Filled with glowing colours, Pantomime Reimann: Die Rache der Tänzerin of 1912 is a testament to the growing complexity and sophistication of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s compositions following his move to Berlin, as he began to explore new questions of identity, sexuality and the psychological dynamics between characters in his work. While the artist had long been fascinated by dancers, cabaret artists and circus performers, these subjects gained a new prominence in Kirchner’s art following his move to the capital in the autumn of 1911 – here, they came to represent the heady experience of life in the city, their forms a reflection of the innumerable amusements and vices that were now available to the artist. Aided by his constant sketching, Kirchner would record his personal impressions of the many performances he attended, committing the whirl of movement, vivid costumes and interactions of the different characters to memory, in order to study them at length upon his return to the studio.
I begin with movement […] I believe that all human visual experiences are born from movement…”
The theme of urban entertainment had first emerged in Kirchner’s oeuvre during his time in Dresden, particularly the winter of 1908-1909, when a number of postcards between the artist and his friends Erich Heckel and Max Pechstein vividly describe amusing evenings spent at vaudeville, cabaret and circus performances. While such subjects had their roots in French art of the late nineteenth century, particularly the compositions of Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat, the Die Brücke visions of such performances were informed primarily by their own personal experiences, filled by a new, expressive colour palette and frenetic energy. From his correspondence it is evident that Kirchner frequented a variety of different types of performances during these years, from family-friendly trapeze acts, jugglers and shadow-puppet theatre, to the more erotically-charged routines of can-can and belly dancers, snake charmers and ‘exotic’ spectacles from other cultures. One postcard dated 6 May 1911, from Kirchner and Heckel to the latter’s girlfriend Sidi, describes a show with ‘Chinese and then an Indian dancer’ at the Flora Variété in Dresden, both of which would directly inspire a series of drawings, paintings and prints from the two artists (quoted in J. Lloyd, German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity, New Haven & London, 1991, p. 91).
Following Kirchner’s move to Berlin in the autumn of 1911, his interest in these variety performances expanded, as contact with the city’s literary avant-garde provided him with an important source of new stimuli. Kirchner was most likely introduced to the circle of young poets active in Der Sturm, Der Neue Klub and Das Neopathetische Kabarett by the writer Simon Guttmann, who featured in several portraits by the artist in the years immediately leading up to the outbreak of war. As with the Die Brücke artists, these writers saw the city as a place rich with adventure and a new intensity of experience, and their work aimed to capture the movement, chaos and dynamism of the metropolis. Schmidt-Rottluff and Heckel both designed programmes for Das Neopathetische Kabarett, and Kirchner drew scenery for Guttman’s pantomimes and contributed to the short lived periodical, Das Neue Pathos during these years.
Pantomime Reimann: Die Rache der Tänzerin appears to have drawn inspiration from a short pantomime by Hans Reimann, a young writer from Leipzig, who would become best known for his satirical writings following the end of the First World War. Very little is known about Kirchner’s engagement with Reimann, or how he became familiar with the writer’s early pantomime, but it may have been through the circle around Der Neue Klub. The artist was obviously captivated by the provocative tale, illustrating several scenes from the play in the form of watercolours, drawings and woodcuts, with the intention of creating a programme for the performance. In a letter to Gustav Schiefler from the summer of 1918, Kirchner simply described the project as: ‘Pantomime of a young poet. Made for the programme. Unpublished’ (in W. Henze, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Gustav Schiefler, Briefwechsel 1910-1935/1938, Stuttgart and Zurich 1990, p. 106). Schiefler would later expand upon this limited description, detailing various scenes from the performance which appear in the artist’s woodcuts; in one, a man attempts to seize the dancer, while another figure – identified as an English officer – hides amidst the shrubbery, averting his gaze. In another scene, the woman turns the tables on her would-be-attacker, tackling him to the ground and biting his neck. The English-man, meanwhile, steps out from his hiding place and raises his monocle to his eye, in order to better observe the events unfolding before him.
In the present painting, Kirchner adapts the climactic moment within the plot to create a more ambiguous scene, as the elegantly attired woman forces her antagonist into submission at her feet through the power of her seductive movements and alluring appearance alone. Wearing a full-skirted black and crimson gown, with a tight bodice and off-the-shoulder straps, she is the epitome of the modern, urban cabaret dancer. Kirchner also transplants the woman from the stage to the realm of his studio, where she is surrounded by the sumptuous fabrics, ornate hand-carved furniture, and eclectic props and sculptures the artist had used to decorate his atelier and living quarters at Durlacher Strasse 14 in Berlin-Wilmersdorf. This carefully curated environment, which drew inspiration from a variety of different cultures in its decorations, reflected the artist’s bohemian spirit and desire for a new way of living and working that defied traditional social conventions.
Whatever is new arises out of the process of alternating among painting, drawing, wood sculpting…”
The erotically charged episode is infused with a sense of danger and foreboding, as we are held in a moment of suspense, waiting for the woman to strike and exact her punishment on the young man. Kirchner subtly reinforces the unequal power dynamics of the scene by allowing the dancer to dominate the composition, enlarging her form so that she appears considerably taller than the figure before her. Spreading her fan wide, she raises one foot, flashing the viewer a glimpse of the ruffles of her underskirt as she steps confidently forward, while the young man dives towards her, his gaze firmly fixed on her quick feet, which lift themselves above his grasp. The dancer’s pose, which Kirchner would use again in the unique carved wooden sculpture Tänzerin mit gehobenem Bein from 1913, generates a sinuous line through her body, travelling from the top of her head, through her torso and hips, and down the length of the legs, to her pointed toes. There is a stark contrast between the sense of control the dancer exhibits, the intent with which she moves her body, and the manner in which her companion appears to lose himself completely, driven wild by her dancing form. As such, the painting appears to examine a theme which underpinned many of the artist’s compositions of this period, which Kirchner later described as ‘the increasingly interiorised and intellectual relationship to woman, by way of struggle and need’ which would reach its full expression in his renowned street scenes of 1913-1914 (quoted in J. Lloyd and M. Moeller, eds., Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Dresden and Berlin Years, exh. cat., London, p. 20-21).
The taut, sensual form of the female figure in Pantomime Reimann: Die Rache der Tänzerin may have been inspired by either Gerda or Erna Schilling, dancers in one of the city’s Varietétheater, whom the artist had become acquainted with shortly after his arrival in Berlin. Both sisters modelled for him frequently during this period, and as Kirchner explained, their statuesque bodies had ushered in a sea-change in his approach to the female body: ‘The beautiful, architectonically constructed, severely formed bodies of these women replaced the soft Saxon physique’ (quoted in D. Wye, Kirchner and the Berlin Street, exh. cat., New York, 2008, p. 36). The addition of dynamic lines of hatched brushwork along the edges of the dancer’s contours, meanwhile, hint at the important shifts that would soon take hold in Kirchner’s painterly style. Here, they subtly enhance the three-dimensional quality of her form, granting her a greater sense of monumentality and presence within the scene.
Behind the dancer, an imposing free-standing mirror decorated with baroque curves and flanked by Corinthian columns fills the left-hand side of the composition, the somewhat disturbing, almost surreal object of a male head carved in wood perched on its ornate, stepped base. This mirror was an important feature of a series of studio paintings from 1912, including Rückenakt mit Spiegel und Mann (1912, Gordon no. 225; Brücke-Museum, Berlin) in which Kirchner painted Erna Schilling posing nude, except for her high-heeled shoes, while a shadowy figure of a man dressed in a hat and coat hovers in the background. In Pantomime Reimann: Die Rache der Tänzerin, Kirchner uses the mirror to propose a complex game of looking within the scene, introducing a third figure to the space, who we can only see in the reflection of its surface. This mysterious, faceless figure becomes the primary spectator, observing the drama as it unfolds, in much the same manner as an audience in the theatre would. This sketchily rendered character may be interpreted as a self-portrait of the artist himself, who often painted visions of the theatre and circus from the viewpoint of his place within the audience, or it may allude to the ‘English officer’ featured in his other illustrations of the tale.
Imbuing the composition with a further undercurrent of sexual tension, this spectator is only partially visible to us, and yet through the slightest indications of posture and body language, Kirchner sketches out a clear sense of where their attention is focused within the scene. The sculpted head echoes their watchful gaze, eyeing the young man lying prone on the floor from its elevated vantage point on the steps of the mirror. This object, which features in a number of other paintings of the studio from this period, may be seen as a suggestive reference to the tale of Salome, which enjoyed widespread popularity in Germany during the early twentieth century following the publication of Oscar Wilde’s one act tragedy in the late 1890s, and Richard Strauss’s subsequent operatic adaptation. In Wilde’s play, Salomé, spurned by the captive Jokanann (John the Baptist), performs the dance of the seven veils for her step-father Herod, on the understanding that he will grant her whatever she wants as a reward for her performance. When she requests Jokanann’s head, Herod reluctantly obliges, only to be horrified when she passionately kisses the dead man, a modern deviation from biblical accounts, where Salomé had instead presented the severed head to her mother on a platter. In Pantomime Reimann: Die Rache der Tänzerin, a similar dynamic between the powerful female dancer and the captivated male spectator are at play, as she pushes the male protagonist to rash behaviour with the seductive, tantalising movements of her body.
However, it is in its bold treatment of space and perspective that Pantomime Reimann: Die Rache der Tänzerin truly signals the innovative new direction in Kirchner’s art in 1912. The artist introduces multiple viewpoints to the composition, positioning the male figure on a sloping plane, tilting the floor upwards at an angle so that he appears to be falling vertically towards the ground. Lending the scene a heightened sense of drama and dynamism, this visual device reveals Kirchner’s awareness of Cubist techniques and style after 1912, which he employs to radical expressive extremes by way of shifting perspectival lines and increasingly discordant viewpoints in his compositions. As Jill Lloyd has noted, ‘These clashing viewpoints suggest the actual experiences of spectating in the circus [or theatre], like sensations of vertigo, which are written into our observation of the paintings and are inscribed in Kirchner’s subjects. In this way he uses conceptual pictorial devices to bring his paintings closer to visual and emotive experience’ (in J. Lloyd, op. cit., 1991, p. 99).
A painter alive today sees things differently than painters in earlier times did. Photography has taken over the task of precise representation, and, freed from this task, painting now has its original freedom of movement back again. The instinctive exaggeration of form in a sensory experience is impulsively conveyed to the surface of a painting. As a technical tool, perspective becomes one means among many. The enduring art of any period of time has its own particular parlance”
Pantomime Reimann: Die Rache der Tänzerin remained in Kirchner’s personal collection for the rest of his life, untouched and unchanged by the artist over the course of the intervening years, avoiding the ‘recycling’ or revision many of his early canvases went through during the 1920s. It was purchased by the present owner in 1985 and has stayed in the same collection ever since.
Lot Essay Header image: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-portrait in the studio apartment in Berlin-Friedenau, Körnerstraße 45, 1913-1915. Photo: © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.