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Critic's Notebook

LACMA landed Kirchner's 'Dancer With Necklace' through skill, happenstance

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic
'Dancer With Necklace,' LACMA's new purchase, is a standout in '50 for 50' exhibition

Sometimes, perseverance pays off. Big time.

For nearly a quarter-century, a 1910 sculpture pivotal to the genesis of Modern art stood quietly on its pedestal in a gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, borrowed from a Pennsylvania private collection that could have recalled it at any time. It was on loan to the museum for 22 years.

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For the record, 12:15 p.m. April 24: An earlier version of this post misidentified the buyer of a different Kirchner sculpture sold at auction as Leonard Lauder. The buyer was Ronald Lauder.

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Suddenly last fall, the sculpture's status changed. The lender decided to sell.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's carved and painted wood "Dancer With Necklace" is the first fully realized, free-standing sculpture Kirchner made. A landmark in the history of German Expressionist art, its loss would have been a calamity.

But LACMA scrambled and bought it. Having negotiated a right of first refusal on any sale when the loan was made in 1993, the museum and the collector, whose identity has not been released, made a mutually beneficial agreement.

The good news arrives just in time for the museum's 50th anniversary. The sculpture is a standout in "50 for 50: Gifts on the Occasion of LACMA's Anniversary," an exhibition that's holding member previews this week and that opens to the public Sunday.

Collectors sometimes place art on museum loan to guarantee expert care from professionals — with umbrella insurance coverage thrown in to boot — for an asset whose value is monetary as well as artistic. When the time comes, often in the wake of death or divorce, the art can get whisked away to the salesroom and converted into cash.

These days, when the stratospheric art market beckons, museums often can't compete with deep-pocket private collectors. Even the word "modest" is too grandiose to describe LACMA's tiny acquisition endowments.

The price the museum paid for "Dancer With Necklace" has not been disclosed. But Kirchner sculptures are rare, especially from the critical decade he spent in Dresden, Germany, before moving to Berlin. The last time one came to auction — in London in 2006 — New York collector Ronald Lauder paid $2.7 million, more than four times the high estimate.

Slightly smaller than LACMA's nearly 2-foot-tall sculpture but carved the same year, the Lauder piece retains the architectural format of a caryatid, those female figures that hold aloft the entablature in classically inspired buildings. Kirchner wanted to be an artist, but partly to satisfy his conservative father he went to Dresden from small-town Bavaria to study a related but more practical field — architecture and engineering — at the city's Technical School.

Shaking off the caryatid form, the "Dancer" embodies his full conversion to art.

Kirchner was 29 or 30 when he started work on it. Mostly he had been painting, drawing and making woodcut prints.

With friends he originated the artists' group Die Brücke — the Bridge — and they frequented the city's Ethnographical Museum to learn from African and Oceanic art. Kirchner was especially smitten with sculpture from Cameroon and Palau, so he started to carve.

One thing he hoped to bridge was an unknown, thoroughly modern future and an ancient, equally unknown past that was different from the one European artists usually revered. Forget Classical Greece and Rome, where select standards of beauty had guided artists since the Renaissance. Die Brücke looked elsewhere.

Centuries of colonial adventuring had wreaked incalculable havoc abroad. But it had also opened eyes to untold riches in hitherto unknown forms and artistic potentials. Kirchner saw it in the museums, but he also saw its profound influence in the new Post-Impressionist, Fauve and Cubist art that was making its way to Germany from Paris.

His dancer's carving is rough. The surface painting, reminiscent of tribal decoration, is blunt. (The painted necklace has faded.) The form is stunningly complex.

Doris "Dodo" Grosse, Kirchner's 26-year-old girlfriend, might have been the sculpture's model, as she was for so many of his paintings. The dancer's body spirals upward, tight and coiled, one arm raised and the other lowered but both pressed to her sides.

The form is contained within the original contour of the cylindrical log, without additions. Like Michelangelo, who considered his sculptures as figures already contained within the marble block and now released, Kirchner "found" his forms within the wood.

The difference in material, however, is of profound significance. Michelangelo's powerful stone sculptures speak of eternal strife, Kirchner's of evanescent, ritual mystery. The painted wooden dancer exudes an animistic spirit, as if temporal nature is infused with conscious life. She's a modern totem.

Not long after he made it, Kirchner moved to Berlin. The sculpture was sold to an unidentified German collector.

Good thing too: With the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s, Kirchner was officially declared a degenerate artist. Hundreds of his works were destroyed, his spirit broken. In 1938, a month after turning 58, he committed suicide.

Only about 40 free-standing Kirchner sculptures survive. (LACMA's is just the fifth in an American museum; even the Museum of Modern Art in New York doesn't have one.) Kirchner depicted the generative "Dancer With Necklace" in a little 4-inch woodcut as the symbol for Die Brücke, but the sculpture wasn't seen again until 1983, when LACMA curator Stephanie Barron was organizing the first large museum survey of German Expressionist sculpture in the U.S.

As she was assembling research photographs, she explained in a recent interview, an assistant mentioned that parents of a Philadelphia friend had a "doll" in their house that looked a lot like the sculptures in the pictures. Skeptical, Barron asked for a photograph. A Polaroid was sent.

Kirchner was himself a prolific photographer, so Barron began searching through old books and catalogs. And suddenly there it was: On a pedestal in his cramped studio next to Sam, a black circus artist who often modeled for Kirchner, stood the dancer shown in the Polaroid.

A bit more searching, and there it was again: The totem appears in a 1911 pen and ink drawing of nude models lounging in Kirchner's studio, one seated on an African stool. The sculpture, soundly attributed for the first time, made its public debut in Barron's show.

In a strange turn of events, the family that owned the "doll" also owned a staged photograph of actors gathered around it. The sculpture was a prop in a 1919 Greenwich Village production of "Hobohemia," Sinclair Lewis' satirical play about American horror at unconventional lifestyles.

The play was a flop — "mounted without distinction," sniffed Heywood Broun in the New York Tribune — but the photo proved that the sculpture somehow came to America in the 'teens.

How, nobody knows. (Perhaps with a refugee from World War I?) But how it came to the family who sold it to LACMA is amusing.

The erstwhile doll was a wedding present from an unidentified employer to the family governess, herself a recent German immigrant trying to make her way in Pennsylvania. She passed it down to her children, a treasured heirloom with great sentimental value.

Until one day, LACMA came knocking. The sculpture's surprising journey over the century since Kirchner put down his chisel and paintbrush is a primer in curatorial skill, museum management smarts, enlightened private collecting and old-fashioned dumb luck.

Twitter: @KnightLAT

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

For the Record

April 24, 7:10 a.m.: This article was corrected to reflect the fact that Ronald Lauder, not Leonard Lauder, was the most recent buyer of a Kirchner sculpture at auction.

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