Foreign Dance

Between the waves - Secret, 2013

Tejal Shah

Modernism would be inconceivable without the interplay of inspiration and appropriation, any by implication the global groove of art, dance, performance, and protest. From a historical perspective, the German expressionist painter Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) was from an early stage enthusiastic not only about non-European cultures, but also for dance. This very intersection was precisely where the avant-garde found its starting point: in movements from elsewhere.

Curator and author

Recently, a growing clamor has been erupting across European art collections and archives. With ever-increasing regularity, the postcolonial questioning of modernism has led to surprising shifts in perspective and inevitable adjustments. It is not only the restitution of cultural objects that is need of negotiation. Fresh cultural conflicts also loom large, as the Berlin’s Brücke Museum’s Whose Expression exhibition on the Künstlergruppe Brücke in a colonial context has laid bare: This exhibition traces the migration of primitivist forms, foreign cultural elements, and non-European colonial items all through their artistic trajectories. Formed in Dresden in 1905, the KG Brücke included such renowned German expressionist painters as Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Not only did these pioneers of classical modernism spend time visiting ethnological exhibitions and ethnographic museums, they were also passionate about masks, artefacts, sculptures and dances from non-European cultures. Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Emil and Ada Nolde and Max Pechstein travelled independently of each other to New Guinea and the Palau Archipelago with an official mandate from the German colonial authorities, where they studied the Pacific islands’ art, architecture, body images, and indigenous dance cultures.

Erna Schilling and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in the studio at Durlacher Strasse 14 in Berlin Wilmersdorf, circa 1912/14, courtesy Kirchner Museum Davos

At the entrance to the exhibition at the Brücke Museum in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem, visitors are greeted by a glossary of terms explaining the asymmetrical power relationship between painter, subject, and model: the colonial gaze, Primitivism, exoticism, racism, appropriation – amid whose undertones vibrate the brooding resonances of the presumption of guilt and a guide to selective viewing. The upshot: a hyper-moralistic trajectory. In today’s echo chamber filled with utterances by the contemporary, woke normal, these Brücke artists, with their crude and disrespectful approach, come across as a xenophobic gathering of White salon barbarians. Adorned with his motley collection of screens, batiks, Asiatica and tribal art style, Kirchner’s Berlin studio is exposed as a chamber of horrors. The geometric forms of this stage-like still life, in which purchased or donated artefacts readily intermingle with the artist’s own sculptures, paintings, embroideries and copied items, reappear over and again in numerous paintings and graphics The Brücke artists’ emancipatory conception has been put under scrutiny.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, drawing after bronze reliefs from the Kingdom of Benin at the Ethnological Museum, Dresden circa 1910, pencil Kirchner Museum Davos, donation from the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner estate, 1992

Out of respect for the singularity of other cultures, will future artists have to forego imitation, appropriation, and fusion? Does such singularity even exist? And to what extent does exoticism and the colonial mindset actually resonate in the kinetic expressionism of an Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, who studied the cross-cultural interplay of dance in his drawings and paintings. Does this “story” of the KG Brücke represent an unsolved case in the annals of art history?

Nelly and Sidi Heckel dancing in Ernst Heckel’s studio, photo Kirchner, 1910, Kirchner Museum Davos

The on-going discussion at the Brücke Museum in Berlin deplores, inter alia, just how little is still known about the Black artist couple Milli and Sam from Dresden’s renowned Equestrian Circus founded by Albert Schumann: their full names and biographies are not even known. The prevailing dominant culture of White men, in this instance the Brücke artists Erich Heckel and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, mishandled Milli’s and Sam’s dancing bodies, their exotic groove and the performance of those dancers’ otherness for their own aesthetic evolution without ever taking into consideration how this Black couple had been socially marginalized. First and foremost, this presumption is not quite true. As a highly meticulous chronicler of his creative output, Kirchner made his own appropriation processes transparent. His photo archives, diaries, letters and sketchbooks furnish out-and-out exemplary evidence of his modus operandi; they enable us to reconstruct the provenance of each and every gesture, motif, and form quite precisely. They also feature the artists Milli, Sam and Nelly. And secondly, it is in no way about looted art, genocide, sexual abuse, or other systemic forms of repression. The cruelty and illegitimacy of such crimes is undeniably beyond question. Anyone who discerns the rhetorical context of violent, cultural revisionist practices in the pan-primitivism of the Brücke artists’ studio settings, or at their dance sessions and soirées, may well be overlooking the existential core of these imagined scenarios. Masks and costumes are not merely material artefacts snatched from their original cultural context; they are imbued, above all, with a metaphorical co-significance. They equally refer to the nature of role-play and to masquerade.

Read on …

Performance and Protest: From Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner to Kazuo Ohno


Dance enables us to sensorially experience how artistic globalisation processes and transcultural thinking have invariably been the norm. In 2021, at Essen’s Folkwang Museum, Marietta Piekenbrock, curator of the exceptional exhibition Global Groove. Dance, Art, Performance and Protest, in conjunction with Brygida Ochaim, went in search of concrete manifestations of such encounters between Western and Oriental avant-gardes. Who were ––and continue to be––the essentially transnational ambassadors at the dawn of the 20th century? Beginning with Mary Wigman and Kazuo Ohno in the past, to Boris Charmatz and the artist duo Eiko & Koma in the present, these Western and Japanese protagonists were and remain instrumental in a cross-cultural differentiation of modernism and postmodernism.

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Global Groove Cover

This text is based on and sensually expands the article „Antikörper. Butoh – Rebutoh“ from the catalog “Global Groove. Art, Dance, Performance, Protest” for the exhibition of the same name at the Museum Folkwang, Essen 2021, which is available here.