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inscribed ‘KN-Da/Bf 15’ and stamped with the Nachlass stamp (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
70 ¼ x 53 ½ in. (178.5 x 136 cm.)
Painted in 1933-1935
The artist’s estate.
Roman Norbert Ketterer, Lugano, by whom acquired from the above in 1954.
Acquired from the above by the late owner on 27 February 1980.
E.L. Kirchner, Photoalbum, vol. IV, no. 34.
D.E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cambridge, 1968, no. 972, p. 407 (illustrated).
Lugano, Galerie Roman Norbert Ketterer, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Gemälde, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen, Graphik, Plastik, February - March 1980, no. 39, p. 60 (illustrated p. 61).

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Lot Essay

Ever conscious of his place in art history, when reflecting upon on the totality of his artistic output in his final years, Kirchner divided it into three different stages: “In terms of representation we thus have three stages in my oeuvre: 1) work from the motif; 2) work from the ocular experiences in the field of vision; 3) independent work drawing on the imagination. This 3rd [stage] began my work and today comes full circle again.” (quoted in T. Sadowsky, “Flatland” in exh. cat, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Imaginary Travels, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 2018, p. 326). Depicting a female figure bathed in a resplendent golden light as she dances in a lush Alpine forest, Sonnentänzerin is a stunning example of the fruits of this third and final stage, a period he christened his ‘New Style’.

The New Style was ushered in by Kirchner’s move to Davos, Switzerland, in 1917. He had visited the small Alpine town for the first time earlier that year at the invitation of his patron, Helene Grisbach. Famous at the time for the beauty of its landscapes and various sanatoriums which promoted the ‘rest-cure’ - essentially a combination of physical repose, a healthy rustic diet and fresh mountain air. At the time the Alps “were touted as a modern Arcadia, a wonderland remote from all reality” (D. Hess, “Davos: Kirchner’s Evocation of an Alpine Paradise”, in Rethinking Kirchner, Munich, 2008, p. 33), precisely the type of escapism Kirchner was then seeking. His distressing experience fighting as a soldier in World War I had resulted in severe psychological trauma, which coupled with a dependency he had developed on alcohol, painkillers and sleep medicine, had resulted in his commitment to various sanatoriums during the final years of the war. Davos appeared an antidote to his bohemian life in the modern city, once for Kirchner an exciting beacon of the promise of future, and now synonymous for him with the sick society which had incited the war and its subsequent horrors.

As a result of this move, dramatic mountain landscapes replaced the glamour and the grit of the street scenes which had dominated Kirchner’s work of the 1910s. He now returned to the themes of nature and the primordial which had been emblematic of his Brücke days – marking the ‘full circle’ moment he described in the artistic timeline he had laid out for himself. The Davos landscape constantly appears in his paintings from this final period – both through its dramatic mountaintop views, and the more intimate parts of the natural scenery, such as the richly textured evergreen fir trees in Sonnentänzerin. Indeed, the dancing figure in Sonnentänzerin appears almost as an extension of this natural landscape, rendered in earthy tones that are in harmony with the vegetation around her. Since his Brücke days, to Kirchner “frolicking nudes in unspoiled nature [had] symbolized a primal way of life’ and were his principal way of exploring ‘the theme of a healthy, simple life in nature’ (D. Hess, “Davos: Kirchner’s Evocation of an Alpine Paradise”, in Rethinking Kirchner, Munich, 2008, p. 30), Sonnentänzerin however, is particularly fascinating as it appears to engage in a subtle dialogue with his Berlin paintings. The central ray of sunlight which illuminates the dancer evokes the spotlights shining on the dancers in his paintings of Berlin night clubs and cabarets, and her cropped hair style calls to mind the fashionable bobbed hairstyle of the capital’s Neue Frau. However, the sense of dangerous sensuality which imbued the Berlin scenes is replaced with a serene spirituality in Sonnentänzerin – though entirely nude, the female dancer is not sexualised, and instead appears in a state of spiritual ecstasy, at one with the natural landscape around her. Her nudity is treated as something just as natural and primordial as her surroundings.

Her organic, nebulous form also evokes one of the other main inspirations behind the New Style: Kirchner’s exposure to new artistic developments from the Continent at the seminal 1925 Internationale Kunstausstellung held at the Kunsthaus Zurich. Picasso’s Les trois danseuses stood out the most to Kirchner, who later called it ‘the best and most unique’ painting he had seen at the exhibition (quoted in T. Sadowsky, “Flatland” in exh. cat, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Imaginary Travels, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 2018, p. 323). We see Picasso’s influence in Kirchner’s subsequent New Style works. He began working on a larger scale than he ever had previously, and he began to distort the human bodies and physiognomies of the figures in his paintings, rendering them in increasingly abstract ways. Kirchner now also abandoned traditional perspective, instead concentrating on depicting the “movement and rhythm throughout the surface, rather than order through a perspectival impression of space” (Ibid., p. 334) in what he dubbed ‘Flächenkunst’ (‘surface art’). We see this sense of movement in Sonnentänzerin through the rhythmic repetition of trees and flowers, and the fluid lines of the dancing figure who looks at the golden ray of sunlight illuminating her, calling to mind one of Kirchner’s favourite Nietzche citations: ‘You should propagate yourself not only forward, but upward’.

Colour and light had always been important to Kirchner’s work, however, in the last years of his life, their significance to him took on a new dimension. The symbiotic relationship between the two fascinated him, with light serving as ‘the origin of all colours’ and with colours ‘as materialisations of light’ (Ibid., p. 334). He explored these concepts with bold experiments in his painting, which reached a pinnacle in Tanzende Mädchen in farbigen Strahlen, painted partially during the same period as Sönnentanzerin, in which Kirchner ‘demonstrate[s] the refraction of light into spectral colours and at the same time convincingly realise[s] his pictorial idea: to combine the colours and forms into rhythmic dance […] (Ibid, p. 334). The relationship between dance, light and colour is also explored in Sonnentänzerin. Contrasting with Kirchner’s flat non-traditional perspective, it is his variations of light and shade that create the sense of dimension in the painting. They also imbue the work with a feeling of movement through the rhythmically applied brushstrokes. Also present are Kirchner’s ‘Luftschatten’ (air shadows), characteristic of his figurative works from this late period. He described Luftschatten as an optical phenomena, explaining that they were ‘a combination of colour aura and doppelganger’ (quoted in T. Sadowsky, “Flatland” in exh. cat, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Imaginary Travels, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 2018, p. 336). They manifest in his paintings as brown shapes which embrace the figures in his paintings and anticipate their movements, and we see them subtly weaving around the Sonnentänzerin dancer, adding to her sense of motion.

However, the reality of Kirchner’s mental and physical state was a stark contrast to the idyll scene in Sonnentänzerin. Ailments which had plagued him during the war returned and worsened during the Davos years, necessitating consistent morphine use throughout the last decade of his life. His psychological state once more began to deteriorate, not in least partially due to the political situation in Germany. The advent of the Third Reich brought with it serious consequences for Kirchner as a German artist. Having striven his whole career to advance German art, and equally, yearning for the recognition he felt he deserved for this role, he suddenly found himself branded a Degenerate artist by the new government and outcast from the artistic establishment. To his horror, his professional achievements began to be dismantled before his very eyes: he was dismissed from his university teaching post, his art was banned almost overnight in Germany, and any which had been acquired by German museums was now removed from public view. As Nelson Blitz Jr writes, ‘the expulsion from the canon of German art represented the disappointment of [Kirchner’s] life’s ambitions’ – a hard blow to someone who, ‘as a younger man, he avoided military service in part because he believed that his contributions to history were more important than dying on a battlefield.’ (N. Blitz Jr., “Politics and German Identity as Factors in Kirchner’s Suicide”, in exh. cat., Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Neue Gallerie, New York, 2019, p. 128). Coupled with his ailing health, these factors would ultimately prove too much for Kirchner. He tragically committed suicide just a few years later in 1938 – chillingly evoking one of the most famous pieces of literature set in the sanatoriums of Davos, Die Krankheit (1917). At the heart of this novella by the German writer Klabund is the taunting irony that those who came to Davos for the life-rest cure, would often find themselves dying there.

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