Search using this query type:

Advanced Search (Items only)

Ludwig Meidner's Burning City

Burning City (Meidner)

Ludwig Meidner, "Burning City," 1913. Oil on canvas, 68.4 cm x 80.5 cm. Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis. 

Between 1912 and 1916 Ludwig Meidner executed a series of paintings called Apocalyptic Landscapes that presented urban scenes as images of fragmented destruction. This series was both a reaction to political events occurring in Berlin and to contemporary artistic exhibitions in the city at the same time. In The German Urban Experience, historian Anthony McElligot describes how Berlin saw an increase in overcrowding due to new laborers working in factories, leading to unhealthy living conditions for the majority of the population.[i]  Beginning in the 1910 Berlin also became a hotbed for clashing political and social ideologies, leading artists like Meidner to react to Berlin as a symbol of the new perils of modernity.[ii] In 1912, Meidner also witnessed an important art exhibition by the Italian Futurists, a group of artists who viewed urban growth as a testimony to humanity’s power and innovation in technology.[iii] Although Meidner had a more pessimistic viewpoint, he was inspired by the Futurists’ subject matter. Along with other artists living in Berlin, he shared the Futurists’ fascination with dynamism in the modern world as it could be seen in the cityscape. Burning City, executed in 1913, links Meidner’s thoughts on the state of Berlin with a greater vision of modernity crumbling at the heart of its existence: the city. Meidner’s idea of an apocalypse occurring in Berlin seemingly predicted the eventual chaos of city life after World War I in 1914.

Ludwig Meidner drew from his personal thoughts to formulate the world of Burning City. He wrote in his journal in 1913: “The giggles of the city ignite against my skin. I hear eruptions at the base of my skull. The houses near. Their catastrophes explode from their windows, stairways silently collapse. People laugh beneath the ruins.”[iv] Meidner’s descriptions of the nuances of city life show how the artist was able translate his own thoughts of impending doom into highly expressive painting. Firstly, there are three planes of space in the painting – the top of the canvas that has the sky with clouds and lightning, the larger center band of the canvas that has the city itself with buildings and roads, and the bottom of the canvas that has the ruins and a void swallowing elements of the city. Within each of these planes, Meidner combines thick brushstrokes with jagged, angular forms to create an overall fragmented and geometric aesthetic. The alternating vertical diagonals of the paintings best highlight the disharmony created by juxtaposed geometric shapes. Secondly, concerning perspective, Meidner eliminates traditional depth perception with a background, middle ground, and foreground in favor of flattened and overlapping planes of space that seem to all layer on top of each other. Moreover, Meidner tapers all the peripheral elements of the painting towards the canvas edge inwards, visually suggesting that the city is collapsing in on itself towards the center of the canvas. The ground that the buildings stand on is also moving, creating an up and down movement that allows Meidner to pull and blur the buildings into the void of chaos on the bottom of the canvas. 

Meidner’s palette varies between blue, yellow, black, brown, orange, and green. Employing thick and texturized application of paint, color for objects in the painting reflect their color in the real world, implying the contemporary context the artist kept in mind when painting the apocalyptic scene. The black color of the buildings, the brown tones of the earth beneath the city, and the dark blue of the sky are consistent with colors of a city at nighttime. Yellow and orange dominate the center plane of space, signifying the realistic colors of fire and explosion that consume the city. The bright green streaked on the top of the canvas and swirled on the bottom notably symbolize the greenery of nature that exists beyond the city and that is also being collapsed into destruction. By incorporating natural elements like lightning in the sky and greenery into his apocalyptic vision, Meidner adds an element of the supernatural and the sublime to his painting that is otherwise grounded in realism. Color therefore plays a key role in amplifying Burning City beyond the crumbling buildings and screaming people into an otherworldly imagined vision of an apocalyptic wasteland.

Equally important as color is Meidner’s use of geometric shapes and angled lines that convey the sketch-like quality and momentary nature of the image. By repeating short lines in diagonals Meidner creates a jagged and fragmented aesthetic that expresses the crumbling state of everything in the scene. The same pictorial device of using a series of diagonal lines rather than a singular line is repeated from the black streaks on the top of the canvas to the row of houses on the left to two individuals on the bottom of the canvas moving downwards. Skewed geometric forms that are artificially elongated at certain angles also illustrate an impossible stretching of forms that exists only at the moment of falling apart. The pictorial manipulation of line and form is key in Meidner’s intent that the viewer sees Burning City at the moment of its collapse and the height of its disarray.

By breaking the space of the painting into three separate horizontal sections, carefully choosing color contrast, and illustrating fragmented forms, Meidner conveys his vision of an imminent breakdown of the cityscape that threatens to fall into the viewer’s space. He captures not just the surface of a city skyline with buildings but also the underworld of a city, as it could be called, that escapes as ground crumbles. Running people, swirling clouds of smoke, falling dirt all swirl around the void at the bottom of the canvas. For Meidner, as iterated in his description of walking around the city at night, the true nature of an urban environment was determined by observation of the unseen forces the human experience revealed. Whether or not Meidner correctly predicted World War I, he had a keen sense that urban environments were epicenters for human pitfalls and for him Berlin was the center clashing ideologies. The atmosphere of the city as it really was to him is shown in Burning City: impossible to fully envisage and uncontrollable.



[i] Anthony McElligott, The German Urban Experience, 1900-1945: Modernity and Crisis. (London, Routledge, 2001), 304.

[ii] McElligot, The German Urban Experience, 1900-1945: Modernity and Crisis. 304.

[iii] Carol Eliel and Ludwig Meidner, The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Ludwig Meidner (Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989), 6.

[iv] Eliel and Meidner, The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Ludwig Meidner. 11.