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