Exhibition text

Dance is the strongest means of expression of the human soul.‍

(Thomas Niederreuter)

Since ancient times, dance, often accompanied by music or sound compositions, has been a fundamental part of human life. In fact, this discipline was very likely present in all cultures, such as Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, the Etruscans and Romans, usually performed in rituals, ceremonies, popular festivals, in any case always in a collective gathering. Even today, wall paintings, vase decorations, mosaics and frescoes bear witness to the early sequences of movements, which were often performed in the context of a religion, but also as a cult. Thus also the illustration of music was handed down early.

Since music itself cannot be depicted, it has been a prime concern from antiquity to the present to bring melodies and their diverse moods closer to the viewer of their pictures. In the visual arts, this was initially limited to the depiction of musicians and their instruments. Consequently, not only the development of music was documented, but also new forms of representation of music in the visual arts arose again and again.

In fact, dance, just like the visual arts, had sought a renewal and a new understanding of physicality and movement with the Modern art that began in 1900. For both genres, the "new man" was the freely moving human being. The Modern art meant a break with traditions that had hitherto existed in life, society and culture: Urbanization, mass industry, technical progress and scientific findings such as Sigmund Freud's (1856-1939) "psychoanalysis" increasingly put the subjectivity and individuality of the individual in the foreground in the early 21st century. These impulses of the time are also taken up and made visible in music and dance.

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Thus, after the First World War, an expressive dance style developed. At the center of this were individuality, improvisation and solo dancing. In Germany, the development of so-called "expressive dance" was particularly characterized by individualism and the creation of "qualitatively new dance movements". Alongside the ballet stage, which was preferred by expressive dance, and alongside the experimental stage workshop, vaudeville was an important venue for dance practice.

Dance, but also music, emerged in this period from the inner drive of moving people, as a physical expression of the inner world of sensation and experience, the change and change of mental states. The rhythm was to be made physically visible and the body in this way freed from constriction and constraints.

Expressive dance was definitely danced naked in the 1920s. Therefore, representations of it are often found outdoors in nature, on the water, on the beach, in forests and meadows, depicting the human naked body in a new naturalistic sense of body and beauty. Dance was now considered a metaphor for sexuality, the relationship between the sexes, and art in general.

Just as the "Brücke" artists around Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Erich Heckel (1883-1970), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976) and Emil Nolde (1867-1956) turned away from academy art, so did the Modern art dance against classical ballet, in which the body was forced into corset, tutu and pointe shoes and performed unnatural movements: "Where knowledge of things ceases, where only experience is law, that is where dance begins. [...] Not 'feelings' do we dance! They are already much too firmly outlined, too clearly. We dance the change and alternation of mental states, as it takes place in each individual in its own special way, and in the language of dance becomes the mirror of the human being, the most immediate symbol of all living being." This quotation from one of the most important dancers, choreographers and dance teachers of her time, Mary Wigman (1886-1973), indicates what will inevitably be connected with Modern art from then on: inner expression and the reassurance of one's own existence will become essential and a source of inspiration.

Wigman took up the immediacy and free expression of feelings in her expressive dance experiments, which she held with Rudolf von Laban at Monte Verità in Ascona and later developed further in her own dance studios, for example in Dresden. The expressivity of the body, expressed in dance, was always in the foreground. An "enchantment through distortion" as Wigman called the twisted, contorted and abrupt movements that seemed diametrically opposed not only to classical ballet but also to the bourgeois ideal of order and unity. In this and in its overriding goal of depicting individual emotions, the expressive dance coined by Wigman, also called "free dance," overlapped with the then avant-garde art movement of German Expressionism and its representatives around the "Brücke".

Thus, a flustered Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) noted in his diary after his visit to Wigman's dance studio in Dresden on January 16, 1926: "The new art is here. M.W. uses much from the modern paintings unconsciously, and the creation of a modern concept of beauty is as much at work in her dances as in my paintings. [...] The connection of W.'s endeavor with mine of the representation of modern beauty is doubtless." In countless sketches and drawings, Kirchner recorded on paper what presented itself to him as a silent observer during the dance rehearsals in the Dresden Residence Palace: the human body in free movement, as "immediate and unadulterated" as the "Brücke" formulated it in its 1906 program for art and it was danced by Wigman. One of the main works in the exhibition, which Kirchner created on the basis of drawings on site and later in Davos, is the colorful painting "Dance of Death of Mary Wigman" (1926-28). In alternating colors and forms, Kirchner captures how Wigman reinterprets the folk tale of the dancing dead in the fabric-like structure ("Davos carpet style") typical of him at this creative period. In the same rhythmic principle as in the repetitive elements of expressive dance, the synergy of expressionism and dance becomes impressively visible.

Just as "death" and the "dance of death" reached a peak as an iconographic theme, especially in the 1920s, when the destructive brutality of World War I and the world economic crisis of those years exposed consequences that threatened their very existence, the artists of the Modern art included in their works the dance cafés, vaudevilles, circuses, and cabarets that were beginning to characterize metropolitan nightlife in the wake of the emerging European metropolises. Similar to Kirchner and his "Brücke" friends, Georg Tappert (1880-1957) worked in Berlin, which before and after World War I became the center of all Expressionist arts and offered an exuberant sense of freedom. In the exhibition work "Mädchen am Tisch (Betty mit Fächer)" (1913), Tappert captures his favorite model around 1913, Betty, in the moment of getting ready before performing on one of the countless dance stages of the pulsating big city. In doing so, he achieves such an intense colorfulness that can only be compared to Kirchner's series of street scenes.

The large-format painting "Älplerkirchweihtanz (Bauerntanz)" (1922) by the painter Philipp Bauknecht (1884-1933) offers a completely different testimony to its time and the representation of dance and music in the Modern art . In impressive complementary contrasts and in a luminous, seemingly unrestrained colorfulness, the traditional dance becomes an expressionist celebration, in which the faces of the dancing peasants are distorted and deformed in an almost alienating manner. The artist is not looking for a genre-like depiction of peasant dance here, but represents the typicality of the figures and the archaic nature of their reality - they are elevated to a "parable of life".

The artistic explorations of dance and music in Expressionism will be juxtaposed in the exhibition with the abstract works of Fritz Winter (1905-1976) and Bernard Schultze (1915-2005). A Bauhaus student under Paul Klee, Winter made his German contribution to the "abstraction création" of the 1930s in a balancing act between the latter, Naum Gabo, and the abstracting large formats of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner during long stays in Davos. In works such as "Rhythms I" and "The Dark Organ", his investigations regarding musical themes become obvious, which Winter varied in different series of experiments - similar to music. Winter's strict lines, circles and reduced forms against a monochrome background, which seem like notes and sounds translated into art, are contrasted by Bernard Schultze's (1915-2005) organic and colorfully varied paintings. In these, the viewer:s are drawn into a non-representational world that nevertheless exhibits figurative tendencies - similar to the abstract nature of music, which, however, can also have a fleeting moment of the "tangible" inherent in it, when a certain sequence of notes or sounds can bring to light an individual memory, thought, or feeling.  

We would like to invite you to trace these special moments in our new exhibition in Riehen "EXPRESSIV! Music & Dance in the Modern art" and to let your very personal references to the topics "Music & Dance" come to life. Be inspired by the different depictions of dancers and musicians captured by the artists of German Expressionism and Abstraction.

Susanne Kirchner and Katharina Sagel

The exhibition is part of our new exhibition series "EXPRESSIV! Here we present different artists, motifs and creative periods of German Expressionism and art movements influenced by it under a specific theme.


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