Kirchner’s Aesthetic Pedagogy of Spiritual Sensitivity


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Nude Woman Combing Her Hair”, 1913

A young female body that is expected to be attractive and beautiful is transformed by the painter into a generic and awkward representation that makes the painterly and the naturalistic visions of the body to be in conflict with one another. Why a painter could do something like this? Why not to give us bodily beauty in all its natural visual availability? Why to sacrifice natural beauty accessible to everybody to professional – “particular”, “elitist”, “extravagant” vision? Why to put “professionalism” ahead of the “common” and “human” taste?

Kirchner sacrifices the body of the model to her mood and posture – bodily surface and external forms to radiation of warmth and light through it, the matter of the body to its vitality and gentleness, the matter of nudity to its sensual fragility. He forces us to lose her nude body while we want to see it. He wants us not to see it while seeing it. But by this loss he lets us win something else – perceptual contact with her pose and her mood (he suggests that these aspects of her being ought to be experienced as even more exciting than the surface of her body). She looks at herself not as men look at her – she enjoys her bodily existence, her being incarnated, her very presence in front of the mirror, in front of the world.

Our excitement (of witnessing a woman’s fragile vitality that Kirchner offers us instead of the traditional perception of the nude body as a shaped surface) is de-sexualized – it becomes something like a goal in itself, it loses its compulsive energy. No doubt that at this point Kirchner loses a lot of viewers, mainly, those who are connected with the experience of sexual arousal as fundamentalist believers with their idolized god – as with power which is at once protective and overwhelming (which is a psychological metaphor of what a primordial mother is for the baby). Without the physically attractive female nudity these people feel abandoned, lonely and lost. Sublimation is demanding – in order to appreciate/enjoy a sublime object we have to be able to lose what we immediately react on – the object that is (unproblematically) available to our perception. And this is exactly what Kirchner expects from us while risking losing many of us. Why is he doing it? – Because talent is ambitious and genius is to a triple degree. He wants to be sure that he is a spiritual painter, and he wants to convert us, to make us more spiritual than we were before the encounter with his “Nude Woman Combing Her Hair”.

With Kirchner’s painting we got the chance to enjoy being in the vicinity a nude woman without a feeling of instinctive attachment. We have to be ready to lose this symbiotic connection with her (according to channels of sexual interest) in order to learn how to enjoy her closeness disinterestedly (which is never completely disinterested). We have to learn how to split, to suspend and to dissolve our unconscious desire of becoming one with the object of plenitude so as to be able to sometimes enjoy a new world without possessiveness and the heaviness of compulsive sexual projection, a world where object’s (of our perception) aura can be even worthier for us than her bodily attractiveness.

Kirchner transforms our gaze from an extraspective one into a vision from inside, into an internal vision but directed outside. It is as though seeing through the skin, through the eyelids. But why to do this when human beings are created with eyes? Here, we are confronting the limitation in god’s creation – god created us for certain existential environments. But he also gave us the intelligence to develop ourselves (according to the potentials he gave us). To be able to refine our external sight with our internal vision of the outside world means to become more sensitive, more sophisticated in our perception and treatment of life, other people and the world itself. It means to become less bodily in our sight, to make our eyes not only the eyes of flesh but that of our being.

The gaining capacity to feel “Nude woman’s” presence in front of us as a co-existence and a co-being (without any perceptual possessiveness of sexual projection), will allow us to appreciate her presence in the world with a passionate disinterestedness, and this seems so important in a world that is structured economically, politically and mass-culturally according to the desire to possess, appropriate, control, use and dominate objects in the world and be intolerant (or only tolerant) towards otherness (particularity) of other people instead of enjoying their unique existence under the sky. If human psychological condition could be in tune with Kirchner’s aesthetic pedagogy of psychological sensitivity we could have much less greed, cruelty and vulgarity (much less wars, profit-worship, financial inequality and man-made disasters, and much less stupidity, arrogance and belligerency). Kirchner sacrifices the physical beauty of the nude woman’s body to help us to develop the taste for enjoying her pose, mood, her aura and her very being (expressing itself with the help of the artist).

But why is it impossible to have both – her beautiful body and her beautiful aura both registered in the painting? Why should it be one instead of other? Great painters force us, inertias souls, into developing our sensorial sensitivity – they force our sight, bastardized by the dominance of the external world, to imitate the sensitivity of our primordial soul – its direct vision without the mediation of the eyes. To teach the art of inner vision through the external one is the role of the “gurus” of painting. They burden our eyes with our souls’ needs. They train our eyes as we train our muscles or memory. They want us to make our marginalized perceptual capability: sublimated, spiritual one, into a dominant one. They teach us the yoga of visual perception. The intellectual film-directors have a similar task, to cultivate our sight – they have to blur what is obvious in the world to help us to notice what is not so obvious. They force our external sight to become the vehicle of our internal vision.

In a room where Kirchner’s “Nude woman” looks into the mirror, we see many people (two behind her, two reflected in big mirror to her right, and an elder woman helping her toilet). They are here but they are marginalized by the centrality of her presence. That’s how people (the viewers of the painting included) suppose to reverentially marginalize themselves before the ontological centrality of the human figure impersonating and personifying them – before the very fact of our presence in the world.