Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a leading member of the group of artists historically referred to as the German Expressionists. He began his studies in 1901 in Dresden, studying architecture for four years, before enrolling at a progressive art school in Munich.
In 1905 Kirchner co-founded the Die Brücke (The Bridge) group, alongside Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, with Otto Müller, Emil Nolde, and Max Pechstein joining the group later on. In 1911, Kirchner moved with the Brücke group to Berlin. The following year Franz Marc included works by Brücke artists in the second show of the Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) at Heinrich Thannhauser's Moderne Galerie in Munich, and a link between the two avant-garde groups was established. The groups both produced illustrated periodicals, and Kirchner's skill as a graphic artist is especially apparent; as important a feature in his practise as his painting. Feeling himself to be part of an established German tradition, Kirchner was inspired by the woodcuts of Albrecht Durer, and had produced his own prints since his early days in Munich (indeed Die Brucke are credited with the invention of the medium of the linocut). Japanese prints and the simplicity of African and Oceanic art were also of significant influence.
The move to Berlin proved to be pivotal in Kirchner's work, providing the artist with ample inspiration. He felt (or perhaps sensed in the years which foreshadowed the First World War) that powerful, primal forces moved beneath the veneer of Western respectability, and this was no more apparent than in this newly wealthy, densely populated city. He walked frequently, sketching the passers by moving in and out of the department stores in their sharp tailoring, or soliciting on the streets in their furs. The circus, as depicted in the work offered here for sale, was the perfect cipher for the chaotic undertones which were beginning to swirl. High and low class mingled together, and the vitality and energy of the human form was captured in his jagged, scratched mark-making. Our performer, a female acrobat, is trapped inside a claustrophobic ring of observers.
This dry point etching was produced in 1913 for Kirchner's first major print exhibition at the Kunstverein Jena in 1914. The Kunstverein Jena was established in 1903, by archaeologist Botho Graef, Kirchner's patron. It is exceedingly scarce; one of only three known examples. Further, it bears the inscription 'Eigendruck', translating roughly as 'own print', or artist's proof. Also present are stamps from the Kunstverein Jena, and from the Galerie Ferdinand Möller, a dealer in Modernist art throughout the 1930s-40s. This in itself was a treacherous practise as the Nazi regime had labelled the work of Modern and avant-garde artists 'un-German' and 'degenerate'. This print's Kunstverein Jena stamp is crossed out, signifying the etching's de-accessioning at the orders of the Nazi party in 1937, the year they held their infamous Entartete Kunst ('Degenerate Art') exhibition in Munich.
Though Kirchner enjoyed solo shows throughout the 1930s in Basel, Bern, Hamburg, Munich, Detroit, and New York, he never fully recovered from the mental and physical collapse which saw him discharged from the army during World War I. Aghast at his inclusion in the 1937 Nazi organised exhibition of banned artwork, the artist committed suicide in 1938.