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(Credit: Far Out / YouTube/Ernst Ludwig Kirchner)


Bathers Among The Reeds: Remembering the Die Brücke summer nudist colony


When one considers the sad fate of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, it’s hard not to view Bathers Among The Reeds as his last breath of innocence. The 1909 work depicts ochre bodies swimming, reading and talking on the banks of the Moritzburg ponds just outside Dresden. Using oil on canvas, the German expressionist painter – then in the final year of his 20s – captured a moment of pure inhibition: the naked bodies of his artist friends and their models softened to the extent that they appear as flickering candle flames on the cusp of being extinguished.

This work, and countless others produced by Die Brücke artists, capture the glory days of the summer nudist colony that the collective (founded by Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff) visited from 1907 and 1911. On the reed-lined banks of these expansive waters, Die Brücke sought to innoculate themselves against the disease of modernism, shedding their adulthood, formal artistic education, sexual anxieties, and clothes in the process. For these artists, nature was more than a place to escape the chatter of the concrete jungle, it was an essential collaborator and a principle of their artistic philosophy. Here, in this quiet corner of the German countryside, Kirchner and his companions attempted to unstitch themselves from the very fabric of society and, for a few short weeks, embrace every impulse.

In the early 20th century, the cult of nudism was on the rise in Germany. The desire among the affluent classes to strip off their breeches and commune in the nude coincided with a period of intellectual, artistic and social rebellion against the strict morality that had defined the previous century. Die Brücke’s summer colony was just one of the nudist colonies that flourished in these years. In 1903, the Freilichtpark (Free Light Park) nudist club was founded in Hamburg. Around the same time, a group of artists, philosophers and intellectuals were laying the foundations for the Monte Verità colony on the Italian-Swiss border, where naturism and free love were regarded as means of liberating the human spirit. For the four school friends that founded Die Brücke, naturism wasn’t so much about sex as it was about unlearning the process of civilisation every child must undergo on the road to adulthood. Perhaps they believed that in returning to a state of innocence they would be able to access the innate imagination of the wild-eyed child, using it to inform their artistic methods and arouse something primal in the viewer’s own imagination.

Inspired by the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Die Brücke sought to paint from nature without reproducing it. Their motto was “Painting in nature, but not naturally”. In this sense, their aim was not to capture the natural world photographically but to use its untamable character to excite spontaneity and experimentation in their own work: “Everyone belongs with us who reflects what compels him to create in a direct and unadulterated manner,” the quartet wrote in their manifesto, casting themselves as a bridge (Brücke) between past, present and future artistic movements, but also between man and his natural environment.

Nature was an essential aspect of the Brücke philosophy. When the group – made up of four disillusioned, anti-urban architect students – was established in 1905, the natural world had been reduced to an enclave of the human imagination, where the purity of a pre-modern age could still be found glistening under a tangerine sun. Drawn by the mellow light of the German countryside, Kirchner, Bleyl, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, and many others fled the city for the lakes around Moritzberg Castle near Dresden. Here, away from the footfall of the Berlinese crowds, they prepared for winter exhibitions, making their home in an old brewery building in the expansive woodlands around the lakes.

Girl with Cat (Franzi) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Credit: WikiArt)

When not painting, their days were spent bathing with their models or else observing them from a distance – working quickly to capture them as they hauled themselves out of the water, dancing themselves dry on the sun-baked grass. This is where the history of Die Brücke becomes unsettling. Of Kirchner’s, Heckel’s, and Pechstein’s many models, their favourite was a nine-year-old girl called Fränzi, the twelfth child of a local needlewoman who had emigrated from Italy. In the summer months, Fränzi would leave her house near the railway station and join the painters from Dresden to swim in the ponds and model for them at the same time. In Girl With The Cat, Kirchner paints Fränzi in vivid reds and blues. Here, she has been deliberately desexualised, but in other works, such as Erick Heckel’s Girl With Doll, there is an unignorable erotic undertone.

Each year that passed, fewer artists returned to Moritzberg. One by one they relocated to Berlin seeking fame and fortune. In 1913, Kirchner wrote Chronik der Brücke, a chronicle of the collective in which he overstated his influence leading to the dissolution of Die Brücke. A year after, he was sent to the Western Front where he witnessed untold carnage. On his return to Germany following the Armistice, he suffered a catastrophic mental breakdown. During this period he painted a large number of self-portraits, each more nihilistic than the last. Although he felt unsatisfied by his level of notoriety, many of his expressionist contemporaries simply disappeared on relocating to Berlin. With the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, some were branded as degenerates and had their artworks destroyed; others attempted to flatter the Nazis by altering their artistic vision to reflect the party’s nationalist outlook. Either way, most of them failed. Even Kirchner, the brightest light of Die Brücke, was expelled from the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1937. A year later, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart. While his fate may have been hastened by his recent morphine relapse, the suicide was most probably a reaction to all 639 of his pictures being removed from German museums by the Nazis, two of which were included in the Degenerate Art Exhibition organised by Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party in attempt to scapegoat the avant-garde.

In the early years of the regime, when Kirchner first started to feel uneasy about his presence in Germany, he decided to return to Moritzberg one last time. He arrived by train, stopping a stranger on the platform to ask where he might find a girl known as Fränzi. He was pointed in the direction of a local print shop, where he found his former model with two children of her own. While Die Brücke’s relationship with Fränzi is undoubtedly unsettling, her account of the meeting implies that she remembered her time with the artists fondly. Still, all these years later, the collective’s latent relationship with the Nazis and their proximity to child sexual exploitation cast an unignorable shadow over those works they painted on the banks of Moritzberg ponds.

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