Great Works: Two Women in the Street (1914) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen, Düsseldorf

You wince at all these odd shaftings of colours, so savagely thrown down. It feels like the hectic music of that strange man, Anton Webern. Women, you say? Well, what else are these night creatures?

 The two oddly menacing forms, with their blockish triangular faces, seem to be cutting with a kind of blade-like savagery through their murky and partially unreadable urban environment. They are daubed in an odd smeary glare of yellow and pink light, garish and slightly repulsive, as if the light itself is so much crudely applied maquillage.

That environment through which they move seems to be closing in upon them even as they push it away with their mannered street strut. Whores or high-society dames pushing out the boat? Everything about them seems sharp – there are so many Vs in this painting, some upright, others inverted – from the cut of their clothes to their sharply attenuated hands, which hang down from them as if limply suspended from a hook.

Kirchner was relatively new to Berlin when he painted such dames. Dresden, where he had once lived, must have seemed so quiet, so morally tidy, by comparison. It was evidently an alarming thrill to be in such a place as this, defined by such creatures as these. They represent a kind of thrilling threat, an alarming bolt of independence. You push them away even as you look. You also want to get a little closer. Are these women animals of a kind or what? Are they in part raptors, which might have emerged from the fevered brain of the doomed painter in Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf?

The clusters of flurries of brushstrokes out of which the painting is composed help to give them an air of vegetation. They are wrapped in their own dun and green leaves. Their heads are also pugnacious flower heads of a kind. They move through their own realm with a cool measure of indifference. We do not know exactly what is happening around them. It is a jungle of sorts, though an urban jungle. We can almost hear the shrieks of the nocturnal parrots. There is an anonymous bowler- (or top-)hatted predator at their back, soon to be looming up and appraising them. Are they there to be appraised?

There is no point of tranquillity in this painting, nothing dependably quiet or serene, no sequestered spot, nowhere that the eye feels pleased to come to rest. Everything seems to be in a kind of jagged movement, turning, pivoting about itself. There is a luridness about its semi-dark. We feel as if we have just played a flashlight upon these women's faces, bringing them into being hallucinogenically. The colours are harsh and acidic, unnaturally shrill, quite the opposite of soft or winning. We never sink into them appreciatively. They keep us on our toes. They keep us on the edge. We have to have our wits about us in this place. We feel preyed upon by the scene. We didn't especially want it to be like this.

Interestingly, back in England this was the year of the Vorticist moment, spearheaded by Wyndham Lewis and others, when art was all about hardness and geometry, sharp, severe, cutting angles, the reduction of the human form to the mechanised, the human turned chillingly inhuman. That spirit rhymes, perfectly, with what we see here. So much is sharp-angled about these women.

The long, flat bridge of the nose of the woman on the left, for example, looks uncannily similar to the nose of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's so-called "Hieratic Head", that portrait in marble of the poet Ezra Pound, which was also made in this year. This is an ominous painting, full of foreboding, full of the tease of immoralism. No centre is holding. All we are allowed to settle for, or to acquiesce in (with the maximum of unease), is this terrible, jagged, frieze of a scene across which these mask-like forms, these beings flourishing their dark plumes, appear to drift, utterly contemptuousness of all glances, forever looking away.

About the artist: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was an exponent of German Expressionism. In fact, his works, with their harsh colours, their atmosphere of frenzy and the fracturing of the object, seem to embody the very spirit of the movement. His street scenes of Berlin, painted between 1912 and 1914, are his most characteristic Expressionist works. In 1938, having witnessed the political transformation of Germany and seen his art condemned by the Nazi authorities, he committed suicide.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London