This painting is as fascinating as it is indicative of the German Expressionist artist Erich Heckel’s personal history and artistic development. It features two fully worked compositions, Great dancing pair (Grosses tanzpaar), 1923, and on the reverse of the canvas is a landscape that he painted in 1939, titled Landscape by the firth of Flensburg (andschaft an der forde). It features the countryside around Flensburg in the far north of Germany, where the artist spent time during the Second World War.
In 1905 Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Fritz Bleyl and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner founded the German Expressionist Die Brücke group in Dresden. Painted some eighteen years later, Great dancing pair is a confident expression of the relatively high spirits felt in Germany at the height of the Weimar Republic. Progressive artists then expressed their creativity with a degree of freedom at a time when the country was relatively prosperous following the difficulties and depravation it suffered after the First World War, and before the rise of Fascism. This was a period of great cultural dynamism, which saw movements including Dada, Constructivism and Neue Sachlichkeit arise from urban centres throughout Germany.
Heckel here is an observer of this scene of two excited dancers performing on a stage of one of the many famed cabarets and nightclubs that were such a feature of Weimar Germany. However, there is sense of tension and frenzy expressed through the strong colours, hard angularity of the dancers’ pose and their rigid facial expressions. Heckel has retained his pre-war Expressionist style through his bold use of colour and raw outlines; his treatment of the band in the background of the scene is reminiscent of the work of his close colleague Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, like most of his friends, Heckel was declared a Degenerate Artist. His works were removed from German art galleries and some of his paintings were included in the exhibition of Degenerate Art, Entartete Kunst, that toured Germany in 1937. The aim of that exhibition was to ridicule modern art and incite hatred against progressive thinking. Unable to sell works, and with art supplies being critically scarce, it was common practice then for artists to paint over old canvases or use the back of works. At some point Heckel also decided to hide Great dancing pair by covering it with a layer of distemper, perhaps to conceal what may have been considered a ‘degenerate’ and modernist image. This coating was only removed recently, thus the discovery of this work is a wonderful addition to the knowledge of Heckel’s oeuvre, as many of his paintings were destroyed during the Second World War, including almost half the paintings he made before 1919. Great dancing pair was also thought to have been lost or destroyed, so its reemergence is extremely significant. The landscape painted in 1939 is also a very fine work and would have been considered relatively safe and non-confronting in the eyes of authorities. Much of Heckel’s work of the 1940s were landscapes and still lifes, and this landscape still has German Expressionist qualities through the use of bold colours, which sharply define the many distinct areas of the farmed countryside.
The painting(s) remained in Heckel’s possession until he passed away in 1970, so it must have been of great personal value to him. He included Landscape by the firth of Flensburg in many exhibitions after the war. The painting is also of particular significance to the National Gallery of Victoria. While the collection boasts many fine prints by German Expressionist artists, including Heckel himself, this is the very first painting by a member of that important movement to enter the collection.
Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2016)