Mary Wigman in the works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

29th October 2016 to 28th January 2017, extended until 29th April 2017


  • Kirchner-1926-3FZ-Totentanz-der-Mary-Wigman K6047 01

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Dance of Death by Mary Wigman (6047).
    Black and red chalk 1926.
    37 x 47 cm.
    Obj. Id. 80251

  • Kirchner 1926 1G G0839 Totentanz der Mary Wigman 06

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Dance of Death by Mary Wigman.
    Oil on Canvas 1926/1928.
    Gordon  0839. 110 x 149 cm
    Obj. Id. 67682

  • Kirchner-1926-3FZ-Totentanz-der-Mary-Wigman K6050 01

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Dance of Death by Mary Wigman (6050).
    Black, red and green Chalk 1926.
    37 x 47 cm.
    Obj. Id. 80247

  • Kirchner-1926-5H-D554-III-Tanzakt K5346 01

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Dance act.
    Woodcut 1926. Dube H 554 III.
    42,3 x 25,8 auf 45 x 34 cm.
    Obj. Id. 80253

  • Kirchner-1926-4Z-Totentanz-der-Mary-Wigman K7746 01

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Dance of Death by Mary Wigman (7746).
    Black Chalk 1926.
    47 x 37 cm.
    Obj. Id. 80240

  • Kirchner-1926-5H-D551-I-Tanzgruppe K5302 01

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Dance Group.
    Woodcut 1926. Dube H555 I.
    16,8 x 10,8 auf 22,5 x 17,7 cm.
    Obj. Id. 80256


Mary Wigman in the works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner


Mary Wigman (Hanover 1886 – 1973 Berlin), a dancer, choreographer, dance teacher and a former student of Laban, founded her own school of modern dance in Dresden in 1920, where she developed a new style, the “Absolute Dance”, a form of dancing that had no plot or story but rather sought to express, through rhythmical movement, an emotional state of mind, mostly of an ominously visionary, dreamlike nature. Being a direct expression of the human condition, this new dance even reached beyond the basic prerequisites of its genre – music and rhythm – to become a pure, moving image in space without the dimension of time.

Such terminology as “direct expression” or “pure moving image in space without the dimension of time”, which one will inevitably find in any encyclopaedia entry on Mary Wigman, shows how close this dancer was to Kirchner's way of thinking. “Direct expression” embraced practically the entire theory set down by the “Brücke” artists in their manifesto of 1906, while “pure moving image in space without the dimension of time” was altogether in keeping with Kirchner's theories on his “New Style”. Thus it is hardly surprising that Kirchner, who loved everything to do with dance and the music hall, did a great many drawings and sketches during his visits to Mary Wigman's rehearsals while staying in Dresden in January/February 1926, drawings and sketches from which he later produced various woodcuts and the large-format painting “Death Dance of Mary Wigman” (1926/1928, Gordon 839) after returning to Davos. The connection came about through Will Grohman, who had published two seminal books on Kirchner in 1925/26 and was a friend of Mary Wigman's.

Kirchner made the following entry in his diary on 30th January 1926: “Today I had my first great impression of Mary Wigman.  I feel there are parallels expressed in her dancing, in the movement of the volumes, which strengthen solitary movement through repetition. Making drawings of these physical movements is infinitely fascinating and exciting. I shall paint large pictures from them. Yes, what we had suspected has become reality after all: the new art is there too. M. W. instinctively draws much from modern paintings, and the creation of a modern concept of beauty is at work just as much in her dancing as in my paintings.”

Mary Wigman’s “Dance of Death” of 1926, the rehearsals for which Kirchner was able to attend, was based on a number of different forerunners, but this version was particularly unusual in that it was performed with masks. Dancing in front and to the right of a row of five figures – “Death’s Victims” – is an animal-like, diabolical figure dressed in green and, despite the prominent breasts, wearing a bearded mask. Wearing a striped garment, the counter-figure, performed by Mary Wigman, dances on the left-hand side of the painting, her legs bent into a crouching position, her arms raised high, her facial features still very human, as though she does not yet belong entirely to the Realm of Death.

Kirchner has here rhythmicized the row of Death’s Victims in the rear plane of the picture, arranging them as strictly parallel constants of the composition, which are then continued just as strictly, but in the opposite direction of movement, in the foreground formed by the dance floor. The front plane of the picture is occupied, on the left and on the right, by the variables of the composition – the human figure and the diabolical figure representing the two conflicting aspects of human existence. For the rear plane of the picture, Kirchner has used a powerful yet harmonious juxtaposition of red and blue, while in the front plane the diabolical figure wears a feathery, diaphanous green garment over a naked body and the human figure is dressed in an expressive yet dignified gown of yellow and black stripes.

From their beginnings in Dresden, dance was one of the central themes of the “Brücke” artists, and especially Kirchner's. Erich Heckel's then girlfriend Siddi – later his wife – was a dancer, just as Kirchner's life companion Erna, whom he met in Berlin in 1911, had also been a dancer at that time. The human being in motion was for Kirchner an essential source of inspiration. The  perfection of movement demonstrated by Mary Wigman and her ensemble in Dresden in 1926 and by the dancer Gret Palucca in Davos in 1929 triggered Kirchner's deepest preoccupation with dance and led to works of the highest and most dynamic quality. For no other motif did Kirchner create so many sketches and such large drawings than for Mary Wigman's “Dance of Death”.

The “Dance of Death”, which Mary Wigman rehearsed with her ensemble in 1926 at the Taschenberg Palace and in the Small Foyer of the Royal Residence in Dresden, also played an important role in Mary Wigman's own oeuvre. Death was an ever recurring theme in her work and it was in her “Dance of Death II” that it assumed its definitive form. Mary Wigman gives her own account of the painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner sitting in on these rehearsals – as a “silent partner […] always perceptible and always inspiring” – and doing one drawing, sketch, watercolour or study after another. The scene was constantly pervaded and penetrated by the Expressionist music of Will Goetze. It was a  crossover between the arts, entirely in keeping with the intentions of Expressionism, the only movement to find expression in all the arts and a unique aspect of art in German-speaking countries before and after the First World War. It was here in Dresden in 1926 that Expressionism enjoyed one of its most fruitful moments, a kairos par excellence.

Thus Kirchner's altogether Expressionist painting “Death Dance of Mary Wigman” depicts an equally Expressionist dance scene. While it is still executed in Kirchner's “tapestry style”, the areas of colour being seemingly woven into a tapestry-like surface, the dark and light-blue contour and “air shadows” of the figures and their stylization already anticipate Kirchner's “New Style”.  While the Expressionist heightening of form, colour and gesture finds its ideal motif and motivation in the “Absolute Dance” of Mary Wigman, it nevertheless rhythmicizes and stylizes it at the same time. Indeed, it is a composition that marks the dramatic climax of Kirchner's oeuvre.

Wolfgang Henze

(Translation by John Brogden)

Text accompanying Exhibition No. 114 at the Henze & Ketterer Gallery, Wichtrach/Bern

Within the context oft the project „Totentanz - Bern lebt! Der Totentanz in der zeitgenössischen Kunst  (Dance of the Death – Bern lives! Dance of death in contemporary art)



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