This work is listed in the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archives, Wichtrach/Bern.
Blaue Artisten is an outstanding pastel work from 1914, a time when Kirchner was at the absolute pinnacle of his creative power and fully engaged in depicting the unique drama and vitality of modern life in the big city. This picture, which also gave rise to a major oil painting of the same subject in 1914, depicts four female trapeze artists standing like elongated goddesses in blue costumes against a vibrant yellow background of radiant light. In a highly original move, the viewpoint taken by the artist is from a perspective high up in a circus tent, looking down directly on the artistes and through a net hanging beneath them towards the upward gaze of the audience whose collective identity can vaguely be discerned in black at the bottom of the picture. Like all of Kirchner’s most sophisticated works from this period shortly before the First World War, the picture is one that plays with bold forms, a distorted space and a complex game of looking.
Blaue Artisten is one of a series of works depicting circus and cabaret performers that Kirchner had made periodically since the first days of Die Brücke in Dresden. Such subjects appealed to the Expressionists because, for them, they depicted a raw and exciting life of freedom and creativity outside the constraints of bourgeois society. After his move to Berlin in 1911, however, Kirchner’s paintings of cabaret and circus subjects became immersed in his experience of big city life and were used by the artist as a sign of his commitment to modernity. As Jill Lloyd has pointed out, like his celebrated street-scene paintings that immediately preceded this work, pictures like Blaue Artisten and Circus of 1914, ‘provide a unique combination of direct emotional effects and distancing devices by taking as their subject the complex mixture of involvement and voyeurism we experience as spectators’ (J. Lloyd, German Expressionism, Primitivism and Modernity, London, 1991, p. 99). Whereas Kirchner’s street-scenes had concentrated on the dynamics of bodily movement on the city streets and the coquettish game of looking that existed between window-shopping streetwalkers and their prospective male clients, circus and cabaret pictures from this period, such as Blaue Artisten, provide a dynamic portrait of the relationship between the performer and their audience.
In both the pastel of Blaue Artisten and the oil, Kirchner’s presentation of the female performers echoes closely the composition of Berlin street-scene paintings like Fünf Frauen auf der Strasse (Museum Ludwig, Cologne). As Donald Gordon has written of the work in this respect, Blaue Artisten ‘returns to the repetitive vertical figure composition of the street scenes... That Kirchner’s powers of empathic identification with his subjects were great, and that spatial distortion is as much subject to empathy as are distortions of form or colour, are evidenced by this picture. Presumably without leaving his seat in the audience, Kirchner has pictorially recreated that all-but-universal fear of heights to which circus audiences secretly thrill. In his pictorial probes of the circus, as of the urban street at night, he fully realises the psychic potential of distortion in space – the only aspect of spatial distortion at the modern artist’s disposal whose possibilities had not already been explored by Van Gogh or by baroque or mannerist artists. The figures in so many of the last pre-war paintings appear buffeted by such explosive forces, cling so desperately to the vertical in their topsy-turvy worlds, that we may well see them as “dancing on a volcano whose eruptions were anticipated in violent rhythms and inner excitement”’ (D.E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, London, 1968, p. 97).
The dynamic and highly original compositional structure of this pastel is one that also derives from Kirchner’s impressive renderings of figures on the Berlin street. As with those famous paintings Kirchner originated his ideas for their composition in speedily executed drawings made rapidly on the spot and in which he attempted to fix, in the moment that he experienced them, what he called the ‘Kraftlinien’ or ‘lines of force’ running through the movement and grouping of movement in the figures around him. Formal ideas from these sketches were worked up further in a series of dynamic and innovative pastel studies that brought the colour and immediacy of the drawings together into a completed composition. And it is this completed sense of a work in its own right that is attained in the pastel Blaue Artisten. For as indeed was pointed out by the writer of the catalogue for the retrospective of Kirchner’s work held at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, in 1980, the ‘relationship between the pastel [Blaue Artisten] and the painting [of the same name] should not be understood in the sense that the pastel was a study for the finished work. Pastel and painting are in fact two different views of the same scene, the same group of artists in two different phases of their performance’ (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, exh. cat., Berlin, 1980, p. 203).
Both pastel and painting do make use of a similar composition, however - one that derives from a device of grouping figures around a rhomboid form which, Kirchner once mentioned in a letter to Carl Hagemann, he had also used as a basis for his Berlin Street Scene paintings, particularly the 1913-1914 painting now hanging in the Neue Galerie in New York. Here, in both the painting and the pastel Blaue Artisten this rhomboid structuring is actually rendered in the form of the trapeze on which the artistes stand. In the pastel, this rhomboid is further augmented by another sharp diagonal beneath it that articulates the net and the figures below. Like the Berlin street-scenes Fünf Frauen auf der Strasse of 1914 and Frauen auf der Strasse of 1915 (Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal), Blaue Artisten also belongs to a highly important series of major works made by Kirchner at this time whose compositions were structurally dominated by a violent clash of yellow and blue. It is this startling combination of vibrant complementary colouring, combined with the artist’s masterful command of the work’s sharp downward perspective, angular rhomboid grouping of the figures and the spontaneity and immediacy in the execution of the pastel medium itself that makes Blaue Artisten one of the finest and most accomplished pastels in all of Kirchner’s oeuvre.