Erich Heckel

* 31 07 1883 | Döbeln
† 27 01 1970 | Radolfzell / Bodensee

Erich Heckel, painter, graphic artist and sculptor, is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. He achieved international fame at an early date as a co-founder of the Dresden Brücke artist group and one of the leading protagonists of the Expressionist avant garde.


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Vita Erich Heckel

1883

Born on 31 July in Döbeln, Saxony; the family moves to Dresden in December of that year.

1894

Following further moves of the family, Heckel is a pupil of the Realgymnasium in Chemnitz, which he attends until completing his Abitur (school leaving examination), with the exception of a brief interruption.

1901/02

Heckel joins the debating club, where he meets Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. First painting excursions to the surrounding area. He receives a prize for the best young drawing artist from the Kunsthütte art association in Chemnitz.

1903

Abitur. First linoleum and woodcut prints.

1904

In Dresden he meets the architecture students Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Fritz Bleyl.

Acceptance for the study of architecture at the Königlich-Sächsische Technische Hochschule (Royal Saxon Technical University). He attends nude drawing classes in the evening and becomes familiar with the work of Emil Nolde and the French Impressionists at exhibitions. Produces first watercolours, paintings on card, as well as sculptural works in wood and clay.

1905

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff joins the circle of friends. Founding of the Brücke artist group. Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff rent an empty shop as a studio.

Heckel takes up employment as a technical draughtsman in the architecture agency of Wilhelm Kreis.

First exhibition of the Brücke in November of this year with the art dealer P.H. Beyer und Sohn in Leipzig. Galerie Arnold shows works of Vincent van Gogh.

1906

The Brücke members visit an exhibition with works by Edvard Munch in the Chemnitz Kunsthütte.

Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein join the Brücke.

Heckel terminates his architecture studies in October. First etchings.

1907

Intensive involvement with wood sculptures, of which none have survived. Gives up job in the Kreis architecture agency at the end of June.

First stay in the Dangast Moor near Oldenburg with Schmidt-Rottluff during the summer months. The first lithographs are produced upon their return.

1908

Another stay in Dangast from March to October, where he meets the art historian Rosa Schapire, who is already a passive member of the Brücke.

Heckel sees works of the Fauves in the Galerie Emil Richter in Dresden.

1909

Journey to Italy from February to June; he rents a studio in Rome in and draws in the vicinity

1909–11

Summer stays at the Moritzburg Ponds with Kirchner and Max Pechstein, as well as their girlfriends and adolescent models. Nude representations in the great outdoors result.

1910

Working together in Pechstein’s studio in Berlin from March to April. Heckel becomes friends with Otto Mueller, who is also a member of the Brücke.

He meets the dancer Sidi Riha (legal name: Milda Frieda Georgi).

1911

Heckel spends the summer with Sidi Riha in Prerow on the Baltic Sea. Resettlement as a group to Berlin in autumn, where he furnishes the attic apartment with fabrics he paints and tie-dyes himself. The world of the circus and big city life find their way into the work as image motifs.

1912

Participation in the international Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne. He takes on the artistic design of a chapel space together with Kirchner.

Friendship with the art historian and collector Walter Kaesbach and with Lyonel Feininger, encounter with Franz Marc and August Macke. His brother Manfred, employed as a construction engineer in German East Africa, gives him African objects of daily use and art as gifts.

Heckel spends the summer on Hiddensee.

1913

Official disbandment of the Brücke artist group on 27 May. First solo exhibition in the Galerie Fritz Gurlitt in Berlin. Heckel once again works on wooden sculptures.

First stay in Osterholz at the Flensburg Firth, where he would spend several months each year until 1943. The steep coast would become the setting for many beach scenes in the work of these decades.

1914

Heckel volunteers with the Red Cross following the outbreak of the First World War.

1915–18

He is assigned, along with other painters and authors, to a medical unit headed by Walter Kaesbach. He meets Max Beckmann and James Ensor in Ostend.

Marries Sidi Riha on 19 June 1915 while on leave; she now bears the name Siddi Heckel. Return to Berlin on 15 November 1918.

1919

Purchase of a farmhouse at the cliff coast in Osterholz, which serves as a domicile for the periods of residence in summer until 1939.

Solo exhibition in the Kestner Gesellschaft Hannover.

1920

First trip to Lake Constance via Tübingen.

1921–25

Travels to the Bavarian and Swiss Alps.

1922–23

Work on the wall painting cycle still preserved today in the Angermuseum in Erfurt.

1930

Sale of the house in Osterholz to relatives, but Heckel retains use of the studio in the attic.

Otto Mueller dies in Breslau (Wroclaw, Poland today) in 1930. Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff jointly execute the estate of their colleague.

1931

First retrospective in the Museum am Theaterplatz in Chemnitz with one hundred paintings from the years 1906 to 1930.

1937

Heckel is subjected to an official exhibition prohibition. Far more than seven hundred of his works are removed from German museums. Fifteen of his works are shown in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition. He increasingly withdraws to the Flensburg Firth and produces many watercolours.

1940–42

Longer work stays in Carinthia.

1944

Studio and apartment in Berlin are destroyed by an incendiary bomb. Hundreds of works on paper and seventeen paintings are lost. Move to Wangen on the Höri peninsula on Lake Constance. Move in September to a house located directly on the lake in neighbouring Hemmenhofen.

1945–48

More than two hundred works that were stored during the war in the Neustaßfurt salt mine near Magdeburg are destroyed in an act of arson shortly after the end of the war, while others are scattered throughout Polish or Russian territory.

1949–55

Professor for painting at the Akademie der Künste in Karlsruhe.

1950

Heckel becomes a member of the board of the newly founded Deutscher Künstlerbund (Association of German Artists) in Berlin.

1953

Completion of construction of his own house in Hemmenhofen. The couple moves in in 1955.

Retrospectives in Berlin, Essen, Hannover, Karlsruhe and Münster on the occasion of his 70th birthday. He is awarded the Great Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

1954–65

Annual summer stays in the Upper Engadin in Switzerland and on the German North Sea coast, especially on Sylt. Much travel, including to Amsterdam, the Dutch coast, Normandy, the Côte dʼAzur and Paris.

Works by Heckel are presented at the first documenta in Kassel.

1961–67

Numerous honours, including the Kunstpreis des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen (Art Prize of the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia), honorary membership of the University of Kiel and the civil class Pour le Mérite Order for science and the arts.

1963

Major exhibitions in Berlin, Essen, Hamburg, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart and Munich on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

1968

The artist suffers a stroke during a stay in Ticino. The last works on paper are created upon return to Hemmenhofen.

1970

Dies at the age of eighty-seven on 27 January in the hospital in Radolfzell.

The Brücke in Dresden: 1904 to 1911

On 7 June 1905, four young architecture students of the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl, founded the Brücke artist group. This was the beginning of a development that would make history. They tirelessly drew models from life in the studio; the anti-academic “quarter-hour nude” changed pose every 15 minutes.

Heckel’s early paintings, with their nervous, lambent lines and their pastose painting style in intense colours, suggest a proximity with Van Gogh. However, the incendiary style of the early years transformed into a simplified language of form in 1909: large, unmodeled and often contoured areas in a soft, fluid application of paint characterise these paintings.

The works originating at the Moritzburg Ponds represent a highpoint of Brücke art. They often painted the same motif side by side: landscapes and nudes in the great outdoors with large, calmed areas and luminous colour chords.

As of 1910, the artist dedicated himself to the still life in arrangements of furniture and figures he had carved himself, masks, bowls, flowers and fruits, not seldom against the background of the exotifying wall paintings of the studio.

Berlin after 1911

The move to Berlin initiated a stylistic transformation. The painter discovered new motifs with representations of big city life and circus scenes. The brilliant colours now moved toward a certain degree of subdued colouration while the pronounced two-dimensionality of the Dresden years made way for the exploration of Cubism and Futurism. The painter forced this development toward a crystalline shattering of surfaces.

First World War

Despite the scarcity of material, Heckel was able to use the evening hours for artistic work during his ambulance service in Ostend. He produced drawings, watercolours, woodcuts, lithographs and paintings; more than seventy oil paintings and a similar number of works on paper originated in the period 1915 to 1918. The motifs of suffering or injured soldiers reflect the brutality of the war in a reserved, inward way in a subdued, melancholy atmosphere.

The artist created several wall paintings for the collection point for the wounded and sick, housed in a railway station building, as well as the Madonna von Ostende, painted in distemper on large tent squares to celebrate Christmas in 1915. In Berlin, Heckel’s wife Siddi worked to ensure remarkably active exhibition activity.

The 1920s

Influenced by the war and his experiences, the artist increasingly withdrew to the small village of Osterholz in the Flensburg Firth. His painting in the landscape, still life, nude and portrait genres is based on a soberly calmed, more realistic pictorial language and a colouring oriented to reality. A measured, balanced pictorial composition and the seemingly classical representation of figures are the trademarks of this creative period.

Travels throughout Europe result in many landscape impressions, which find their echo in the work, often characterised by a generous pictorial space seen from a higher elevation – a compositional feature also found in the city and harbour views that occupy a prominent position in the oeuvre of the 1920s.

The 1930s

Impressive portraits of his artist friends James Ensor, Otto Mueller and Christian Rohlfs were produced around 1930. Heckel commenced with the tradition of the so-called “Jahresblätter”, small-format woodcut prints, which he sent to friends at the changing of the year.

In consideration of the losses due to the war, Heckel decided to repaint some of his lost or destroyed paintings.

The late work

Immediately following the war, he once again began using the technique of lithography, which he had not worked with since 1933. The last work phase was characterised by a lyrical mood, a brightening of the palette and a pronounced proximity with nature. Landscape painting dominated, with representations of the alpine world of the Upper Engadin and the North Sea on Sylt in shades of grey, brown and green, with a reduced, flat pictorial approach and a tendency to ornamental abstraction.

Text authored and provided by Dr. Doris Hansmann, Art historian

Studies of art history, theater, film and television, English and Romance Languages at the University of Cologne, doctorated in 1994. Research assistant at the Art Museum Düsseldorf. Lecturer and project manager at Wienand Verlag, Cologne. Freelance work as an author, editor and book producer for publishers and museums in Germany and abroad. From 2011 chief editor at Wienand Verlag, from 2019 to 2021 senior editor at DCV, Dr. Cantz’sche Verlagsgesellschaft, Berlin. Numerous publications on the art of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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