Our author is a modern young woman. What does Jawlensky's ‘Portrait of the Dancer Alexander Sacharoff' mean to her?
Men in white make-up scare me. My father allowed my three siblings and me to watch adult films from quite a young age. Classics: 'Jaws', 'Pet Sematary', 'IT'. I was six or seven-years-old at the time. In his defence: he probably wanted to equip us as quickly and painfully as possible for life. And perhaps he just didn't take Universal's plastic shark and blood-filled balloons that seriously.
In any case, couldn't go into quarry pools for years, and I hate clowns and any sort of face in white make-up. You can't trust them. I am thinking of Pennywise with the fangs, and the Joker, and all those inner city mime artists peeling invisible bananas. Yet here I am in the Kunstbau of the Lenbachhaus (art gallery), staring at the face of the Russian dancer Alexander Sacharoff in white make-up.
It is bold, it is striking, it is the dream of every marketing professional, because advertising loves complementary colours: the starker the contrast, the more attention is draws.
You can't really escape this painting by Alexej von Jawlensky in and around the Lenbachhaus. It immediately catches your eye everywhere – on posters, magnets, postcards, calendars. Red on turquoise blue. It is bold, it is striking, it is the dream of every marketing professional, because advertising loves complementary colours: the starker the contrast, the more attention is draws. It was the subject of endless discussion at school. My art teacher, Mr Mayer, had a very big, hairy wart on his nose. And just as I tried to ignore this wart, I have categorically tried to avoid eye contact with Sacharoff until now.
I know that Sacharoff does not depict a clown in Jawlensky's portrait. He is made-up as a sort of Japanese kabuki actor. A lot of people describe his look as seductive, or alluring. It gives me the creeps. Sacharoff's eyes, they have a yellowish glow, malicious. His smile: it's false. Shifty. And that rose that's attached – as if someone had pushed it right through the dancer's blood-red dress to the centre of his heart. I need to calm myself down. What I see before me is not a deeply psychological Rorschach plate, but a masterpiece.
I have of course prepared myself for Alexander Sacharoff. Staring is generally considered impolite; it might be normal before a work of art, but I still feel better if I know the subject I am staring at a little. Sacharoff, like a lot of Russian artists, came to Munich at the turn of the century, many of them finding their way to the home in Schwabing district of the Russian artists Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin.
The 'Lebensmenschen' exhibition where I find myself today is dedicated to this avant-garde artistic couple. The 21-year-old Sacharoff first appeared in his salon in early 1908, and became his closest friend. They both painted their friend. The portrait of Jawlensky is before me; breathing down my neck is one by Werefkin, Sacharoff dressed as a Geisha. His hair is well-groomed, and there is no jet-black eyeliner around his eyes, but I'll be honest: the effect on me is just as horrific. His iris is orange!
His androgynous appearance did away with gender roles. It was precisely this androgyny that inspired many artists in his circle. No dancer has been painted as often as Sacharoff.
Both pictures were painted in 1909. This was the year in which Sacharoff joined the ‘Neue Künstlervereinigung München' (association of artists) as the only dancer; the association was the precursor to Der Blaue Reiter (group of artists). At the time, he was performing privately on the Schwabing scene, while preparing for his official debut at the Munich Odeon. One day, he visited Jawlensky at his studio, and the artist spontaneously picked up his brush. To my left, a woman is listening to number 417 about the Sacharoff portrait on her audio guide, and shouts back to her husband: "That was painted in half an hour !" It was indeed. And to ensure that Jawlensky couldn't make any further changes, Sacharoff took the still damp canvas away with him right away. This is why the portrait appears so direct and in the moment. The brush strokes are alive, irregular, and the substrate beneath the paint clearly visible. Compulsive perfectionists would undoubtedly have want to add to it.
Astonishingly, the prominent nose and the unusually thin face with pointed chin are not exaggerated. In a group photo of the friends in the exhibition catalogue, Sacharoff's face is almost exactly the same, although this time he's wearing a black suit – which is unusual for him, because this man was a bird of paradise, an apparition both on and off the stage, often in women's clothing. Sacharoff was no modern drag queen like Olivia Jones or RuPaul, nor a transvestite artist like Conchita Wurst. He was fantastic at applying make-up, and designed his fantastic costumes himself. But his art was not motivated by social politics.
Bourgeois Munich at the start of the 20th century didn't really know how to take this gender-fluid individual. People still preferred to go the theatre to see ballet dancers performing pirouettes.
Sacharoff's self-perception would probably seem strange to a lot of people these days: he didn't dance for the glory of it. He never craved a big audience. He danced purely for the art of it, and yearned to be enjoyed gently and quietly, like poetry. His androgynous appearance did away with gender roles. It was precisely this androgyny that inspired many artists in his circle. No dancer has been painted as often as Sacharoff. Alexej von Jawlensky painted him several times dressed up and in make-up: as a Spanish woman with red lips and with a white feather in his hair. Sacharoff's art was progressive and pioneering in many ways.
When Sacharoff came to Munich in 1905 to train as a dancer, he first took lessons in classical ballet. But he also learned acrobatics in the Schumann Circus (here we go, clowns again). He incorporated Japanese, Greek and Egyptian elements into his interpretation of dance. He danced with a 'broken', or limp wrist – completely bent it – which is a no-no in ballet. I know that all too well because I did ballet for five years as a child, and made exactly the same mistake. There are photos of it.
Sacharoff deliberately danced with a broken wrist. A break brings new beginnings: Sacharoff created his own form of modern dance - 'abstract pantomime'. But a break can also cause divisions. Audiences and the media were divided; they were enthusiastic or shocked, unsettled or angered. Bourgeois Munich at the start of the 20th century didn't really know how to take this gender-fluid individual. People still preferred to go the theatre to see ballet dancers performing pirouettes. Suddenly, a man in exotic women's clothing was dancing alone, without an ensemble, performing a dance in walking motions, precisely composed step by step. It's a pity there is no footage of Sacharoff's dances, only fleeting outlines for studies that dance schools today try to reproduce like flip books.
I have read a few of the critics from back then. The German author Friedrich Markus Huebner wrote in 1914 in the 'Monatsschrift für Ästhetik und Kritik des Theaters' (Monthly Journal of Aesthetics and Theatre Criticism): "Sacharoff confounds. He confounds us even as we look back today. In antiquity, the funky eroticism expressed in his dance would probably have been greeted with a knowing nod. This awareness is stifled today." What I like about Sacharoff is that other people find him bewildering. I like quirky people, people who are different, who are characters. People like that have to have guts, because they can rub people up the wrong way. For Sacharoff, it culminated in him having to leave Germany as an 'enemy alien' when war broke out in 1914, his portraits considered 'degenerate'.
I've been here for a good half hour now, and Sacharoff's smile no longer seems creepy to me. Rather, it is challenging and fearless. It says: "Yeah, right, I couldn't give a toss what you think of me." What a cool guy.
I wonder how people would react to Sacharoff's art today. Unfortunately, we are often not quite as open-minded as we'd like to think we are, and want other people to think we are. I am having a live experience of how people react to Sacharoff as a muse and subject. The irritation persists as strongly as ever. "That could be a woman," says an older gentleman with short grey hair and glasses, who bears a striking resemblance to his wife, also with short grey hair and glasses. "Yeah, right," she says. We all know what "Yeah, right" means. I've been here for a good half hour now, and Sacharoff's smile no longer seems creepy to me. Rather, it is challenging and fearless. It says: "Yeah, right, I couldn't give a toss what you think of me." What a cool guy.
Pauline Krätzig has no problem with men in women's clothing: her older brother dressed more than once as Frank N. Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Her father as a bathing belle.