Public works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Kitty Hauser

Erich Heckel, Great Danc­ing Pair (Grosses tanz­paar) (1923). Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne, pur­chased with funds do­nated by John Downer AM and Rose Downer, 2015. The Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria is pleased with this new ac­qui­si­tion, the first Ger­man ex­pres­sion­ist paint­ing to en­ter its col­lec­tion. It’s a cu­rios­ity, since the can­vas has been painted on both sides by the same artist, though the com­po­si­tions are 16 years apart.

The ear­lier work — Great Danc­ing Pair — was thought to have been lost and was cov­ered over with dis­tem­per for many years. The paint­ing on the other side, Land­scape on the Fjord, dates from 1939. Great Danc­ing Pair is on dis­play in the gallery.

Erich Heckel was one of the found­ing mem­bers of the group Die Brucke in Dres­den in 1905. The founders of the group were young ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dents who sought a new form of artis­tic ex­pres­sion that would form a bridge (hence their name: brucke means bridge) be­tween the avant-garde and the art of the past they ad­mired. Other mem­bers of the group in time in­cluded Ernst Lud­wig Kirch­ner, Emil Nolde and Max Pech­stein. They cul­ti­vated prim­i­tivist im­agery of great emo­tional power — nudes, an­i­mals, fierce chil­dren and dolls like fetishes, all with bold blocks of colour and jagged out­lines. They res­ur­rected the wood­cut, raw and folksy, as a ve­hi­cle for this im­agery — the NGV has sev­eral of these al­ready, in­clud­ing Stand­ing Child from 1910, which is on dis­play be­side Great Danc­ing Pair.

Die Brucke flour­ished in the years be­fore World War I, and the artists as­so­ci­ated with it con­tin­ued to work and ex­hibit dur­ing the Weimar years, a time of un­prece­dented artis­tic ex­per­i­men­ta­tion as well as so­cial and po­lit­i­cal un­rest. After the Na­tional So­cial­ists came to power Heckel and his friends were iden­ti­fied as “de­gen­er­ate” since their work did not glo­rify the Nazi ideals of racial pu­rity and phys­i­cal strength. More than 700 of Heckel’s works were con­fis­cated from state col­lec­tions in 1937.

Some of them were ex­hib­ited at the De­gen­er­ate Art Ex­hi­bi­tion that toured the coun­try in the same year, where the works of artists such as Paul Klee, Wass­ily Kandin­sky, Ge­orge Grosz and Oskar Kokoschka were crookedly dis­played and held up for ridicule, the prices paid for them by named mu­seum di­rec­tors posted be­side them.

The story is more com­pli­cated than this, how­ever. Un­der these cir­cum­stances artists took up many am­bigu­ous po­si­tions, and Heckel was no ex­cep­tion. Like his fel­low Die Brucke artists Nolde and Pech­stein, Heckel was a mem­ber of the Re­ich Cham­ber of Cul­ture; he signed a pro-Nazi man­i­festo in the party news­pa­per in sup­port of Hitler be­com­ing head of state. Joseph Goebbels in fact liked Heckel’s work, and put for­ward the claim that ex­pres­sion­ists of his ilk could be said to ex­em­plify the Nordic spirit. But an­other Nazi fac­tion dis­agreed and late in 1934 Hitler de­clared that the Re­ich would not tol­er­ate mod­ernist ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in the arts. Heckel did not give up. He was des­per­ate, or so it seems, to be al­lowed to con­tinue work­ing. As late as 1936 he was sub­mit­ting doc­u­men­ta­tion to the author­i­ties about his Ger­man ances­try as he sought per­mis­sion to work, sign­ing off with an in­gra­ti­at­ing “Heil Hitler!”

To no avail, as we know. But per­haps it was as part of this at­tempted ac­com­mo­da­tion to the new regime that he cov­ered up Great Danc­ing Pair — a dis­tinctly ex­pres­sion­ist work — with a layer of dis­tem­per, us­ing the other side of the can­vas to paint a far blander land­scape. Or per­haps he just didn’t like the paint­ing and wanted to re-use the can­vas. Ei­ther way, it’s in­ter­est­ing to see the 1923 work re­vealed (the dis­tem­per was re­moved in 2003), a doc­u­ment of its time and of a ca­reer de­railed by his­tory.

Oil on can­vas, 128.1cm x 103.2cm

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