Born in Tallinn, Estonia in 1925, Madli Kirchhoff began studying still life at age 9 and took life classes with Professor Kaigorodoff until he immigrated to Germany when she was 13 years old.
In 1944, Kirchhoff and her mother escaped from the Soviet regime. Her father had been sent to Siberia, where he died six months later in 1942. The young artist and her mother lived in Lubeck, Germany until 1946 when they emigrated to England. While working in various London hospitals, she attended the London County Council School of Arts and then Saint Martin's School of Art. Early in 1951, Kirchhoff worked in the Costume Department of the Covent Garden Opera House in London. She met and eventually married a Vietnamese man who was studying piano at Trinity College of Music. Together, they left England in 1951 to go to Saigon, Vietnam. Her husband, Tran Ly Thich, worked for the U.S. State Department, which posted him to Okinawa in 1952. There she operated her own boutique for custom designed formal wear called Chez Madli for three years.
After living on Okinawa for five years, Kirchhoff and her husband returned to Saigon and lived there until 1964. Then, after separating from her husband, she moved to Bangkok with her two children. To support her family she wrote fashion articles and did drawings for the Bangkok World newspaper and worked as a fashion designer for Design Thai, also in Bangkok, and all the while continued to draw and paint.
While living in Bangkok, Kirchhoff noticed the abstract paintings done by her son, Kim, which inspired her to look at things differently. She had never done any abstracts before but immediately began drawing and painting her subjects in a more expressionistic way. Her work always included human figures. As she looks at these early works now, she finds most are sad and heavily influenced by her escape from communism-occupied Estonia and the death of her father.
During the mid-to-late 1960s, Kirchhoff went through what she calls her "Blue Period," which featured surrealistic compositions. Her work then evolved into a new series of paintings on watercolor paper, some in dramatic black and red color schemes, with forms reminding viewers of water tumbling over rocks and underwater coral. Some of her works from this period also showed volcanic forms and craters thrusting up from the primordial ooze. In her first solo exhibition at the Prasanmitr Gallery in Bangkok in 1968, she featured a work interpreting the Earth’s molten inner core penetrated by a seething inferno of red and vermillion flames leaping out from beyond the cold black and white crust.
The following year, Kirchhoff and her children emigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After marrying her second husband, Edward Kirchhoff, she started to work in collage at their home in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Eventually, the couple moved to Glenolden, Pennsylvania, where she continued to draw and paint. Always thinking up creative ideas, Kirchhoff began incorporating plywood cutouts into her composition to give them a form of three-dimensionality. These new compositions not only had to be painted separately but assembled into a finished whole, a process, she admits, which was very time consuming. The concepts for these new works didn’t come easily to her, and she found it hard to come up with fresh ideas. But, in the end, they were some of her most successful. And because of their success, Kirchhoff soon found herself copying her own ideas.
Kirchhoff has worked in pen and ink, as well as single paintings using a variety of media. Some of her most complicated pieces are triptiches–three paintings, framed separately, but all related, with a theme running through them. Her fluid style and sense of mystery pervades them all.
Her newest works, shown on this Web site, have no plan. She begins with a large sheet of paper and lets her pen make the outline. And after completing the basic contour, she searches for figures or human beings that are trying to come through. Rarely there is nothing.
Kirchhoff’s work reflects the cycle of life. She symbolizes aging by showing fading plants and shows the development of a fetus in the womb by a tiny seed growing in the soil. Kirchhoff's works show a spiritual progression toward a source of an infinite loving light. All have life in them. All have meaning.
One of her favorites is a large pen and ink drawing called "A Momentary Difference of Opinion," which features two faces–the one on the left is rounded while the one on the right is square. In between is a large screw that seems to be pushing the two faces apart, symbolizing the pushing apart of two people. Most of her drawings have some sort of philosophical meaning.
Kirchhoff readily admits to having been a gloomy person most of her life. When her father died of hunger and cold in Siberia, she couldn’t get over it, and it took everything out of her. Her grief showed itself in her earlier drawings. Kirchhoff had a dreadful fear of death when she lived in Vietnam. One night, at age 26 while she and her husband were dining in a restaurant, a fortune teller came to their table and told her she’d die around age 68. The fear of dying at that age haunted her and colored her work for a long time. Finally, when that day came, she felt as if a heavy stone had been lifted off her chest–she felt as if she had been given another lifetime.
Kirchhoff’s works are part of three permanent collections in Estonia: The Estonian Art Museum and Linna Museum, both in Tallinn, and the Estonia Lihula Cultural Center in Lihula. She has also had over a dozen solo shows, including galleries in Saigon, Bangkok, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Haapsalu and Lihula, Estonia. Kirchhoff has also participated in nearly as many group shows throughout her artistic career, including six in the Philadelphia area, as well as New York, Atlantic City, and Stockholm.