The Radical Realist – An Exhibition Dedicated to the Dancer and Performer Valeska Gert
She was one of the most influential artists of modern times – and no-one knows it. This, at least, is what the Berlin-based artist Wolfgang Müller claims in a book and in an exhibition which he co-curated about the dancer, performer, bar owner, book author and actress Valeska Gert.
On a photograph from the year 1920 we see a woman in a short, dark dress, standing with her arms stretched upwards, her legs crossed. It is as if seeing a movement captured within a dance – and this is no false impression. And yet it is not what it seems. For the dancer is dancing “standstill”, she does not move, but for the entire dance of several minutes she remains in this pose which seems both tense and relaxed at the same time. With this dance of the Pause, which was to bridge the gap between the changing of two film reels in the cinemas of that time, the Berlin dancer Valeska Gert (1892-1978) created a radical work - of which only this one photograph has been preserved. Her other, no less radical performances of the 1920s, in which she danced a traffic accident, boxing, dying or “the film”, also fascinated or shocked the audience. When she danced an orgasm in Berlin in 1922, the audience called the police.
Coming from “Modern Dance”, Valeska Gert was already so well-known as a dancer and film actress in the 1920s and early 30s that the journalist Fred Hildenbrandt wrote a book about her in1928. However, as a left-wing artist from a Jewish family, she had to leave Germany in 1933 and emigrated to the USA via France and Great Britain. Following her return to Germany in the late 1940s, she had been mostly forgotten by the German public – a circumstance about which she complained bitterly in an interview on a TV talk show in 1975.
Precursor of punk
It was this very television appearance by the eccentric, white-powdered 83-year-old, who appeared so extremely alert, free-spirited and full of zest for life that made a lasting impression on the then 18-year-old Wolfgang Müller. Thus, in his book Valeska Gert – Ästhetik der Präsenzen, published in 2010, the artist Müller, who has been living in Berlin since 1979, describes not only Gert’s fascinating and diverse artistic work as the perceiving of aesthetic strategies which only came to fruition much later. He also describes how Gert created the aesthetic conditions for his own personal artistic environment, an aspect hitherto neglected in the history of art. With a kind of “phenomenology of perception” Valeska Gert analysed the limits of societal conventions and expressed with her body the insights gained. Müller, who made a name as part of the music and performance scene of the “Geniale Dilletanten” and as founder of the intermedial operating artists’ group “Die Tödliche Doris” in the punk-influenced West-Berlin scene of the 1980s and has since been influential in a number of art projects, exhibitions and book publications, sees Gert as a “proto-punk”. She made “the grotesque, the absurd in normality tangible and perceptible”, he says. Through this personally-flavoured approach to Gert’s work - for example, he sees the artists’ bars which she already opened and ran in the early years in Berlin, Zurich, New York and Kampen (Sylt) as the blueprint for similar Berlin or London bars since the 1980s – Müller’s book differs from the publication Valeska Gert. Fragmente einer Avantgardistin in Tanz und Schauspiel der 1920er Jahr by the theatre studies expert Susanne Foellmer, which compares Gert i.a. with artists of the 1990s.
It is to Müller’s credit that in his publication he has reprinted Gert’s text Mein Weg, which had been printed as a book in 1930 and is meanwhile out-of-print. This was a mixture of biographical notes and artistic programme and was written as a message to the Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein with whom Gert conducted an amorous liaison. Moreover, Müller and the art historian An Paenhuysen have also curated the exhibition “Pause. Valeska Gert: Bewegte Fragmente”, (Pause.Valeska Gert: Moving Fragments) which shows Gert’s photographs and film appearances and places them alongside works by other artists also concerned with aspects of perception – such as Marcel Broodthaers, Valie Export, Marcel Duchamp or Hanne Darboven. Together with the above-mentioned TV talk-show interview by Gert, excerpts from films by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Federico Fellini in which she appeared are also shown. Particularly impressive is Gert’s performance KZ Kommandeuse Ilse Koch in Volker Schlöndorff’s documentary Nur zum Spaß, nur zum Spiel – Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert from 1977 – a scathing portrayal of the wife of the commander of the Buchenwald concentration camp who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1951.
Pride of place in the exhibition, however, goes to the video of the performance Baby, filmed in 1969, but only rediscovered in 2009. In this Valeska Gert portrays, with mimicry and acoustics, the interplay between baby and wet nurse in an exaggerated and thus radically real manner. The fact that Wolfgang Müller has now also issued a vinyl single of this recording to accompany the book and the exhibition would certainly be an occasion to prompt one of Gert’s witty comments: in 1962 Deutsche Grammophon refused to release a recording of Baby since they said Gert’s performance consisted “only of ‘babbling’, ‘chuckling’ and ‘dribbling’. Yet the way that Valeska Gert babbles, chuckles and dribbles here is unique and explains the belated gratification of her fans at this unexpected release.
lives as a free-lance author in Berlin.
Translation: Heather Moers
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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