Art tends to find itself in a lot of louche, exciting places just before the civilized world rears up and exterminates another two or three million people. After the rest of that generation dies off, we in the present get to view the remains of a moment’s anxiety and pleasure.
Such is "Kirchner and the Berlin Street," soon to open at the Museum of Modern Art, a show centered around seven paintings of pimps, johns and streetwalkers, observed by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, founder of Die Brücke, at the commencement of the Great War.
In his book, Cubism and 20th Century Art, Robert Rosenblum condemns Kirchner for the emotion which compelled his painting, compared to the grand plan of Cubism. Rosenblum argues that those strong feelings drove Kirchner to quick, slapdash painterly decisions, hardly the formula for greatness.
Indeed, the seven paintings of streetwalkers at MoMA appear to be painted with a blowtorch, black, burned streaks of coal washed in the green mud of sin.
Women on the Street drives you away with the hateful gaze of pinprick eyes. Berlin Street Scene highlights a feminine dandy, drawing on a yellow reefer. I haven’t seen such saucy obeisance in a man since I watched Adam Weinberg genuflect before icy beauty Amanda Burden at a city planning commission hearing three weeks ago!In Street Scene, Kirchner’s swains dance down Friedrichstraße in the background like a line of Bob Fosse chorus boys, but the women with their feathered hats and voodoo masks would terrify Picasso. Kirchner had to paint fast and with an emotional reaction bordering on fear, lest his courtesans level his soul to dust.
For many years, MoMA visitors were treated to one Kirchner, the atypical Dresden Street with its echoes of Munch and Ensor. The core paintings of this new show are not great art, too limited in subject matter, washed out in sensibility of color.
What they are is a snapshot of the great train to hell that never returns and never changes.
"Kirchner and the Berlin Street," Aug. 3-Nov. 10, 2008, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).