Another new year and once again the world’s leading CEOs and politicians descend on Davos, transforming this little Alpine town into the world’s most (self-) important talking shop. Yet there’s another side to Davos that’s far more interesting than dry geopolitical debate. Long before it became a stage for the World Economic Forum, this quiet corner of the Swiss Alps was the home of one of the most brilliant figures in modern art. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner spent his last 20 years in Davos. The town features in many of his finest paintings. It’s the only place with a museum devoted to his work.
The Kirchner Museum in Davos is a striking piece of modern architecture, a Rubik’s Cube of glass and concrete bathed in natural light. The setting is spectacular, framed by a ring of snowcapped peaks, but the best thing is its contents, the world’s biggest Kirchner collection, about 3,000 works, including numerous paintings of Davos and the mountains that encircle it. His legacy isn’t confined to this museum. A walk around the town, and the surrounding hills and meadows, doubles as a timeline of his troubled life.
Kirchner was born in Germany in 1880 into a conventional bourgeois family. He studied architecture in Dresden but his passion was always art. With several fellow students he founded Die Brücke (the Bridge), a radical ensemble who more or less invented German Expressionism. Vivid and unsentimental, their work was a sensation — and Kirchner was the leader of the pack. In 1913 he moved to Berlin, and his art became even more dynamic. His self-portraits were unflinching. He lived the life he painted. His nudes and femmes fatales were infused with erotic candour. Then Germany went to war, and his hedonistic world fell apart.
Kirchner volunteered for the artillery but he suffered a nervous breakdown and wound up in a sanatorium in Davos — the same sanatorium that inspired Thomas Mann’s classic novel The Magic Mountain (the cold dry air in Davos was believed to be therapeutic — especially for people suffering from TB). Kirchner left the sanatorium in 1917, but he didn’t return to Germany — or to the army. Instead he moved into a little hut in the hills above the town. Here he regained his sanity, and rekindled his love of art.
In Berlin, Kirchner had produced some intensely atmospheric paintings particularly his seductive studies of street prostitutes. He’d also become addicted to morphine and absinthe (a litre a day, which takes some doing). Here in rural Graubünden, he couldn’t help but lead a healthier life. This dramatic change of scene was reflected in his art. His emotive use of colour was as revolutionary as ever, but painting landscapes instead of cityscapes meant that the effect was entirely different. His Berlin paintings had been dark and pessimistic. His Swiss pastorals were full of light and hope.
Kirchner remained in Davos, but Germany remained the main market for his art. When the Weimar economy collapsed, his rich patrons stopped buying paintings. When the Nazis came to power, curators who’d championed his work were fired. More than 600 of his paintings were confiscated from public museums — 32 were hung in Hitler’s exhibition of ‘degenerate’ art. This hit Kirchner hard. Despite the decadence of his Berlin paintings, he was, in his own way, a German patriot. ‘We founded Die Brücke to encourage truly German art, made in Germany, and now it’s supposed to be unGerman,’ he protested, but there was no place for him in Hitler’s Reich. In 1937 he was expelled from the Prussian Academy of Art. ‘I am an outsider in Switzerland, and in Germany,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘I have no home.’
Even in neutral Switzerland, Kirchner felt besieged. Switzerland had its own Nazi party. Its leader, Wilhelm Gustloff, lived in Davos. When Gustloff was assassinated in Davos, by a Jewish student, the tension cranked up another notch. In March 1938, Hitler marched into nearby Austria. Now the Third Reich was only 15 miles away. Kirchner loved Davos too much to leave but he’d never conquered his addictions and his psyche was still fragile. His art was as strong as ever, with a new simplicity and maturity, but he despaired about his declining selling power and the political turmoil in his Fatherland. In June 1938 he shot himself in the field behind his farmhouse.
‘Das Liebespaar’, 1984, by Georg Baselitz
That Kirchner’s Davos endures is a testament to the affection and admiration its inhabitants have always felt for their adopted artist. His long-standing (and long-suffering) partner Erna Schilling was acknowledged as his widow, even though they never married. She lived on in their rudimentary house, Wildboden, until she died in 1945. Local devotees later bought this house, and the Alpine hut where Kirchner had lived previously. The collection he left behind was augmented by judicious purchases. The first museum opened in the old post office in 1982. The current museum, built by the Swiss architects Annette Gigon and Mike Guyer, opened ten years later.
Gigon & Guyer’s museum is splendid, but the place where Kirchner’s spirit resides is Wildboden, where he lived and worked during the last 15 years of his life, and where he died. The view across the valley mirrors the expressive panoramas he painted. Wildboden means ‘wild earth’ and despite its close proximity to modern Davos, it still feels like the backwoods. It isn’t one of those plush chalets you see in ski resorts like Klosters, but a basic log cabin. Even here in the valley, the altitude is over 1,500m. It must have been bitterly cold in winter, with the snow piled up outside the door.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was buried in the local cemetery, Waldfriedhof, right beside Wildboden. Kirchner painted this cemetery. His picture hangs in the museum. It’s an enchanted place, a little forest full of conifers. The gravestones seem almost incidental. As I hunt for his grave among the evergreens, I meet the gardener, a big man with a broad smile. Ernst and Erna are buried side by side. You can see their house through the trees. I try my best to look sombre, but actually I feel elated. Maybe it’s the mountain air.
Back at the museum, they’re opening a new exhibition by the German painter Georg Baselitz. The gallery is full of people sipping free drinks and scoffing canapés. Selections from the permanent collection are relegated to a side room. However, even these few Kirchners exude extraordinary power. There are paintings of Davos, the moon rising over the mountains. There’s a picture of Wildboden, the rough wooden walls hung with paintings, cats playing on the floor. The great sadness of Kirchner’s suicide is that his art showed no sign of fading. His mature work is calmer and more controlled. Still, I guess he could have died in the first world war like his fellow German artists Marc and Macke. At least Davos gave him another 20 years. ‘It was a sort of rebirth,’ says the museum’s director, Thorsten Sadowsky, as he shows me round the gallery. ‘It was quite the opposite of urban life.’ And the Alpine backdrop is unique. ‘You can feel the atmosphere of his paintings.’
I take the funicular up the Schatzalp to the sanatorium where Kirchner stayed. Built in 1900, it’s a bold, modernistic building. It still looks avant-garde today. It’s a hotel nowadays, but the ambience is still medicinal. The view over the valley below is breathtaking. You feel the silence might drive you mad. I take a walk through a pine forest, muffled with snow. I lose my way several times. There’s no one else around. Finally, I find the funicular. As it carries me back down to Davos, I realise I’m sweating, despite the cold.
On my way to the train station, I pass a private gallery with a Kirchner in the window, a picture of a young man drinking from a mountain stream. At this time, in this place, it seems like the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The gallery is closed. There’s no price on the painting. For one mad moment, I wonder if I could somehow raise the cash to buy it. I phone the number in the window and am strangely relieved when there’s no reply.
Kirchner Museum, Davos, 00 41 81 410 6300, www.kirchnermusem.ch