“Ernst Ludwig Kirchner” at Neue Galerie, New York: installation view (all images courtesy Neue Galerie, New York)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) is a very well-known painter. His works are found in many large modernist collections here and abroad. But I must confess that before reviewing this exhibition, I didn’t have a very clear sense of his achievement. Part of the problem for me, as a New York-based critic, is that the Museum of Modern Art has always been Franco-centric. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse rule! But the retrospective Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at New York’s Neue Galerie is all the proof you need that a full picture of European modernism is incomplete without this remarkable German artist.

Kirchner was a magnificently inventive colorist. Look at how in “Two Nudes” (1907) the speckled effects on the women’s bodies pick up colors from the decorative design of the carpet on which the one at the right stands. Or consider “Portrait of a Woman” (1911) in which the dark blue coat and the dark skin of an African woman are set against a lighter blue tablecloth.

The color compositions of his cityscapes, too, are impressive. In “Dance Hall Bellevue” (1909-10), the turquoise and yellow walls of the building play against the blues below and above. Some of his landscapes are stunning. “White House in Sertig Valley” (1926) sets that house in a green field, highlighted by grays, pinks and blue. And I haven’t even said anything yet about the lithographs and woodcuts, or his two large wool designs that were executed by Lise Gujer and Erna Schilling.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Portrait of a Woman” (1911), oil on canvas; Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, General Purchase Funds

For this American art writer, then, Kirchner needs some placing. Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy: Essay in the Psychology of Style (1908) was enormously influential in Germany. By arguing that there are two fundamentally opposed forms of visual thinking, the empathetic delight in beauty and what Worringer calls abstraction (defined as the withdrawal from pleasure in appearances), the book offered a plausible means for classifying and defending Germanic art.

Although this philosophical treatise didn’t deal with contemporary art, its relevance was obvious: Kirchner, it was easy to say, was the anti-Matisse. Like Matisse, he loves extended, flat, saturated colors. But while Kirchner called himself a colorist, it’s the sharp-edged forms that define his very distinctive style. How un-Matisse-ian are the space-filling jagged shapes, found in almost all of these Kirchners, that make up the bodies of men and women, the buildings, and even the trees in the landscapes. And how unlike the Frenchman’s empathetic Arcadian subjects are “Berlin Street Scene” (1913-14) and Kirchner’s other grim urban scenes.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Berlin Street Scene” (1913-14), oil on canvas; Neue Galerie New York and Private Collection

In his classic essay ”The Metropolis and Mental Life,” (1903) Georg Simmel offered a famously suggestive characterization of city life:

The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli. Man is a differentiating creature. His mind is stimulated by the difference between a momentary impression and the one which preceded it.

Kirchner was the painter of this modernist urban anxiety; it’s the subject of much of his art, even including the countryside scenes. Traditionally landscape painting provided an escape from city life. Abstracting from visual pleasure, Kirchner never escaped his anxieties.

Kirchner’s terrifying “Self-Portrait as a Soldier” (1915) shows his right (painting) hand amputated. Unlike Matisse, Kirchner was called up in the Great War; he soon suffered a mental and physical breakdown, but this picture is a fantasy, for he suffered no such bodily injury. You don’t have to study Freud to find the juxtaposition of the soldier’s mutilated hand with the female nude behind him uncanny. Here we are far from Matisse’s self-portraits in the studio, painting odalisques. Matisse-ian ‘Luxury, calm, and voluptuousness’ was alien to Kirchner. Where Matisse’s art was devoted to mastering anxiety, Kircher’s was often devoted to its display. A great deal of more recent art engages aggressively with visual shock. But no painting that I can recall is as shocking as “Self-Portrait as a Soldier.”

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Self-Portrait as a Soldier” (1915), oil on canvas; Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, Charles F. Olney Fund

The Neue Galerie is a jewel box of a museum, with its highly distinctive, Austrian decorative scheme. Although it is a public museum (with shop and restaurant), it has the feel of a private gallery. And because it is relatively small, this visually intense exhibition benefits from the dense hanging throughout, for you feel immersed in Kirchner’s world.

In the largest gallery, intensely colored pink and blue side walls frame the great “Tightrope Walk” (1908-10) at the center of the far wall, picking up the blue of the women’s dresses and the pink of the background. To the right, the faintly colored wood sculpture, “Caryatid” (1909-10), has a hard time holding its own.

I cannot imagine a more effective installation for “Tightrope Walk.” The saturated wall colors intensify the effect of this large painting so dramatically that I found myself shielding my eyes from the background, asking myself critically (for I could hardly trust my sight): Is this Kirchner really as good as it looks? I think that it is. And of course I wondered: Was this how Kirchner’s paintings were originally hung? No doubt the flat, expansive colors of Robert Mangold’s abstractions, or the backgrounds of Alex Katz’s figurative works, have accustomed us to such fields of color. But whether the credit here belongs entirely to Kirchner or in part to the gifted curators, the resulting effect is truly magnificent.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Tightrope Walk” (1908-10), oil on canvas; Neue Galerie New York

One way to contextualize “Tightrope Walk” is to compare it to any of the versions of Matisse’s “Dance” (1909). Where Matisse seeks ultimate harmony, placing his female dancers in a graceful curve, permitting the moving figures to come visually to rest, Kirchner balances his two women precariously on an unstable tightrope. And where the blue, green, and pinks of Dance achieve a harmony, Tightrope Walk sets its blues and pinks in violent juxtaposition. While it would be ahistorical to relate Kirchner’s works immediately to the catastrophes that would befall Germany in the decades to come, his art is an authentic response to the “intensification of nervous stimulation” prophetically diagnosed by Simmel.

But he was, I think, an ideal witness to that history, for he is the most anxious artist I’ve ever encountered. Condemned as a degenerate painter when Hitler came to power, he exiled himself to Switzerland, where he committed suicide in 1938.

Note: Simmel’s commentary is reprinted in Richard Sennett’s Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969). This review is indebted to Joseph Masheck’s essay “The Horror of Bearing Arms: Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Soldier, the Military Mystique and the Crisis of World War I (With a slip-of-the-pen by Freud),” Artforum, December 1980, and Victoria Newhouse, Art and the Power of Placement (New York: Monacelli Press, 2005).

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner continues at Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 13. The exhibition is organized by Neue Galerie New York and co-curated by Jill Lloyd and Janis Staggs.

David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His book In Caravaggio’s Shadow:...