Kirchner's spectacular and monumental portrayal of acrobatic stage performers in Variétéparade is an example of German Expressionist painting at its most exuberant. With its vibrant palette and its playful subject-matter, this composition radiates a joie de vivre rarely matched in Kirchner's œuvre. In 1910 Kirchner was living in Dresden, where he frequented variety shows in local bars, and was compelled to use these performers and their acrobatic acts as one of the major motifs in his paintings and drawings during this period (fig. 2).
Variétéparade exemplifies Kirchner's aesthetic concerns at the height of his involvement with the avant-garde artistic collective Die Brücke. His primary concern during this key period in his career was the representation of the human form in its most primitive or uninhibited state, and this painting essentially defines that aesthetic goal. Following the group's inception in 1905, the painters associated with Die Brücke, including Kirchner, Heckel, Nolde and Schmidt-Rottluff, were proponents of spontaneous, unmediated depictions of the body, divorced from the rigorous constraints of academic painting or the influences of artistic precedents. Kirchner was one of the group's founders, and he published the thesis that very generally defined its objectives. 'With faith in progress and in a new generation of creators and spectators we call together all young,' Kirchner wrote in the original Die Brücke manifesto, Programm, in 1906. 'As youth, we carry the future and want to create for ourselves freedom of life and of movement against the long established older forces. Everyone who reproduces that which drives him to creation with directness and authenticity belongs to us.'
Writing about the present work, Jill Lloyd observed that Variétéparade 'is the largest of the cabaret scenes and the only one in which Kirchner depicts nude performers kicking up their legs in attitudes of sexual abandon, echoing the liberated nudes in his studio and bather compositions. Kirchner relishes the colour and movement of the cabaret acts, often building his pictures around intense juxtapositions of complementary colours. The motifs of the dancer and tightrope walker are drawn from Nietzsche's "Also sprach Zarathustra", which had also inspired the name, die Brücke: "Lift up your hearts my brothers, high! Higher!" Nietzsche writes, "And do not forget your legs, too, you fine dancers; and better still stand on your heads!... You Higher men, the worst about you is: none of you has learned to dance as a man ought to dance – to dance beyond yourselves!" With their Nietzschean references, their primitivist forms and their regenerative spirit, these paintings by Kirchner of the urban cabaret and circus represent a climax of his Dresden style' (J. Lloyd in Deutscher Expressionismus. Werke von 1905 bis 1930, Zurich, 2001, pp. 19-20).
The bright palette of Variétéparade, as well as its playful subject-matter, reflects the influence of Fauve artists on Kirchner. The present work is reminiscent of Matisse's La Danse (fig. 1), as well as the vivid oils of cabaret performers by Van Dongen (fig. 3). Some time after its execution, Kirchner inscribed this picture with the date 08, the year Die Brücke was joined by Van Dongen, renowned among his colleagues as a painter of singers and dance hall performers. It was also the year that cabaret, dance and vaudevillian themes made their first appearance in Kirchner's work. Donald E. Gordon, however, proposes that Kirchner actually began the present work in 1910 and completed it in 1926, when he was living in Davos, Switzerland. As is the case for several of the other works that remained in the artist's own collection throughout his life, he must have inscribed the date at a later point, recalling the events of that year and associating them with this work. For it was in the second half of 1910, Gordon writes, that Kirchner's painting 'is in many ways the strongest of the late Dresden years and is characterized by a geometric precision of line and shape. As a style it represents the most authentic European parallel to the formal conception of primitive African art' (D. E. Gordon, op. cit., p. 68).
Fig. 1, Henri Matisse, La Danse II, 1909-10, oil on canvas, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Fig. 2, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Drahtseiltanz (Tightrope Walk), 1908-10, oil on canvas, Neue Galerie, New York
Fig. 3, Kees van Dongen, L'Acrobate, circa 1909-10, oil on canvas
Oil on canvas
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Bern, Kunsthalle, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1933, no. 10 (titled Parterreakrobatinnen)
St. Moritz, Villa Mira Margna, 2000-01
153 by 200cm. 60 1/4 by 78 3/4 in.
Donald E. Gordon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cambridge, 1968, no. 164, illustrated p. 289
Johanna Brade, Die Zirkus- und Variétébilder der "Brücke" (1905-1913), Berlin, 1993, no. 69
Estate of the artist
Private Collection, Switzerland
Henze & Ketterer Galerie für Moderne Kunst, Bern
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner in November 2000