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  • “A suggestiveness that can make one crazy”: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Images of Marzella

Marzella, a 1910 painting in oil by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, is one of the best known works of Die Brücke, an artists’ group that formed in Dresden in 1905 (fig. 1). A photograph of their exhibition that opened on September 1, 1910 shows it hanging in the Galerie Ernst Arnold, and the exhibition’s catalogue includes a woodcut copy of it done by Erich Heckel that it lists as “Nr. 25 Marzella (Nude).”1 The two-part title—which qualifies the specific with the generic, juxtaposes the proper with the improper, and mixes the personal with a denial of personhood—is unusual.2 The subtitle relates the painting to a well-established artistic category, the female nude, while its rhythmic outlines, which enclose broad areas of roughly brushed colors, connect it to French Fauvist paintings. Kirchner had seen examples of this style at Paul Cassirer’s gallery in Berlin, where an exhibition with thirty-one paintings by Henri Matisse had been held during January 1909. Hairdressing was among four paintings of female nudes on display (fig. 2).3 While comparison of Kirchner’s and Matisse’s works reveals stylistic similarities, the slashing and multicolored outlines give Marzella a more primitive character.4 Kirchner’s flat-chested, prepubescent model is also distinctly different from Matisse’s buxom woman. Indeed, part of the discomfort provoked by Kirchner’s painting is the ambiguous quality of his naked model’s maturity. While the body’s forward hunch, with arms pressed to her torso and then folded over the lap made by her tightly crossed thighs, suggests self-protection from the gaze, her face directly engages the beholder. It has, however, the fixity of a mask, its chalky pink surfaces contrasting [End Page 523]

Fig. 1. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Marzella, 1910. Oil on canvas, 76 × 60 cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
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Fig. 1.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Marzella, 1910. Oil on canvas, 76 × 60 cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Fig. 2. Henri Matisse, La Coiffure, 1907. Oil on canvas, 116 × 89 cm. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart
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Fig. 2.

Henri Matisse, La Coiffure, 1907. Oil on canvas, 116 × 89 cm. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

© 2013 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

[End Page 524]

with the brilliant red lips and the eyes darkened by blue and black strokes. The irises, fixed and somber, suggest a steadfast encounter that is at odds with the immature and insecure body, as well as with the big white bow placed in Marzella’s loosened hair.

The tensions in Marzella suggest various ambiguities: a wariness and modesty on Marzella’s part before the artist’s gaze, but also some sense of power relative to its fascination with her; and on Kirchner’s part a projection of sexual desire onto his model, while also some identification with her. The following discussion addresses the fantasy involved in a particular aspect of child/adolescent imagery in Kirchner’s work during 1910. By associating this fantasy with the liminal qualities of representations of exoticism and primitivism, dolls, and adolescence found elsewhere in contemporary art and literature, I explore the roles played by these fantasies in the psychological moment of Kirchner’s work and the larger realm of the modernist imaginary.

An exhibition organized by Hannover’s Sprengel Museum and Halle’s Moritzburg Stiftung in 2010 focused solely on the girl models employed by Die Brücke.5 The institutions’ directors aimed not just to shed new light on the girls’ identities but also to “reflect critically” on the erotic qualities of some of the representations.6 The first aim was achieved by Gert Pressler’s catalogue essay, in which he establishes that the youngest model was Lina Franziska (Fränzi) Fehrmann, the last of twelve children born to a family whose father was a stoker and machinist.7 She was eight years old and lived within walking distance of the artists’ studios in Dresden-Friedrichstadt when she began to visit them in summer 1909. Pressler also proposes that Marzella’s family name was Sprentzel, that her father was a postal official, and that she was fourteen years old when she first visited Kirchner in spring 1910.8 Discussion of the issue of eroticism was more problematic, since catalogue...


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