The Friedrichstrasse is a major business and shopping street in central Berlin, forming the core of the Friedrichstadt neighbourhood. It runs for three and a half kilometres through the heart of the city in north-southerly direction from the old Mitte to the Hallesches Tor in the Kreuzberg district. During the Cold War it was bisected by the Berlin Wall and formed the location of Checkpoint Charlie.
Since the nineteenth century the area has been renowned for the dense conglomeration of theatres. The options run from classical works at the Berliner Ensemble, founded by Bertold Brecht, to political cabaret at the Distel Theatre, to costume spectaculars at the Friedrichstadtpalast. The most northern section of Friedrichstrasse was a lively bar and club district. Almost every second building housed some sort of entertainment venue, including numerous brothels. Paul Boldt’s poem ‘Friedrichstrassendirnen’ dates from 1913/4 and deals with the street walkers of the famous street:
Sie liegen immer in den Nebengassen,
Wie Fischerschuten gleich und gleich getakelt,
Vom Blick befühlt und kennerisch bemakelt,
Indes sie sich wie Schwäne schwimmen lassen.
Im Strom der Menge, auf des Fisches Route.
Ein Glatzkopf äugt, ein Rotaug‘ spürt Tortur,
Da schiesst ein Grünling vor, hängt an der Schnur
Und schnellt an Deck einer bemalten Schute,
Gespannt von Wollust wie ein Projektil!
Die reissen sie aus ihm wie Eingeweide,
Gleich groben Küchenfrauen ohne viel
Von Sentiment. Dann rüsten sie schon wieder
Den neuen Fang. Sie schnallen sich in Seide
Und steigen ernst mit ihrem Lächeln nieder.
Some have called Friedrichstrasse Berlin’s own Champs-Elysées. The street may lack the grandeur of the Parisian boulevard, but it makes up for it in its history, its sheer variety and vitality that made recovery possible after the disasters of war and subsequent Communist neglect. Friedrichstrasse stops at the Oranienburger Tor, a gateway to another nightlife district that came into its own after the Wall tumbled. The history of the Friedrichstrasse station dates back to 1878. It was built adjacent to the point where the street crosses the Spree River. In Mr Norris Changes Trains, novelist Christopher Isherwood has William Bradshaw eating ham and eggs with Arthur Norris at the first class restaurant of the station. The atmosphere inside the station was captured by Georg Grosz in his 1912 ‘Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, Berlin’ (pen and ink on paper). The city was buzzing at the time.
Politically, at the time, Germany was a unified nation. The economy was strong. By the beginning of World War I, industry was responsible for more than half of the nation’s gross national product and its industrial sector was the largest in Europe. The speed of change, the rapid modernization, industrialization and urbanization around the turn of the century, caused feelings of anxiety and alienation which were expressed in art and literature. The nature of this crisis feeling was not a war or catastrophe or economic depression, but the rapidity of change that took place within society. Such disquiet was not limited to the German artists. There was a mood of despair among intellectuals that infected popular opinion on much of the Continent at the beginning of the twentieth century. The machine has brought about change in habit and the circumstances of life at a rate for which we have no parallel, F.R. Leavis wrote in Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (1930). Change has been so catastrophic that the generations find it hard to adjust themselves to each other, and parents are helpless to deal with their children. One prominent target of this reaction to modernity was urbanization. A mood of anxiety and images of cities are frequently paired in Expressionist art. Street scenes combine a feeling of unease with a suggestion of energy. This ambivalence is characteristic of Expressionism in general. Paintings or poems however do not represent a polemic against the metropolis. Expressionist art work does not simply embody or reflect ideas, but it provides an emotional attitude towards ideas that effectively interiorizes them.
For Kirchner, the street was an abstraction, a blur of buzzing anonymity. There are hints of architecture, but in general the streets are runways for prostitutes and their clients. In his painting ‘Friedrichstrasse’ the two women depicted pose with chilly hauteur whilst an ‘endless chain’ of mechanically moving men descend diagonally in their direction. These women are not the gross characters of George Grosz or Otto Dix. They are glamorous and aloof. Eroticism and fashion go hand in hand. Within his staccato style of painting, Kirchner details plumed hats, colourful scarves, fashionable jackets, transparent blouses, and slit skirts. In his work, women are – as it were – on display. In the midst of growing prosperity, Berlin had developed a passion for luxury. During the early decades of the twentieth century, art, fashion, consumerism, and the increasing sexualization of everyday life, were hotly debated. Moralists feared an excess of lust and luxury. The young had to be protected from immorality. Cultural critics called for legal action and increased censorship in order to combat an explosion of eroticism in art and advertising. The commercial aspect is intriguing. The focus of attention was on the ‘liberties’ taken by the display windows of the big stores in Berlin’s main streets – and on the appearance of mannequins in particular.
In March 1913 a new fashion house named Kersten & Tuteur had opened its doors to the public in the Leipziger Strasse (near to the Potsdamer Platz). The house took particular pride in their display windows as a cultivation of luxury at its lyrical best. The erotic element was pushed to a new limit by showing mannequins dressed in corsets or revealing negligees that attracted a whole new form of voyeurism. Other shops quickly followed suit in order to share in the enormous curiosity these windows attracted. The more suggestive the ‘tableaux’ on display, the more clients would enter the store. Kirchner was fully aware of this new development in consumer behaviour. Many of his images seem to refer directly to the current debate on corset and corruption, on commercial display and depravity, on fashion and frivolity. It made his paintings more controversial (he had his fair share of difficulties with the censor) and topical.