Dance & Leisure

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Dance—along with the new pleasures of the booming city—was a potent theme for the Expressionists, embodying freedom from society’s social and sexual conventions. Cabaret and variety shows allowed them to show risqué flashes of skin. Performances by dancers from Africa and the South Pacific, meanwhile, suggested to them a joyful, instinctual emotion that offered an alternative to metropolitan decadence.
As World War I put an end to their most exuberant and optimistic hopes for renewing society and liberating it from the stiff bourgeois conventions of the day, the medieval motif of the Dance of Death returned as a reminder that, for everyone, there is a final partner who cannot be refused.
Maria Uhden Dance (1916)
<i>The Dancer Gertrude Barrison</i> (plate 3) from the First Theater Program of Kabarett Fledermaus (Cabaret Fledermaus)

Fritz Zeymer

The Dancer Gertrude Barrison (plate 3) from the First Theater Program of Kabarett Fledermaus (Cabaret Fledermaus)


This illustration captures the glittering, champagne-and-cocktail-fueled atmosphere of the Viennese nightclub where this dancer performed. Her flowing gown suggests freedom of movement, in stark contrast to the constricted clothing and social mores of the day.
<i>Dancer with Raised Skirt</i> from <i>Brücke 1910</i>

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Dancer with Raised Skirt from Brücke 1910

(1909, published 1910)

In this dynamic woodcut, Kirchner’s jagged, angular style emphasizes exuberant motion. The dancer’s lifted skirt tells us the performance is taking place in a risqué nightspot.
<i>Somali Dance</i>

Max Pechstein

Somali Dance


The closed-eyed flutist is totally given over to the raw power of the music, while the dancers move ecstatically to the beat of the drum, with their heads thrown back and feet pounding the earth. Pechstein saw Somali dancers at an ethnographic performance in Germany shortly before making this print.

Emil Nolde



With her legs splayed, arms fluttering, and hair streaming, Nolde’s ecstatic dancer represents a joyful embodiment of all that he and other Expressionists most passionately celebrated: instinctual and unfettered emotion, erotic energy, and spiritual freedom.

Maria Uhden



In this homage to the uninhibited energy of primal dance, the rhythmic repetition of figures and dynamic diagonal composition evoke the stomping beat of a drum.
<i>Dancers</i> (<i>Pair of Dancers</i>)

Max Pechstein

Dancers (Pair of Dancers)


Pechstein’s scribbled lines and loose brushwork against the glowing yellow paper simulate the lurid atmosphere and harsh, unnatural lighting of a nightclub.

Erich Heckel


(1911), dated 1910

A comparison of these two images depicting similarly raucous movements illustrates the shift in public morals before and after World War I. While Heckel’s dancer raises her skirt to flash the audience only momentarily, Beckmann’s nude dancers reflect the more liberal attitudes of the postwar period, following the 1918 cessation of stage censorship.
<i>Gypsy Music</i>

George Grosz

Gypsy Music

(1921, published 1924)

In this scene of Weimar nightlife, Grosz foregrounds the audience rather than the performers. Slumped in an exhausted, drunken reverie, a well-dressed man—a beneficiary of postwar economic chicanery—pays no attention to the musicians or other entertainment on offer.
<i>Dancer in the Mirror</i>

Max Pechstein

Dancer in the Mirror


Pechstein shows this dancer from the front and, as reflected in the mirror, from behind. He also suggests the titillating view from below, as experienced by the male spectators looking up her skirt.
<i>Carnival in Berlin N III</i>

Jeanne Mammen

Carnival in Berlin N III

(c. 1930)

Costumed figures fill the tight space of a Berlin nightclub in this scene of raucous revelry prior to the fasting and penitence of Lent.
<i>Dancer III</i>

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Dancer III


With her head thrown back in gleeful abandon, Schmidt-Rottluff’s schematically rendered nude exemplifies the powerful appeal that modern dance continued to exert on many Expressionists into the postwar period.

Georg Kolbe



A good friend of Schmidt-Rottluff, Kolbe was known as a sculptor of idealized nudes whose poses and gestures often suggest modern dance. Here, a dancer dips close to the earth in an exaggerated movement that suggests strong emotion.
<i>Dance of Death II</i> from <i>The Transformations of God</i> (<i>Die Wandlungen Gottes</i>)

Ernst Barlach

Dance of Death II from The Transformations of God (Die Wandlungen Gottes)

(1922, executed 1920-21)

Two figures, holding hands, dance together for the last time, and a cloak shields them from the leers of a surrounding crowd. Barlach made this print as a means to cope with the loss of his mother.
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