Mary Wigman and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Ambivalence toward the image of the nude dancer assumed a curious expression in Mary Wigman, the most significant German dancer and choreographer of the 1920s. Though she apparently had some experience of the obscure nude dance experiments conducted by her mentor, Rudolf Laban, at his Ascona colony during World War I, Wigman had no illusions
about the potential of nude dance to produce regressive misperceptions rather than a modern, liberated identity; from 1918, when she achieved her first major success, none of her dances included nudity. For her, nudity did not signify modernity. Governing her aesthetic was a complicated expressionistic metaphysics that implied that movement, not flesh, makes the body naked (and therefore modern)—movement reveals contradictory energies hidden within the body. To call attention to movement, Wigman was fond of veiling bodies through the use of masks, hoods, capes, gownlike costumes, and bold contrasts between light and shadow; then, by favoring entirely percussive sounds, she limited the power of music to weaken visual perception of movement. Yet she does not seem to have minded at all that between 1926 and 1932 the great expressionist artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) did a number of beautiful watercolor sketches of her students rehearsing dances nude or in transparent garments, although Wigman never rehearsed in this manner (Ketterer 100–102). As an expressionist, Kirchner painted more what he felt than what he saw, and he felt that dance made the body naked in such a way as to make his own desire naked, but it was a desire to see dance rather than the bodies of dancers. As Ketterer puts it, Kirchner's numerous dance images from this period constituted "efforts to free himself from the actual model and arrive at a more geometric abstracted" perception of the body (Kirchner 212).
Nude dancers were a subject of Kirchner's art as early as 1911, but perhaps his most ambitious statements on this subject were the numerous sketches he submitted between 1928 and 1937 for a monumental, but never implemented, mural complex in a section of the Folkwang Museum in Essen. In the early phase of the project, Kirchner envisioned a portion of the mural complex containing a large triptych of sport, dance, and bath, with many male and female figures, all nude, in panoramic, alpine, or Rhenish landscapes fermented by the eerie glow of blue, purple, white, and pink suns. He planned to integrate the triptych into a mural that presented large images of, perhaps, labor, revolution, the past, the future, the will. But around 1930 his interest focused more and more, and then exclusively, on a monumental image of dance, with male and female dancers, all nude, in powerfully abstract contexts, moving entirely through sunlight itself or, rather, through vivid spectrum bands of refracted light (Froning). These "Color Dance" sketches amplified ideas the artist had pursued in his images of the Wigman dancers: the colors of the light meshed with the colors of the dancers' bodies so that, for example, blue, purple, or orange bands of light "reflected" the blue, purple, or orange flesh of the dancers, as if their bodies were translucent, dynamic vessels of light. The bodies themselves were mere black outlines, hardly individuated by line or even movement, a point Kirchner further reinforced by depicting dancers in pairs performing iden-
tical, mirrored movements (Figure 23). In a couple of sketches, he set off the colors dramatically with large patches of black or gray wash. He never completed the project because of the museum director's failure to commit to it. It is not clear why, although the director (Gosebruch) did not treat the work of other artists for the museum with such protracted caution. Kirchner regarded dance as an expression of ecstatic nudity. By nudity, however, he meant not just the display of flesh but the display of light within the body and the display of otherwise invisible color hidden within light. The nude body was a kind of prism that refracted light, and dance was the optimum expression of this kinetic interaction of light and flesh. Color, not movement or physiognomy, was what ultimately individuated bodies and differentiated them from each other.
Wigman's enthusiasm for Kirchner's work obviously transcended a major contradiction between her own and the artist's perception of relations between movement, nudity, and light. But this contradiction was perhaps more apparent among her students than one might expect. A Dutch woman, Letty Thom, was a student at the Wigman school in Dresden between 1925 and 1930. Her extensive scrapbook-diary of this period is now in the possession of Wilfried van Poppel of Amsterdam. The diary contains extensive notes on her school work, many clippings and photos, as well as personal reflections on dance and art generally. From Wigman she learned such creeds as "Without ecstasy, no dance! Without form, no dance!" and "Out of the 'too much' comes gradually a simple, clear 'only so'" (1930). She made no mention of nude dancing in the classroom or on the stage, but she did paste in numerous photos of nude women clipped from dance, gymnastic, and art journals, and she included one uncaptioned photograph of herself nude, kneeling in a woodland grove and smiling at the camera. The student was occasionally critical of her "demonic" teacher and other dancers, but the images of nudity constituted a very subtle criticism: movement is not enough to construct or signify an ecstatic identity—nudity is necessary.