Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Potsdamer Platz

by Alexandra Tuschka


Berlin, 1914, shortly before the beginning of the 1st World War. The young painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had already moved from Dresden to the vibrant metropolis three years earlier, and promptly created a series of "street scenes", of which the painting "Potsdamer Platz" shown here is the most famous.


The station clock tells us that we are at the station forecourt at midnight. We immediately encounter two prostitutes - called "coquettes" in Berlin - on a round traffic island in the foreground. One, who is clearly overlong, looks at us head-on. Her eyes, however, are only black ovals, so that the look manages to creep us out a little. Her companion, in a widow's veil, looks out from the left edge of the picture. Both ladies are heavily made up and have decorated their clothes with feathers. The widow's veil of the one on the left also resembles a birdcage, but it remains permeable enough that we can easily make out the face in profile. We look at these two ladies from a slight top view, quite in contrast to the rest of the background, which we see from a bottom view. These two different views make the distance between the two planes seem unbridgeable. There is a man dressed in black striding towards the women with a sweeping step, but he still seems to be miles away.

Potsdamer Platz, where we are, is clearly identifiable by prominent buildings. The Piccadilly Cafe can be seen on the left, with the Potsdamer Bahnhof train station in Berlin behind it in the center. Greatly simplified, the buildings have been reduced to the most important features that nevertheless make them recognizable. Kirchner again neglects perspective to accommodate the buildings together in the picture. The colors chosen add to the unpleasant overall impression: the green of the street alternates between light and dark, the flamingo red ladies in the background reflect the color of the house behind them in a softened way. And the gentlemen, all wearing black suits and hats, are absolutely interchangeable and have no identity. Nevertheless, they seem to be magnetically attracted to the ladies. The picture ground leans towards them as if magnetically attracting them and bending the space. This reinforces the already strong distortion of the surfaces. The many pointed lines are juxtaposed with the traffic island on which the ladies are standing.


We learn who they are through superimpositions: they are Kirchner's partner Erna Schilling and her - probably prettier - sister Gerda, who turns her face to us here. Kirchner presumably had a kind of triangular relationship with both of them. Gerda later disappeared without a trace in the milieu, which Kirchner commented on in letters: "Like the coquettes you once painted, you are now yourself. Wiped away, gone the next time."


In any case, Kirchner suffered severely psychologically from his time. Berlin in particular - in comparison to the more relaxed Dresden - was strongly characterized by contrasts. Wealth and poverty, chic and underworld came together in the pulsating metropolis. And, of course, the coquettes also shaped the cityscape at night. Although no direct moralizing or accusatory attitude can be inferred from this painting, the combination of the widow's veil on a prostitute seems to speak for the heavy fate that befell many women. They may have lost their husbands young, received little support from the state, and then found themselves in dire need on the streets. The strict rules in Berlin additionally forced the women not to flirt offensively with the men; eye contact was forbidden. It was all the more important that one was nevertheless recognized by men as a coquette, for example, by the sweeping feathers and hats and heavy makeup. The one lady looks at us forbidden nevertheless. Are we her next addressee? At least it is handed down that Kirchner would have liked to see the work hanging at eye level. Due to the dimensions of 2 x 1.5 m, this leads to a rather direct contact between model and viewer.


Kirchner was a frequent guest in Berlin's nightlife, as his numerous paintings attest. Due to his psychological problems, he was discharged early from his service in World War I and from 1918 moved his life residence to Davos in Switzerland, where friends placed him in the care of a doctor. Kirchner spent many years there, during which his works also became friendlier and calmer.


After the Nazi seizure of power and when in Germany in 1937 some of his works became part of the "degenerate art" exhibition, he became very afraid. After the annexation of Austria by the Nazis, Kirchner feared that Switzerland would soon meet the same fate. He destroyed many of his works and finally shot himself. In research, the defamation of his works is usually seen as the reason for the suicide. However, the longstanding and severe psychological suffering must also be considered. Kirchner was already addicted to drugs as a young soldier and, after a long period of abstinence, became ill again with a morphine addiction shortly before his death.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Potsdamer Platz

Oil on canvas, 1914, 200 x 1502 cm, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin


Cited in:

Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig/Schiefler, Gustav: Briefwechsel 1910-1935/38. Belser Verlag, Stuttgart/Zurich 1990, p. 83.