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Kirchner adds colour to Davos culture

When German expressionist artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner arrived in Davos early last century, little did local people know that he was to leave a lasting impression.

Kirchner came to the high-altitude village in 1917 – as many others did at the time – for health reasons. His landscapes in and around Davos were to add to the reputation he'd already earned at home.

A simple museum, opened in 1992, turns out to be a gem housing more than 10,000 of Kirchner's works - the largest collection of its kind on exhibition to the public.

Museum director Karin Schick is justly proud of what one Swiss newspaper described as the "crystal of glass cubes" built with very few materials.

"It's concrete, glass, steel and wood. That's all we have here. It's very clear cut, simple," she told swissinfo.

"The rooms are wonderful for exhibitions. We have daylight, we can have artificial light if we want and for Kirchner's paintings it is beautiful because you can really see the paintings in the light they were painted in."

Born in 1880, Kirchner began to make a name for himself as early as 1905 when he formed an artists' group Die Brücke (The Bridge) with three friends in Dresden. They were drawn together by their opposition to the academic work that surrounded them.

He moved to Berlin in 1911, which Schick described as the capital of Europe at the time, and where he painted what were to become highlights of his output.

Street scenes

"I think that the group of street scenes in Berlin that he painted in 1914-15 are really a high point of painting of the 20th century, not only of his oeuvre. It's just amazing to see how he really transforms this nervousness of that time, this pre-war activity in a city," Schick said.

"But I do also like the landscapes of Davos. I think they are just wonderful. When you live here for a while... then you really see how closely he looked, how exactly he observed and how he was able to show that in art."

Before coming to Davos, Kirchner had gone through a traumatic time. At the outbreak of the First World War he joined the German army but suffered a nervous breakdown. Sickness – Kirchner was a drug addict - was to plague him for the rest of his life.

When Kirchner moved to Davos, life was in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Berlin.

"When he came here everything was quiet, people were slow, people didn't speak a lot and he enjoyed that very much.

"It was at that time that he really felt he came to himself, could concentrate and had the strength to go on working," Schick explained.

Inspiring landscape

Davos did not cure Kirchner of his drug addiction but it did help him paint again after a barren period of a year and a half. The local landscape was a source of inspiration.

"With the landscape he found a new style of painting, a new technique of painting too. And you can tell by the works he did in Davos that they are monumental, more quiet, more severe than the works he did, for example, in Berlin."

Kirchner and his wife tended to keep themselves to themselves, a factor which seems to have helped him.

"At the same time I think he loved the motifs he could find here. He loved the cows, the cats, the trees, the mountains, the blue sky, and the different colours that the sky has in the morning and in the evening.

"That is something that you can really tell by the works he did in Davos, especially the landscapes. He invents new colours for himself, a new palette," Schick said.


While Kirchner enjoyed success during the 1920s with major exhibitions in Berlin, Frankfurt, Dresden and other cities, he became very nervous in the 1930s with the change of politics in Germany.

He was labelled a "degenerate artist" by the Nazis and was asked to resign from the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1933. Four years later a total of 639 of his works had been confiscated and were either destroyed or sold.

The fear that the Germans would march into Switzerland and take him away, combined with manic depression and his drug addiction, became too much. Kirchner took his own life on June 15, 1938, aged 58.

At the museum in Davos, Schick is convinced that Kirchner is one of the most important artists of the 20th century, not only of Germany or Switzerland.

"The way the expressionists painted in the 1910s is very influential... even now.

Wild painting style

"In the 1980s there were the Young Wilds. Today again there is a very expressive and wild painting style and they all really draw on the way of painting from the 1910s or 20s that Kirchner invented with others," she said.

There's just one problem with Kirchner's work in that people tend to split it into two distinct periods. Schick thought it would be a challenge to try to change that situation.

She explained: "Germans tend to consider him a German artist and look only at his work until 1917, while the Swiss know him as a Swiss artist and look only at the paintings he did in Switzerland because they show landscapes."

swissinfo, Robert Brookes in Davos

Kirchner Museum, Davos

Opened in 1992 the museum was designed by Zurich architects Annette Gigon and Mike Guyer.

The collection includes more than 10,000 drawings, graphic works, textiles, paintings and sculptures. In addition it contains more than 800 photographs, documents and an important library devoted to both Kirchner and Expressionism.

The majority of pictures have their origins in Kirchner's years in Davos.

At present, the museum also has an exhibition devoted mainly to the tapestries of Dieter Roth and Ingrid Wiener. Entitled "You can also weave what you do not see" it runs till April 6.

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Health resort

The history of Davos as a health resort begins in 1853, closely linked with the name Alexander Spengler, a German doctor specializing in tuberculosis.

In 1868, Spengler and Dutchman Willem Jan Holsboer built the Kuranstalt Spengler-Holsboer health clinic. Holsboer also founded the Rhaetian Railway and it is thanks to his initiative that Davos gained its first railway link with the lowlands in 1890.

From then on, development of Davos as a health resort was rapid.
Author Robert Louis Stevenson, who suffered from tuberculosis, spent the winter of 1880 in Davos.

Another writer, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote an article about skiing in Davos in 1899.

And yet another writer, Thomas Mann used a Davos sanatorium as the setting for his novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain).

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