Valeska unveiled

Is there such a thing as being too avant-garde? If history punishes those who come too late, as Mikhail Gorbachev insisted, is it any kinder to those who come too early? Can an individual be so far ahead of prevailing movements that their innovation is rendered invisible and roundly ignored?

That appears to be the fate of the mystifyingly underappreciated German 20th-century creative force Valeska Gert, who foresaw or pre-empted performance art, video art, conceptual art; happenings, punk, musique concrète; contemporary dance, object theatre and all manner of confronting stage practices. Time and time again throughout her mercurial career, Gert advanced into new theatres of war and was already beyond the horizon in search of fresh battles by the time others reached the territory she had scoped out, leaving latecomers to fancy themselves the vanguard.

On 19 April 1923, for example, she outlined her vision of the future stage for a Berlin newspaper, but she could just as well be describing things you could see in a gallery or auditorium in the city right now, today, tonight. “In the future,” she proclaimed, “there will be two types of theatre: purely technical theatre and purely human theatre.” The technical theatre, in Gert’s conception, is a realm of “mystical visions” in which “there is no place for the actor”. “Large, heavy blocks dropping slowly from the ceiling in a steady rhythm, rising, falling. Disappearing. On a screen at the back of the stage a cinematographic apparatus paints black waves divided by red vertical lines.”

The “human theatre”, on the other hand, unfolds “without decoration of any kind, against curtains, without props. The imagination of the actor must be so evocative that even without props the audience knows what is intended.” The human theatre is no place for artifice, “no stuck-on beards, no drawn-on wrinkles”, with costumes replaced by smocks in block colours. “The actor on this stage must be trained to feel, profoundly and intensely, and to transmit these feelings simply, with no hint of posing or false pathos in the form of voice, face or body.”

For Gert, this “future” was … the very next day. On 20 April 1923, 100 years ago today, Gert brought her conception of both technical and human theatre to life in Berlin’s Tribüne theatre. But the primary vehicle for her radical rethinking of theatrical means may seem surprising at first. It was a work written over 30 years earlier which evoked the perfumed perversities of a vanished era: Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.

Salome was a 1st century BC Jewish princess, verified by historical record. But ever since her fictionalised, uncredited début in the Gospel of Matthew – and the sexed-up version of this dossier by Flavius Josephus – in which she staged her fateful routine and collected the head of John the Baptist as her gruesome royalties, she has inspired artists, writers and performers. She was a particular favourite of Renaissance painters; like the figure of Saint Sebastian, Salome offered them a way of investing high-minded, even “spiritual” works with eroticism and violence.

The interior of the Tribüne

Salome assumed new vitality in the second half of the 19th century, when her dissolution rhymed with the preoccupations of French practitioners of Symbolism and Decadence and their admirers. A remarkable chain of influence sets out from Stéphane Mallarmé’s epic verse Hérodiade, begun in the early 1870s, which appears to have been at least one of the inspirations for Gustave Moreau’s 1876 painting Salome Dancing before Herod, which was paraphrased in J. K. Huysmans’s novel 1884 A rebours, which influenced Wilde’s 1891 play Salomé, which became the basis for Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera which influenced Franz von Stuck’s 1906 painting … and on and on, with dozens of off-shoots and tributaries. German-speaking Europe was particularly susceptible to Salomania (although it is said that Kaiser Wilhelm II himself insisted that for the Dresden premiere of Strauss’s opera, the night sky backdrop must feature the Star of Bethlehem ablaze).

There is a common denominator to all these creators, and it is hard to avoid the impression of men desiring and damning Salome over and over again, casting her as a new Eve (in the words of Wilde’s Iokanaan: “By woman came evil into the world”). Her tale was taken as a parable of female treachery rather than subpar male governance. Yet it was Herod, ruling with his dick, who ordered the death of the prophet. In art, on stage, women themselves were generally confined to embodying Salome, in the strictest sense, by either performing the role or sitting as models for graphic representations. But in the late 19th century, they also started crafting settings in which the biblical figure assumed new life.

The site of the Tribüne theatre today

Naturally the role was irresistible to dancers; the first in the modern era to take the veil(s) was the dazzlingly innovative Loie Fuller, in 1895. And unlike other Decadent themes, Salome forfeited none of her electric allure as the 20th century began, becoming a popular turn as performers tested the limits of the acceptable on stage. Anita Berber was, unsurprisingly, drawn to the role, so too the scandalous nude performer Adorée Villany who not only danced but recited text from Wilde’s play at the same time, and committed her act to film in Germany in 1906. Canadian dancer Maud Allan was perhaps the most notorious stage Salomé of her era. A lesbian linked to the British Prime Minister’s wife, she was damned for her “obscenity” and accused of spying, becoming the focus of a culture war that may strike contemporary observers as oddly familiar. That there was an actual war going on at the same time (first, world) only served to heighten sensitivities.

A Salome/Salomé act was easy to slip into a revue programme as a spicy burlesque interlude, but a far more ambitious version premiered just a few weeks before Gert’s production, when Alla Nazimova presented her silent film adaptation of Wilde’s play. Recreating Aubrey Beardsley’s famous illustrations for the 1894 edition, it represented both a labour of love and – after withering reviews – the premature end of her career. Yet Salome picked herself up and danced on; in fact, on 20 April 1923, Gert’s show wasn’t even the only production of Wilde’s play on view in Berlin that evening. Across town, the venerable Deutsches Theater hosted the Moscow Kamerny Theatre’s large-scale Constructivist-influenced production of Salomé (for even more examples of Salome/Salomé lore, take a look at John Coulthart’s comprehensive archive).

Despite a handful of dramatic roles, in 1923 Gert was best known as a dancer, but her art was an unclassifiable unicum, constantly changing yet remarkably consistent. As a schoolgirl in Wilhelmine Berlin, Gert shocked teachers and classmates with her white powdered face, bright red lips and anarchic behaviour. This is how she appears in her first (surviving) film, an uncredited part in 1918 film The Seeds of Life, from which her intense, impudent vitality bursts through grainy film stock and reaches through time. Her turn in the film reprises her 1916 stage debut, the soft opening of the Weimar performance tradition. From the beginning, in whatever form it took, her act involved her being entirely, wilfully, uncompromisingly Valeska Gert. In her last feature film 60 years later, Volker Schlöndorff’s 1976 Coup de Grâce, she is still garishly made up, still vital, still unparalleled.

At the outset of the Weimar Republic, Gert proclaimed: “The old world is rotten, it’s creaking at every joint” (knackt in allen Fugen). “I want to help destroy it. I believe in the new life. I want to help build it.” But why Salomé? “Wilde used to say that Salomé was a mirror in which everyone could see himself,” wrote Robbie Ross in a foreword to the play. Might an era not also find its likeness therein? Chaotic, hyperinflated Berlin of the early 1920s felt like an antechamber of apocalypse; the time was out of joint (aus den Fugen geraten) as it was in Claudius’s Denmark and Herod’s Judea, with their royal courts steeped in incest and corruption. Under the Babylonian conditions of the new Germany, strange new prophets – the “Inflation Saints” – issued dire prophecies from their prison cells, while wax-whiskered Herods leered at painted Salomes in varieté theatres throughout the capital. Born barely a kilometre from Alexanderplatz, Gert had absorbed the entire fever and wretchedness of the city into her art; neither she nor her fellow Berliners had an appetite for Beardsleyan exoticism.

“Uproar was my element, I wanted to get people moving, the more they roared, the bolder I became.” The whole era had lost its head, and Gert’s time, it seemed, had come. Her production of Salomé was based on the German translation – also the basis for Strauss’s opera – by the remarkable Hedwig Lachmann, a writer and translator prominent in bohemian circles who fell in love with her (married) anarchist husband when he wrote her letters from jail. Not that Gert kept many of the words. “There was too much in it that I didn’t need. […] I had to get rid of all the unrealistic speech that always makes me melancholic in the theatre. I wanted intense life and a thousand colours.”

Valeska Gert in the title role of Salomé, by Suse Byk

Gert took the title role, one Jewish dancer playing another. Perhaps the root of Salome’s timeless appeal for artists is that she shows art as having undeniable (if appalling) consequences. Gert’s production provided a stark, sacral setting for Wilde’s play, with a black backdrop, bright white light and garishly coloured smocks. The performance was accompanied by women shrieking offstage and multi-talent Walter Ruttmann – more on him later – drawing tortured sounds from a cello. In a 1921 article, Gert shared her proto-punk musical vision: “the songs have no text and only a primitive melody. You bellow your pain, exult in your joy … in a simple, rough form”. On another occasion she anticipated musique concrète by calling for a “metropolitan march” which would incorporate aeroplane noises, bickering women and stomping feet.

The performers were almost motionless and, for Gert, “the movements that came through nonetheless were now truthful, and a new form of dance.” Like her terse dance routines in which she embodied vice, death and anxiety, this was part of her tireless quest for the elemental. “Art is not for me. I don’t need what others have already made. I need the primary matter” (Urstoff). She disdained Expressionism (“kitsch!”) as much as the new Ausdruckstanz, the expressive dance form represented by Mary Wigman, but one rendered without (facial) expressions – something that was hugely important to Gert’s performance.

She insisted that her style should not be confused with realism; instead, she sought alienation (Brecht, unsurprisingly, was an admirer). “The distinction lies in the fact that all extraneous feeling and expression is omitted, and that the performance solemnises emotion with fervour and the concentration of all powers.” Her production confronted the audience with its own (blood)lust by denying it. For the fabled dance Gert remained in her smock with not a veil in sight (it was Wilde’s version of the story that had introduced the “seven veils”). Instead it was stagecraft, vapid illusion that was stripped, and what was revealed was not undulating flesh but the Urstoff. Similarly, the audience had to imagine the wages of her sin; one of two stills of the performance by photographer Suse Byk’s shows Gert tenderly caressing an imaginary head (in stark contrast, Swedish soprano Olive Fremstad was so committed to vérité that she prepared for the 1907 US premiere of Strauss’s Salome by going to a morgue and holding a severed head in her hands).

Valeska Gert in the title role of Salomé, by Suse Byk

This was the Berlin of Brecht, Piscator and Reinhardt but still, Gert’s unprecedented, utterly radical approach exerted a disruptive power – even before it reached audiences. Actress Helene Weigel, later the legend of the Berliner Ensemble, was originally engaged but begged off, fearful for her reputation. Gert believed artists should constantly tear down and start anew, and disdained those unwilling to venture their cultural capital. For her new human theatre, Gert was prepared to risk everything.

But what of the “technical theatre” that she foresaw? That came in a film work presented on the same bill. Its creator was Walter Ruttmann, a multi-talent who provided the cello accompaniment to Salomé. Ruttmann later made Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis and even later assisted Leni Riefenstahl after coming to an uncomfortable accommodation with the Nazis.

Opus 2, the film Ruttmann presented on the night, was made up of thousands of hand-painted images, cinema stripped of everything but colour, form and motion (“nothing to do with the handmade Expressionist trickery currently appearing in cinemas and theatres,” in the words of Gert, always eager to trash the prevailing unorthodoxies of her time). Ruttmann was the first abstract filmmaker, an ideal complement to Gert’s abstract theatre. But if the critical view of Ruttmann’s film was disappointing (“certainly very amusing, nothing more”), Valeska Gert’s revolutionary Salomé came off even worse – it was “an embarrassing failure” in the words of the Berliner Tageblatt, the outlet that had run her visionary article.

The Tribüne was born of the riotous creative energies of the early Weimar Republic and Gert was there from the beginning, appearing just days after the theatre launched in September 1919, playing a skeleton in the premiere of Ernst Toller’s Die Wandlung. A few weeks later the theatre hosted one of the largest stage gatherings of Berlin’s Dadaists, including John Heartfield, Raoul Hausmann, George Grosz and Johannes Baader. It’s not known if Gert was in attendance, but she had a brief association with Dada if only because the movement offered the greatest possible scope for her anarchic performance. Earlier in the year she had spontaneously appeared at another Dada event (in the venue where Bowie would later produce his Berlin trilogy), dancing with a bunch of asparagus she had just bought at a market. Decades later she described this, not without justification, as an early happening.

The modestly sized Tribüne was located on the long route that starts at the site of the old royal seat, the Stadtschloss, then proceeds along Unter den Linden and through the Tiergarten. It appears just as the route turns off toward another palace, Schloss Charlottenburg; its outsized verdigris dome is visible from the site of the theatre. Originally built at the close of the 17th century, its first occupant was Queen Sophie Charlotte. There the Prussian queen established a Musenhof, a “court of muses” where philosophers, performers and revellers were always welcome (not so the queen’s ill-favoured husband, King Friedrich I).

Like the Schloss, the Tribüne and its setting was associated with remarkable women. The building that hosted the theatre was erected during World War One, designed by Emilie Winkelmann, Germany’s first independent woman architect, and now bears the name of its benefactor, early feminist Ottilie von Hansemann. It offered the first accommodation in Germany reserved for female students, who had only recently been granted permission to study at their country’s universities; the theatre occupied a former hall of the student housing. Else Lasker-Schüler read poetry and prose in the the newly repurposed venue in late 1919, and Marlene Dietrich performed here in the 1920s. Having emerged unscathed from World War Two, within weeks of the end of hostilities the theatre hosted a revue moderated by Hildegard Knef. And in the 1960s the great Austrian actress Tilla Durieux (a one-time Salomé) reprised her performances of the 1920s there.

The site of Valeska Gert’s revolutionary production is still standing, although no longer functioning as a theatre. This leaves a pair of performance stills and a handful of bad reviews as the primary legacy of the evening. But at least some recognised the standard of the vanguard as it thundered by. As Futurist poet Ruggero Vasari proclaimed at the time: “Modern theatre begins here.”

Haus Ottilie von Hansemann in its present state


  1. Amanda Beresford

    Thank you for this post, James. I have been fascinated by Valeska Gert for some time; she comes into my current research on Surrealism and avant-garde dance. In November, 1926 she performed a programme of what were dubbed “Surrealist dances” as part of Jacques Hébertot’s Vendredis de la danse at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées, organised by André Breton’s rival Yvan Goll. I have so far been unable to find any but the vaguest details about this event. Any further leads by readers of this post would be welcomed.

  2. Hagai Aviel

    Since you elaborated on Gert’s too avant-garde advance into new theatres of war: the purely technical theatre and purely human theatre, you could also mentioned that Wilde himself reacted enthusiastically to the suggestion offered to him that the orchestra role in Salome premiere will be performed by perfumes -different one for each emotion-, recorded in Hesketh Pearson’s 1946 biography.

    • Interesting – didn’t Huysmans also propose a “perfume organ”? It’s sad that Wilde never actually got to see Salomé performed.

      • Amanda Beresford

        The story of Salomé’s performing perfumes is reminiscent of an earlier performance by another exotic flower: the French Futurist dancer, poet, and polemicist Valentine de Saint-Point. Her 1913 piece La Métachorie, in Paris, was a synaesthetic “dance of ideas” that fused music, movement, poetry, philosophy, costume, lighting, abstract design–and “parfums de Bichara” wafting through the theatre, in quest of the full, total art effect on a psychic as well as a sensory level. Critics complained about “Futurist perfumes;” the audience seems to have been somewhat confused.

      • Oh, I love her! I’ve wanted to write about her for a while now. Her “Futurist Manifesto” has the best opening: “Humanity is mediocre. The majority of women are neither superior nor inferior to the majority of men. They are all equal. They all merit the same scorn.”

      • Amanda Beresford

        Absolutely! Her Futurist Manifesto of Lust is stirring stuff as well. Marinetti himself was a fan and collaborator (and her lover) for a while, but something evidently went wrong there, since he dismissed her as “passéist…arid, cold, emotionless” in his Manifesto of Futurist Dance in 1917. Her idiosyncratic brand of Futurist-feminism–a hybrid of earth mother and bellicose Amazon–must have been a bit much even for him!

  3. Elouise Payne

    Another fabulous flower for the bouquet. I find myself rereading the accounts of these extraordinary people. Thank you for all the hard work into researching their lives and times; I look forward to your posts. (I am not sure how I found you but I certainly am never going to leave you.) Best regards.

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