The German painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) had successfully launched his artistic career when World War I broke out. He volunteered for military service, but stayed only briefly: a few months into service he had a nervous breakdown and was sent on sick leave. Painted shortly after this collapse, Artillerymen is considered one of his most important works.
Based on Kirchner’s experiences as a soldier, the painting depicts a group of naked soldiers crammed into a communal bath while supervised by an officer. Deprived of all individuality, the soldiers form a single, vast mass of bodies. Their mask-like faces have black, empty eyes, and their bodies are renders in sickly shades of yellow.
‘Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s works have very rarely been on display at Danish museums. Being able to show Artillerymen, which is one of his most important paintings, is a huge opportunity for SMK. The tumultuous history of the picture can tell us a lot about the conflicting values, oppression and exercise of power seen during the Nazi regime of the 1930s’, says Mikkel Bogh, director at SMK.
In 1919, the painting was acquired by the Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim. When the Nazi Party seized power in Germany, Flechtheim fled to London, where he died in 1937, and the painting was unlawfully sold to Kurt Feldhäusser, a member of the Nazi party.
Upon Feldhäusser’s death in 1945, ownership of his collection passed to his mother, who brought the work to the United States. Via donation, it arrived first at The Museum of Modern Art and then The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Following extensive studies of its provenance, the picture was restituted to the Flechtheim heirs in 2018. In the autumn of 2018 the painting came up for auction, where it was sold to the Norwegian fund Sparebankstiftelsen DNB.
‘For many years now, acquiring works by the German Expressionists for the Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo has been one of the major art-related endeavours for Sparebankstiftelsen DNB. Kirchner’s Artillerymen is the crowning glory of this collection. We are proud and happy that the picture can be shown at the National Gallery of Denmark until the Nasjonalmuseet re-opens in new buildings in Oslo next year’, says André Støylen, CEO of Sparebankstiftelsen DNB.
Artillerymen will be on display at the National Gallery of Denmark from Saturday 30 March.
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