commonplace of nudity in contemporary art, there’s still so much to learn from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938).
His portraying of the body gave flair, attitude, and freshness to being nude in art. The painting of jumpy nude women and men, some of whom appear dancing, others are still and yet communicating, many are deformed but alive. Nudity is in sum a practice.
First, Kirchner’s obsession with the materiality of the nude. In “Nudes in the sun”, a man spreads his legs, as a woman moves her forearm, and the rest of the figures are engaged in some action. It is life that unfolds in front of us. Their colourful, spacious, and uneasy gestures are made to sustain the model’s performance and not to emulate it. It is first about appearing, whereas nudity comes down as a detail.
Second, his originality connects with the inner reality of nudity. Once we are nude, we do not see our full picture unless we reproduce it into a selfie or a drawing. Kirchner’s sense of being nude can be asexual and rehearsed, but still find a narrative. It is hard for us, spectators, not to engage with such depiction as it seeks not our voyeuristic eye, but our participation.
Third, Kirchner is clearly back at sculpting ritualised nudity. It is about the Dyonisian procession on the Roman stela. In “Bathers at Moritzburg” he presents the set of nudes as if they were chained but moving. The action resembles that of ancient characters, nude beings who accompanied the god, which was unconcerned with nudity or pudor. These individuals can be yellow or blue as long as they are busy with themselves. They carry drama, emotion, pleasure as in a religious ritual.
It is true that expressionists are expected to transmit all this. Yet, Kirchner’s nudes are drawn on different layers of complexity. They are reclined but they are up, they are daring but flexible.
Kirchner was a self-promoter painter, very much conscious of the fame he wanted to achieve. He is at ease as he could be with other people’s attention, but his lack of formalism and the risk taking says that he was also unimpressed if his portraits could seem messy and archaic or even cheap. His approach transcends gender before we realise it, it does it with innocence. Nudity here does not follow any kind of normative orientation. It is not posed or captured, it is theatrical.
In his great introduction to Kirchner’s work, “On the edge of the abyss of time” (Taschen), Norbert Wolff discusses the painter’s ambitions of being avant-garde in insecure times. He invented dates for paintings, overstated his influences or denied others that were obvious. If himself forged a personality that was too based on his explanations, his view of a nude model was as a reality in its own. We could say it is beyond “mystery”, as we read elsewhere in the book:
The sensuality of the female figure was reflected in the plasticity of their bodies, full breasts, broad hips, graceful gestures. In the artist’s own words, they “are all surface and yet absolutely bodies, and thus have completely solved the mystery of painting.
To solve this mystery of contemplating a nude individual, and here I refer to the uselessness of staring at a naked body, Kirchner proposes resources that are intriguing. They are modernist in the sense of being weird and out of common sense, but they take us to the very peculiar routine in his studio. He must have taken the first thing he saw around him.
It is the case of “Nude standing with a hat”. The painting is like a puzzle. We have a seemingly static body, with subtle gestures, strong colours, and uneasiness that attest to the lady’s (Dodo, his lover) full questioning of what’s going on. Her eyes mirror a kind of tension that are not justified by the well-built composition and proud standing. The redness of her shoes adds the minimal clothing to her, as far as her pubic hair reveals an uneven asymmetry of her body that restores humanity and amateurism.
As Wolff still notes, there are echoes of Cranach’s Venus in Kirchner’s practice, but he ends up building up his own idiom of confrontational standing, slow moving, and weirdness. These traits are displayed whether he works with lone models or groups, capturing them in esplanades or dark studio rooms; they are neither new nor old. They mirror the experimentation which the painter used in his own life.
Overall, Kirchner enlightens our time by giving nudity a narrative, even if a complex one. Why has nudity become so paralysed in contemporary art? Why the presence of a nude model has been confined to “essays”. The best thing today in New York will still relate to androgyne takes made in vintage Instagram filters, showing tired models in microscopic Brooklyn 1-bed studios.
Contemporary artists do not declare their pursuit of asexuality, but photographers are certainly focused on that when they assemble a range of erections or breasts or sex games in a well-behaved, fashionista templated. In reality, models will still come up as tree trunks. Perhaps the credibility of the body, our fascination with it, and the fear of touching, leave alone seeing it, have all driven art into indifference.
As visual culture of body showing converges into Grindr avatars and occasional Internet voyeurism, there is still a chance to reverse nudity from all these conditions and make it confrontational and identitarian.
We knew of Kirchner’s models and their story, and they still dared appear nude. Why is it so hard for artists to emulate such freedom when it comes to the body on display. Apart from gay photography in the 1980s, most of which made by underground gay artists turned into mainstream such as Peter Hujar, to say the most popular one, there is hardly nude art as we should have. In other words, we don’t need to make it blurred, headless, passionless dummies. These bodies do not need to be removed from context and landscape; we need the opposite.
The so-called universe of amateur photography can recover its joy as an idiom for art. This is the greatest of Kirchner’s lessons for our time. Nudity is not only a starting point for an artist. If well done, it also settles the tension that involves investigating new forms of portraying individuals. It offers opportunities to liberate whatever they have to hide and fear about themselves while making them less commodity.
Before they are rotten, we should do more art with our bodies. We should not conform to its mass reproduction.