Part 1: V is for Kaleidoscope, by Shana Lutker
Image essay for Valeska Gert
V is for Kaleidoscope.
Valeska Gert (1892-1978) is "a dancing, playing, singing, screeching, floating all-purpose and everyday artist, cellar-bar host and cabaret boss." This description is found on the book jacket of her fourth memoir, Katzen von Kampen (Cats from Kampen). Valeska Gert's memoirs are often described as performances in themselves: Mein Weg (My Way) in 1931; Der Bettlerbar von New York (The Beggar Bar in New York) in 1950; Ich bin eine Hexe (I am a Witch) in 1968; and Die Katzen von Kampen in 1974.
In the beginning of quarantine, I made a lot of playdough. Some pieces found their way into the studio and one day, I painted them black. Here, thrown like the I Ching, the form made me think of this photograph of Valeska dancing Canaille (1925) by Man Ray. Canaille is a female prostitute. Valeska describes the dance: "I sink slowly to my knees, open my legs wide and sink even further. In a sudden cramp, as if bitten by a tarantula, I convulse upwards. I oscillate to and fro. My body then relaxes. The cramp dissolves, the jerking becomes softer, weaker, the intervals become further apart, the arousal subsides. One last convulsion, and then I'm back on the ground again. What did he do to me? He used my body, because I needed money. Miserable world! I spit contemptuously to my right, then my left, and I shuffle away." (Hexe, p. 48. Translation from Sydney Jane Norton)
Her first major performance was in 1916: Tanz in Orange (Dance in Orange). Gert dressed in orange pantaloons; she painted her face chalk white and the area around her eyes neon blue. It was the beginning of her career as a dancer of the "grotesque."
A cut Man Ray photo, over a found book cover art for The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz. "Like a mask. The face white-washed. Bright red mouth. Lascivious penetrating eye, flushed blue. Hair, tightly combed back, greasy shiny, drawn into a meagre bun. . . . The Gert is not beautiful. Rather ugly. She does not want to be beautiful at all. . . . Jerking and waving her limbs about. It is not pretty when her entire body begins to twitch, her belly circles, the arms beating the time and in the end her fat backside sticking in the air. However! The Gert makes ugly things beautiful. Her dance is ugliness and also beauty." (Hanns Schulze, Tänzerinnen. II. Valeska Gert (Dresden, 1920))
Gert's expressiveness is unmatched. I notice her mouth is often caught open. Clockwise from top left: Summer in the Grass, 1917 (film). Joyless Streets, 1925 (film). Prostitute, 1925 (dance). Nervousness, ca. 1920s (dance). Matchmaker, 1925 (dance). Guest on German TV talk show, 1975. Baby, 1972 (dance). Juliet of the Spirits, 1965 (film). Baby, 1972 (dance). Distress, year unknown.
To Die (1919-1922): "Motionless I stand in a long, black shirt on a glaringly lit up stage. My body tenses up slowly, the struggle begins, my hands clench into fists, tighter and tighter, the shoulders bend, the face becomes distorted from pain and misery. The pain becomes unbearable; my mouth opens to accommodate a silent scream. I bend my head back, shoulders, hands, my whole body becomes numb. I try to restrain this. Pointless. For seconds I stand there motionless, a pillar of pain. Then slowly, the life gradually withdraws from my body, and very slowly it relaxes. The pain quits, the mouth becomes softer, the shoulders fall, the arms become slack as do the hands, I feel the be-numbed staring of people in the audience, I want to console them, a glimmer of life slips into my face, a smile appears from far away. Then it rapidly sinks. The cheeks slacken, the head falls quickly. The head of a doll. Out. Away. I died. Death stillness. No one in the audience dares to breathe. I'm dead. (Hexe, p. 49)
A page in Valeska Gert's memoir, Ich Bin Eine Hexe. The Kupplerin, or "Matchmaker," is a Madam. Perhaps you noticed: the dots are not the same; Valeska wears two versions of the dress. Not long after the dance was performed, she was cast to play a Madam in film. She played Frau Greifer in G. W. Pabst's 1925 silent film, Freudlose Gasse (Joyless Streets), opposite Greta Garbo.
Back in Berlin, the early 1950s, a performance at Hexenküchen. "Gert appeared on stage as an innocuous elderly lady sitting in a rocking chair doing embroidery, but audiences were soon chilled by the incongruity of the sympathetic image of the kindly grandmother and her horrendous verbal reenactment of her past:
Work faster, eyes brighter.
March, march, keep your butts moving. You're in my power,
So keep the fire burning.
Burn the letters, burn the books,
silk scarves over here,
over here, they belong to me
then I'll leave you all in peace.
Paint this lampshade for me
was once the skin of a human being. Now, ten years later,
none of it's true.
never hurt anyone
was pure pragmatism and goodness, never harmed anyone,
not in the least.
I knit, crochet, and do embroidery. Why can't anyone stand me?"
(Lyrics from the Valeska Gert archive at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, translation by Sydney Jane Norton. Also published in the closing pages of Hexe.)
These images were taken 55 years apart, but both show Valeska looking askance, floral-striped dresses, and patterns spreading down from a neckline. Left, Valeska Gert and Arnold Marle in Wie es Euch Gefäll (As You Like It), 1917. Right, Still from Eight Hours Don't Make a Day, series by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972-1973, Episode 3: "Franz and Ernst." with Valeska Gert, Werner Finck, Luise Ullrich, Wolfried Lier.
"Always more actual and living that the more or less shallow, hazy and chancey world of things and appearances. . . What she represents is the semblance of the semblance [der Schein des Scheins]—and nevertheless the single truth behind the hundred-fold lies, which spread out every evening in the light of the spotlight" (Dr. Harry Prinz, Das Phänomen Valesca Gert. Der Tanz 3, 1930)
A study in patterns. Perhaps with repetition comes wisdom. Versions of versions.
Selected sources and references
Valeska Gert, Ich bin eine Hexe, Alexander Verlag, Berlin, 1968.
Alexandra Kolb (2007) "'There was never anythin' like this!!!' Valeska Gert's Performances in the Context of Weimar Culture," The European Legacy, 12:3. 293-309.
Sydney Jane Norton, "Dancing Out of Bounds: Valeska Gert in Berlin and New York," FEMALE EXILES IN TWENTIETH AND TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY EUROPE, Edited by Maureen Tobin Stanley and Gesa Zinn, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007. 97-119.
Dr. Harry Prinz, Das Phänomen Valesca Gert." Der Tanz 3, 1930.
Hanns Schulze, Tänzerinnen. II. Valeska Gert, Dresden, 1920.
"Curating Valeska Gert: Ana Isabel Keilson in conversation with Wolfgang Muller and An Paenhuysen"