Burlesque #1 is a superb example of Max Weber's work during the pivotal period from 1909 to 1912, when he transitioned from his early Fauvist compositions to his mature Cubist style. It is also an exceptional presentation of the artist's fascination with the theater and the vigor of the New York Vaudeville stage. Painted in 1909, the year after Weber returned to New York from his studies in Europe, Burlesque #1 retains the foundation of his European training, but the contorted figures and flattened space embody the fundamental roots for his Cubist exploration, which he would continue to develop, and lead to the most prolific and successful decade of his career.
Vaudeville was among the first New York subject matters that inspired Weber. "In his dance paintings, Weber addressed art and its production as a subject, as well as issues of space and time. In choosing to translate the fluid patterns of the dance into the static two-dimensional form of painting, Weber attempted to represent the spirit of experience rather than the moment of action as had earlier painters such as Edgar Degas. Dance serves as an appropriate metaphor for Weber's painting, for the finished product has an ease and a grace that belies the struggle and the time of its construction. In visual art the work itself is the result of the process of its creation, whereas dance is more ephemeral and its residue is merely the memory of its passage. Weber sought to synthesize the multiple stages of performance and record a lasting memory of it." (P. North, Max Weber: The Cubist Decade, 1910-1920, exhibition catalogue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1991, p. 27)
Burlesque #1 is one of three paintings depicting burlesque shows that Max Weber painted in 1909. These works, originally exhibited with the title Vaudeville, manifest the marriage of Modernist principles and the dynamism of New York City subject matter in Weber's work. The Fauvist palette, simplified drawing and crowded composition are conflated with three burlesque dancers and their fanciful costumes, reflecting the artist's innovative rendering of energy and form in the picture space. As Weber noted, "It is through an intermarriage of forms, enlivened each with its own destiny of position-horizontal, vertical or oblique-that one is to awaken emotions of awe, grandeur and wonder, even to exaltation. And thus I am brought nearer to the realization of a spiritual rhythm, an inner energy, urging the unknown to become known; manifesting itself at its best, at its highest, when fired with human life." (as quoted in Max Weber, New York, 1945, n.p.)
The distorted positions of the dancers in Burlesque #1, demonstrate Weber's early attempts to reconcile the discrepancy between painting and performance. He is attempting to capture movement on a static surface, portraying multiple moments and perspectives in a single composition. Weber's increasing interest in capturing a form in various stages of motion would lead him away from his Fauvist roots to his 'crystal figures' and subsequently, fragmented, prismatic cubism.
Burlesque #1 also exhibits the profound and continuing influence of primitive art on Weber's work. The profile and large eye of the central and background figures recall Weber's studies in the Pre-Columbian and Alaskan art at the American Museum of Natural History. "A device of compelling attractive power is 'The Egyptian Eye,' so called by the artist because it is a full-face eye set in a profile, just as in the ancient Egyptian wall paintings. This 'Egyptian Eye' is no mere trick to jolt the spectator. It is the emotional as well as visual center of the picture, opening wide as if to catch the painter's warm sympathy for his subject." (The Downtown Gallery, The Figure Painting of Max Weber, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1958, n.p.) The influence of the severe angular elements and monumental stature of primitive art can be seen in Weber's Cubist work of the late 1910s.
The present work originally belonged to Dr. Vance E. Kondon, whose heirs in 2012 donated his estate's collection of German Expressionism and Contemporary art to The San Diego Museum of Art and Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. His collection, which encompassed early 20th century figural works to more minimal abstract works of art from 1950 and later, featured masterworks by Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Robert Ryman, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, Ott Dix and August Macke, among others. Since the present work did not fall within the primary context of the collection, it remained within the estate.