Painted between 1928 and 1929 Ruderer (Rowers) is one of the finest examples of the new ‘internationalist’ style that Ernst Ludwig Kirchner pioneered in Switzerland during the late 1920s. Begun around 1926, this new style marked a refinement of the artist’s more edgy, earlier Expressionist idiom in favour of a more balanced and harmonized form, in keeping with the example of artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. As Kirchner himself was to write of this period (under the guise of an alter ego – the fictitious art critic Louis de Marsalle) in a catalogue essay written for his own retrospective at the Kunsthalle Berne in 1933: ‘In 1926, Kirchner once again gathered his powers for a new achievement, distilling all he had hitherto accomplished into a technique, the simplicity of which approached that of his early works... Only an eye as trained and sensitive as Kirchner’s could bring to this visionary imagination a degree of intensity never yet seen in German art. To find an apt comparison one would have to go back to Dürer, whose achievement in his own time was similar in leading German art out of its Gothic confines into the life that was the Renaissance. In the same way, Kirchner, using means that are original to him and still his alone, is giving German art today its proper connection with the international sense of style in his latest works. In the process he has lost none of his originality or power. Quite the contrary, the work he is producing today is the logical culmination of his work of the past thirty years. Nietzsche’s words well describe his art: “do not aim to reproduce but achieve higher things”’ (Louis de Marsalle, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner exh. cat., Bern, 1933).
As well as typifying a new stylistic direction in Kirchner’s work, Ruderer, with its balanced composition depicting a group of young rowers on the river Rhine in Basel, is also one of a series of paintings that mark his re-engagement with themes of urban life for the first time since his retreat from Germany to Switzerland during the First World War. This was largely due to the influence of a young group of painters based in Basel, known as the Rot-Blau group. Kirchner, then living in the Alpine retreat of Wildboden, near Davos, had originally become a mentor to the group of artists, which included Philipp Bauknecht, Jan Wiegers, Albert Müller, Hermann Scherer and Paul Camenisch. As his involvement with the group deepened, Kirchner too was spurred on by their efforts, until the sudden deaths of Müller and Scherer and the departure of Wiegers for Holland brought an end to their promising relationship. ‘They’re nearly all dead,’ Kirchner was to lament in June 1927, ‘the ones in Basel to whom I was able to give something new and to inspire with a new art. It is as if the house I had built were crashing down around me’ (Letter to Carl Hagemann, 9th June 1927, in H. Delfs, M.-A. Lüttichau and R. Scotti, eds., Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, Nay,…Briefe an den Sammler und Mäzen Carl Hagemann, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2004, no. 220, pp. 154-155).
As a painting like Ruderer demonstrates however, Kirchner’s involvement with the Rot-Blau painters had encouraged him to examine modern life once again, after a long period of living and working almost hermitically amongst the mountainside farmers of the Stafelalp. In the aftermath of his involvement with the group, Kirchner created a series of works which celebrate the invigorating life of Switzerland’s cities and Basel in particular. Around 1926 Kirchner had paid his first visit to Germany since the war, revisiting cities such as Chemnitz, Dresden and Berlin that had played such a major role in his work during the years of Die Brücke. These visits also brought him closer into contact with the latest developments in European art and with the work of contemporary painters outside Germany. In response to these visits Kirchner painted his first street-scenes since the war and, in his newly developing style, he also commemorated the Brücke group of painters in his famous group portrait of Eric Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Otto Mueller now in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne.
With its subject of male rowers on the Rhine in Basel, Ruderer is also among the first of an extensive series of sport paintings that Kirchner began to make as he became increasingly immersed once again into the urban world. By no means a sportsman himself, the artist was fascinated by all scenes of orchestrated movement, as he had been with dance during the Brücke years, and in the late 1920s Kirchner repeatedly painted scenes of winter sports such as ice hockey, sleigh riding, ice skating, and ski-jumping and more metropolitan activities such as bicycle races, motorcycling or, as here, rowing. Kirchner’s predominant interest in these pictures was with the orchestration of a new stylized representation of form and regular or repetitive movement into a cohesive compositional whole.
Ruderer is one of the most accomplished of the paintings made in the new style that Kirchner developed towards the end of the 1920s. Painted between 1928 and 1929 it is one of a series of increasingly ambitious pictures from this period in which the artist progressively simplified the form and colour of his figures into smoother, more harmonious forms and sharply-delineated divisions of complimentary colours to create a more balanced, stylized, and soon-to-be semi-abstract approach to his subjects. They are works that in this respect reflect the growing influence upon Kirchner of seeing Picasso’s 1925 masterpiece La danse.
Evidently proud of his new work, Kirchner wanted to keep his recent achievements secret from other artists until they could be properly unveiled at a major exhibition, as he explained to his patron Carl Hagemann. Writing in June 1928, Kirchner sent Hagemann photographs of his latest paintings and requested: ‘Regarding the photos substantiating the three paintings you wanted to see [such as] Ruderer… please do not show these photographs to artists like ‘S’ [Karl Schmidt-Rottluff] or ‘N’ [Emil Nolde]. I have not yet publicly shown any of these pictures made in the new manner and I would like to keep the honour of doing so to myself. Technical innovations are always welcomed by others and then presented as their own’ (Letter to Carl Hagemann,’ 23 July 1928, in ibid., p. 186). Ruderer was first exhibited almost a year later at the 'Deutscher Künstlerbund' (The Association of German Artists) exhibition at the Staatenhaus in Cologne in May, 1929.