"Dearest Dodo with those busy hands of yours. Quiet and delicate and so whitely beautiful. Your fine, free spontaneous delight in love, with you I experienced it entirely, almost to the point of jeopardizing my calling. But you gave me the power to speak of your beauty, the purest image of woman beside which Cranach's Venus is an old bag" (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, opening page of the Davoser Tagebuch 1919, reproduced in L. Grisebach, Kirchner, Cologne, 1996, p. 61).
So wrote Kirchner recalling Doris Grosse, or "Dodo" as he affectionately called her, his lover and favorite model during his Dresden years (fig. 1). Graceful, impulsive, sensual and unselfconscious about her sexuality, Dodo embodied many of the qualities most admired by the artists of Die Brücke, and it is her body, often naked and adorned with exotic attributes such as a floppy hat, Japanese umbrella or, as in this work, an oriental fan, that appears in many of Kirchner's finest early paintings.
An erotic and sensual life-size portrait of Dodo standing naked in Kirchner's Dresden studio, Dodo mit grossem Fächer (Dodo with a large Fan) is one of the largest and most accomplished of these great works. Painted in 1910, it represents the coming together of several disparate influences within Kirchner's work and the emergence of a new and vital style of painting that is both psychological, expressive and completely original to Kirchner.
Doris Grosse was a shop girl that Kirchner seems to have met in Dresden during the early years of Die Brücke. Some believe she was a milliner on account of the many large and flamboyant hats she is often seen wearing both in Kirchner's paintings and in photographs taken of her during the period. Whatever the case, her importance with regard to Kirchner remains with the dramatic effect she had on his work during the years that his painting first came to maturity. It was essentially through Kirchner's paintings of Dodo that the artist first incorporated into his work the powerful influence of Matisse and subsequently, as in paintings such as Dodo mit grossem Fächer and the other great full-length portrait of her, Akt mit Hut of 1910/11 in the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, developed and incorporated this influence into a new direction.
Kirchner first encountered Matisse's work directly at an exhibition held at Paul Cassirer's gallery in Berlin in January 1909 and for much of the rest of the year, such was the influence of the French master on him, that for a long time afterwards Kirchner actually denied there having been any connection between their art. This, even though he had been so moved at the time as to try to insist that Matisse become a member of Die Brücke. Dodo's voluptuous and sensual figure became the centerpiece of Kirchner's almost complete adoption of a Fauvist style that took place in early 1909 and which was best and most fully expressed in such paintings of her as Weiblicher Halbakt mit Hut (Museum Ludwig, Cologne) and Dodo mit grossem Federhut (Milwaukee Art Center).
Dodo mit grossem Fächer is a completely different work from these early Fauvist-inspired paintings of Dodo. Painted over a year later and depicting Dodo, full-length standing naked in front of the sumptuous batik-covered walls of his Dresden studio, it represents Kirchner's mastery of a new harder and more angular style that emerged in his work after he had absorbed the influence of Fauvism. In this powerful and erotic interior scene Kirchner depicts Dodo such a way that her elegant and animate naked figure both seems to echo and be accentuated by the primitive abstract forms of the wall hangings behind her, combining both into a new and dynamic fusion of form and style. Amalgamating Fauvism's combination of sinuous linearity and flat planes of rich color with the dynamic angularity and raw expression he had found in such 'primitive' art as that of the Palau Islands in the Dresden Ethnographic Museum, Dodo mit grossem Fächer is a painting that consciously seeks to express a dynamic union between primitive and modern.
The studio, for Kirchner, as for many of his Brücke colleagues, was the prime arena within which such a fusion of disparate style, of ancient and modern, nature and artifice was deliberately sought. In 1910 Kirchner's studio was decorated with an intense and constantly-changing array of colorful wall hangings, coverings, ornaments and sculptures drawn from a wide range of primitive and faux-primitive sources. In part a refuge from the mundane normality of bourgeois urban life, Kirchner's aim was to create, through a synthesis of form and style, an environment conducive to the spiritual advancement of his art, an art which sought to invoke and express the vital essence of life and the raw sensation of what it feels like to be alive. As Gustav Schliefer memorably recalled of his visit to Kirchner's studio in the winter of 1910: "out of necessity he had rented a remarkable studio in a Dresden suburb, a narrow shop which had a large glass window to the street and a small adjacent space that served as a bedroom. These rooms were fantastically decorated with colored textiles which he had made using the batik technique; with all sorts if exotic equipment and wood carvings by his own hand. A primitive setting, born of necessity but nevertheless strongly marked by his own taste. He lived a disorderly lifestyle here according to bourgeois standards, simple in material terms, but highly ambitious in his artistic sensitivity. He worked feverishly, without noticing the time of day... everyone that comes into contact with him, must respond with strong interest to this total commitment to his work and derive from it a concept of the true artist" (Gustav Schiefler cited in Postkarten an Gustav Schiefler, ed. Gustav Schack, Hamburg, 1976, p.80).
Dodo mit grossem Fächer is as much a painting describing the interior life of Kirchner's studio as it is a portrait of Dodo. Mixing many layers of decorative pattern into a rich and complex panoply of contrasting color and shape, Kirchner combines both animate and inanimate form and the exotic and intricate patterns of Dodo's Japanese fan into a visual play with the simple angular shapes and figure-designs of the studio's batik wall hangings. Against this visually exciting background Dodo's naked form emerges like a colorful dryad born of its angular forest. Standing languorously to the side of the painting, she unselfconsciously holds the fan (for Kirchner often a symbol of the artifice and decadent trappings of civilization) away from her naked body. In doing so she allows the fan's sumptuous décor and rich colors to clash garishly in an almost collage-like layering of semi-abstract pattern at the same time as she reveals the natural living elegance of her naked figure. This formal technique of garish juxtaposition and contrast united within a flattened whole is echoed throughout the work. It is brought into a harmonious unity by a clever technique of mirroring and visual parallels. The angle of Dodo's pose for example, is shadowed by the forms on the wall behind her in such a way that her warm, soft and sensual figure becomes set into this exotic and colorful environment so harmoniously that the overall effect is to convey the atmosphere of an erotic neo-primitive paradise.
Standing towards the corner of the painting as if about to exit, Dodo's gently flirtatious pose and blushing gaze directly towards the viewer seems to offer an invitation into this world. The warm tones and soft curves of her body are emphasized by and contrasted with the dramatic angular black and white stripes on the wall behind her in such a way that, in the context of her figure, these seem to take on and articulate the actions of a wild and frenzied dance. In this way, Kirchner hints subtly at the integral nature sex played in his vision of the primitive. Dodo, in this painting, as she was in many of Kirchner's paintings of her, is both the embodiment and the personification of an invigorating life-giving eroticism--the energy that Kirchner the Brücke artists often propagandized in their work as a sacred primordial force through which the repressive Imperial society in which they lived was to be enriched and transformed.
For Kirchner, as he revealed in his written reminiscences of her, Dodo was the muse who gave him the capability to express both the innate beauty and eroticism of women. It is this same smoldering sensuality and erotic energy that permeates Mädchen mit Japanschirm of 1909 and the later more gothic Akt mit Hut in which Kirchner painted Dodo in a large hat and red shoes in a full-length standing portrait loosely based on Lucas Cranach's Venus of 1532 (figs. 2 and 3). Similar to Dodo mit grossem Fächer, in this painting the provocative and erotic figure of Dodo standing nude (with modern hat and shoes) is set against the primitive decorations of the wall hangings in Kirchner's studio. The wall-hangings in this case, include, significantly, the depiction of two copulating figures.
In Dodo mit grossem Fächer Dodo's gently angled pose holding a fan, also echoes the subtlety of Cranach's Venus holding out a transparent veil, but the clear division between figure and background so important to the later painting is not made in this work. In Dodo mit grossem Fächer it is more the inner nature of Dodo, her natural unselfconscious eroticism and her ease and comfort in her surroundings that Kirchner expresses and articulates. These elements are achieved in this work by the almost miraculous way in which the whole painting fits physically, psychologically and emotionally together into a complete, natural and harmonious whole. The painting physically expresses precisely the same kind of atmosphere of natural ease and spiritual and sexual vitality that Kirchner aimed to induce in his careful neo-primitive decoration of his studio. It is no doubt for this reason that, as documentary photographs reveal (fig. 4), Dodo mit grossem Fächer was still to be seen hanging in Kirchner's Berlin studio, as a key part of its décor, several years later, long after Kirchner had left Dodo in Dresden and moved to the German capital.
(fig. 1) Doris Grosse (Dodo) and Kirchner, circa 1910. BARCODE 25239874
(fig. 2) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Naked Woman with Hat, 1907. Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt. BARCODE 25239881
(fig. 3) Lucas Cranach the Elder, Venus, 1532. Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt. BARCODE 25239898
(fig. 4) Werner Gothein, Hugo Biallowons and Erna Schilling in Kirchner's studio in 1915. The present painting is partly visible to the right. BARCODE 25239904