Among the first works that come to mind when I hear the phrase “German Expressionism” are Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s tough-minded street scenes. Painted at the age of thirty-one, a few years after he moved from Dresden to Berlin in the autumn of 1911, they are testimony to his fascination with the louche metropolis. In this powerful series, the young artist (1880–1938) concentrated on the city’s urban core at night, filling his canvases with tightly pressed crowds of pedestrians—prostitutes in narrow, fur-trimmed wraps and feathered hats, men pursuing them in long overcoats—revealed by the lurid glow of shop windows and newfangled electric street lighting. There’s something sinister about Berlin after dark as Kirchner presents it. The paintings’ tipped space, angular drawing, and slashing brushstrokes bear witness to an awareness of Cubist ideas about constructing a...


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