His Own Best Critic

For Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, self-criticism was anything but negative.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Self-Portrait with a Girl; Double Portrait with Erna, 1914–15.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Self-Portrait with a Girl; Double Portrait with Erna, 1914–15.


The art world of 1921 took note when Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, then a painter living in Davos, Switzerland, scored this review in the Munich periodical Genius: “Constant practice and dedication are required if ever-varying forms of this order are to be endowed with the necessary powerful evocative force, and an iron resolve is also needed to avoid going astray in a display of unreflecting virtuosity. Kirchner’s intense method of working, observing all things closely, safeguards him against this danger. Time and again he confronts a new task innocently and with a warm sensitivity.”

Very impressive. Too bad Kirchner wrote it himself. While the German Expressionist’s paintings stand on their own today—a retrospective of his work is on view at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum through July 25—during his career he took matters into his own hands, secretly adopting the pen name Louis de Marsalle.

Suspicion should have greeted the arrival of this French critic who bore an unusual surname and wrote in fluent German, only about Kirchner, only positively. But Kirchner admitted the ruse only to the wife of his psychiatrist; the rest were fooled.

Scholar Hyun Ae Lee documents many details of the charade in her recent book, Aber ich stelle doch nochmals einen neuen Kirchner auf (I Did Indeed Again Put Forward a New Kirchner), which takes its title from a quotation by Kirchner. A few of the artist’s contemporaries grew so fond of de Marsalle’s writing that they implored him for the critic’s Paris address. He had to give them the runaround. De Marsalle was a military doctor who had been dispatched to North Africa, Kirchner explained. This seems to have deterred all but one man, who said he was in fact passing through North Africa shortly. Kirchner promptly lost de Marsalle’s address. In 1933, Kirchner offed de Marsalle, losing his best defender. That year, the Nazi regime denounced his art as degenerate. Five years later, the artist killed himself.

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