While the seaside bathing scenes Kirchner and his fellow expressionists painted during their summer holidays were the sacred grove in which they nurtured the primal essence of their art, the pleasures of cosmopolitan night life became the profane garden of earthly delights they cultivated at other times of the year. Woman, as both an archetype of eternal nature and a creature of contemporary urban society, embodied and united both elements of this duality. When Kirchner became acquainted with the sisters Gerda and Erna Schilling in 1912, both were dancers in Berlin-style Varietétheater, featuring song, dance and acrobatics. They became his models, as nude bathers on the strand and dancers on stage. Erna, the younger of the two, remained with Kirchner as his lifetime partner. She is the Tänzerin mit gehobenem Bein (“The Dancer with Raised Leg”), showing off her risqué cabaret demeanor with a lively step.
Kirchner created approximately 140 sculptural works between 1909 and 1936, two years before his death. Only about 80 have survived, as Wolfgang Henze has documented them in his Kirchner monograph (op. cit.). The Nazi purge of “degenerate art” in the late 1930s is responsible for many of those lost or destroyed. Smaller works which were not sold during the estate sale following Erna’s death in October 1945 were unfortunately burned; the present Tänzerin is one of only 23 sculptures which the Kunstmuseum Basel managed to catalogue at that time.
When creating in wood Kirchner experienced “a sensual pleasure when blow by blow the figure grows more and more from the trunk,” as he wrote to Gustav Schiefler on 27 June 1911. “There is a figure in every trunk, one must only peel it out” (quoted in S. Barron, exh. cat., op. cit., 1984, p. 114). The present Tänzerin is a tour-de-force of the carver’s art. The cut-out spaces between the dancer’s arms and body, her variously angled legs, and the daring display of precarious balance–the figure requires external assistance when placed upright–indicate that Kirchner deliberately strove to overcome every inherent limitation that working with a single length of oakwood log had imposed upon his conception of the dance, to best express Erna’s state of wildness and self-abandon. There is no pose more animated than this in all of Kirchner’s sculpture.
Erna and Kirchner spent the summer of 1913 together at Fehmarn, an island off the coast of Schleswig-Holstein on the Baltic Sea. “I have made a few figures in [wood sculpture] here,” the artist wrote to Schiefler on 12 September. “Besides the freedom of drawing, it provides me with that compelling rhythm of form closed in the block. Both of these elements [provide] instinctive picture-building. Instinctive, not doctrinaire” (quoted in D. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cambridge, 1968, p. 24). Tänzerin may have been one of these figures, or else it was carved earlier or later that year in Berlin. The painting Drei Tänzerinnen, 1913, featuring three Erna-like figures, each clad like the sculpture in a short, ruffle-edged dresse, is distinctly cosmopolitan (Gordon, no. 299). During that fall, Kirchner commenced his signature series of Berliner Strassenszene (Gordon, nos. 362-372).
“Kirchner is in our day the only sculptor whose forms cannot be traced back to classical antiquity,” the artist wrote under the pseudonym L. de Marsalle, in an article for Der Cicerone in 1925. “From the very beginning Kirchner rejected as inartistic a working method generally practiced by sculptors today: namely, proceeding from a clay model by way of a plaster model to the actual material. He creates figures directly out of the material... The material that Kirchner most prefers is wood... How different that sculpture appears when the artist has formed it with his hands out of the genuine material, each curvature and cavity formed by the sensitivity of the creator’s hand, each sharp blow or tender carving expressing the immediate feelings of the artist!” (in R.-C. Washton-Long, ed., German Expressionism, Berkeley, 1996, pp. 120 and 121).
The influences on Kirchner’s wood sculpture range from the tribal art of Cameroon in Africa and Palau in the South Seas, to the Ajanta cave reliefs in India. Gauguin, an artist dear to the expressionists, remains the exemplar of modern primitivist carving in wood, having sought to recover and keep alive the magic of native traditions in Polynesia that had already nearly died out. Kirchner also harks back to the late medieval German tradition of creating carved wood polychrome sculptures. As Kirchner stated his Cicerone article, “He places color in the service of his sculpture. With complete freedom and detachment from imagery, it is employed to heighten and accentuate the sculptural idea” (ibid., p. 121). Portions of the original blue paint Kirchner had applied to the figure’s hair and dress in Tänzerin still remain.
Painting and sculpture were thus united in Kirchner’s oeuvre, to a degree rarely seen in the work of a single artist. His legacy has been sustained in the work of contemporary German artists, who also move effortlessly between two and three dimensions, the latter especially in wood, including Stephan Balkenhol, Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorf, Markus Lüpertz, and A.R. Penck, among others. Their sculptures display a comparably rough-hewn immediacy and directness that give rise to a startling presence, the sensation of perennial contemporaneity. Kirchner, a.k.a. Marsalle, would ascribe these effects in his own carvings to “a drive toward monumentality. Kirchner desires and forms men and beings, not soulless artistic shapes” (op. cit., 1996, p. 121).