Have you ever looked at a work of art for a half-hour straight?
In college, one of my favorite art history professors required that we spend at least a half-hour sitting in front of the work of art we were researching and sketch it, getting intimate with the figures, setting, lines and brushstrokes within it, and immersing ourselves in the choices the artist made. While looking for forty-five minutes at Kirchner’s Street at Schöneberg City Park, that was exactly what I did.
I chose this painting initially because I was sucked in by the unrealistic perspective: the two buildings swell as if under convex mirrors, the street simultaneously lies wide open and zooms into the distance. Despite the bright greens of the sparse trees, there are only a handful of people on the street, and the turbulent brushstrokes of the sky bounce across the roofs of the two buildings. The lone woman with a hat and maroon shawl at the center of the painting faces us, her pose stiff, with arms limply at her sides: is she walking towards us, or standing still? She avoids our gaze, her eyes only a dash of black paint.
Frustrated by this surreally empty street, I turned myself over to the physical qualities of the work—the paint on the canvas. Thin layers of gray strokes jostle against each other, giving it a shallow kind of texture. Dapples of paint dot the sidewalks nearest the viewer, like flat pebbles or raindrop stains on concrete. Windows are misted over in blurry swaths of watery white strokes. But there are some subtle uses of color, too: maroon on the roof of the right-hand building and in a dab on one of its windows, on the shawl of the solitary woman, and in his quick signature at the lower left. Meanwhile, rich, healthy greens stretch upwards in the center and lower right. And there is the rough, transparent blue of the sky above.
The more I looked, letting surface and subject come together, the more I became aware of the tension and silence I felt while looking at this picture. The movement of the sparse clusters of hurrying figures and the vibrating brushstrokes of paint clash with the stationary buildings and largely empty streets. The quadrants of the painting—two swelling buildings at the top and the curving sidewalks at the bottom—frame a vacant center, knocking the viewer off balance. This is a silent world: no evidence of conversation, except perhaps hushed whispers between the figures; no bustling shop noises, only soft taps of shoes on pavement; no cars, buggies, or animals, though the leaves might rustle in the air.
A few days later, I poked around in some books and discovered that Kirchner painted this work when he moved to Berlin in 1911. It marked the beginning of a series of paintings he made about city life (one of which, Street Scene, is hung right next to Street at Schöneberg City Park). He was a founding member of the German artist group Die Brücke (“the bridge”), who paved the way for Expressionism, a style of art that rejected realistic depiction in order to represent emotion. For me, this painting exemplifies that city feeling I love: when you are in a huge, sprawling city, which you know is full of people, but which simultaneously feels desolate and lonely and quiet.
Visit this painting in the Museum’s Bradley Collection and share your thoughts: How does your eye move through this painting? What memories are sparked for you? What details of the painting draw you in and hold you there?