Kirchner’s Japanese Theatre is a strident and unnerving painting. The exotic subject and the garish colour capture our attention, but as viewers we are left unsure as to what the picture is about and whether we are witnesses to something peaceful or violent, innocent or highly charged. The theatrical setting is ambiguous and potentially confusing. The foreground seems to be a stage but there is also a view through a billowing curtain to another stage or backdrop beyond. The Japanese actors sweep across our line of sight but we struggle to interpret the details in the dazzling colour and animated brushwork – is the figure at the left holding a pipe or a dagger?
A heightening of tension and a sense of underlying menace are common to many forms of German expressionist art, and Kirchner was a master at creating unsettling images drawn from his experience of modern life. He had very little formal training in art but had studied to become an architect at the Technical College in Dresden. Shortly before his graduation in 1905 he switched from the world of design to visual art and, together with three fellow students, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, he formed an artists’ collective to practise and exhibit their art together. The name they chose for the group, Die Brücke (The Bridge), carried several associations: it conveyed their desire to cross into a new future for art, to link with other progressive artists across Europe and to bridge what they perceived as a gap between art and everyday life. They rejected prevailing artistic styles as sterile or exhausted and sought to rejuvenate art with new and more vigorous forms of expression.
Painted in about 1909, a few years after the formation of the Brücke group, Japanese Theatre is an excellent example of Kirchner’s early Expressionism. The world of the theatre, cabaret and circus provided a rich vein of subject matter for Kirchner and his colleagues. They were particularly attracted to the vitality and strangeness of non-Western performers, and in Dresden and Berlin they had access to a bewildering array of acts from across the world, from Javanese snake-charmers to Chinese jugglers. The exact inspiration for his Japanese Theatre is not known. There were several Japanese acting troupes touring across Europe during these years, apparently thrilling and perplexing audiences in equal measure with exotic performances, colourful dances and elaborate death scenes. The subject gave Kirchner licence to experiment with bold, non-naturalistic colour and to create a sketchy paint surface that seems to mimic the improvised quality of stage scenery. In the costumes of the foreground figures, swathes of red, yellow and pink are surrounded by outlines of boldly contrasting colours. The patterns of red and yellow are picked up again in the curtain and the smaller figure behind, while a splash of deep blue in the background heightens the dramatic impact of the surprising colour combinations.
Kirchner was an immensely talented yet vulnerable character. He suffered a physical and mental breakdown during the First World War from which he never fully recovered. He later painted over some of his earlier compositions, but in the case of our canvas he turned it over and, in about 1924, used the reverse for another composition showing a seated nude, a sculpture and a man, which is possibly a self-portrait.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.