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Dr. Carl Hagemann (1867-1940) was one of the most important private patrons of modern art in Germany during the period between the two world wars. He was particularly taken by Kirchner’s works and visited him several times in Davos. He purchased this painting in 1931. After his death in 1940, it remained in the possession of his family until 1952 and then had several equally honourable – not to say spectacular – owners. It was through the controversial actress and singer Pia Zadora, whose husband Meshulam Riklis had purchased the painting, that it even got into the pages of the rainbow press, which is something Kirchner’s paintings only very rarely achieve.
The people in this painting do indeed seem to belong to the chic set, and the main figure, the woman pianist, is indeed behaving in a very capricious manner. From the very beginning, the painting had triggered many a violent reaction. While being quite well disposed towards Kirchner, Ernst Gosebruch, the then director of the Folkwang Museum in Essen, did his utmost to belittle the painting after Carl Hagemann had bought it, as their correspondence shows.
The pianist’s pink, outstretched arms and disproportionately large, rake-like hands are the main colour component of the composition, as would naturally be the case with any woman pianist wearing a sleeveless dress. This singing pianist leans back, raises her head high and plays from her shoulders. Her whole body is broken down into fields of colour, merging with the surrounding, similarly structured figures to create a planar composition of shapes and colours, a composition that might easily be an abstract work of that period but for the fact that it is a precisely observed, representational depiction of a singer playing the piano and surrounded by her listeners. One sitting, the others standing, they listen to her with rapt attention, their overlapping shapes and colours together forming an integral whole. But Kirchner visualizes not only the piano playing, the singing and the listeners. He even renders visible the notes elicited from the piano via the black-and-white keys: two columns of hatched lines rising from the piano to different heights. This composition of colours and shapes is not just a fully-fledged work of its time – 1930 – but also anticipates the middle years of the decade, when the art historian Alfred H. Barr, in 1936, summed up this development in his “Cubism and Abstract Art”, and even the years beyond the Second World War, well into the 1950s. Indeed, the columns of hatched lines even anticipate the audio bar displays of the synthesizers used in modern sound recording studios.
It is hardly surprising that such a painting was controversial, and from the very beginning too. Kirchner considered it to be one of his best works and was proud of the fact that it was Carl Hagemann who had bought it. Hagemann obviously shared Kirchner’s opinion that the painting was an outstanding example of the “New Style”. However, this was not everyone’s view. After reading an inflammatory article by Klaus Graf von Baudessin on 2.10.1936, Kirchner wrote to Carl Hagemann and suggested that it might perhaps be better if Hagemann returned the painting to him, even suggesting how to send it: “Simply removed from its frame and rolled up in a tube.” But the painting remained Hagemann’s treasured possession and, after his death, was treasured just as much by his family. It was sold in 1952, most unwillingly, but the family was in need of money, as Carl Hagemann’s nephew, Hans Delfs, revealed.
The painting was first mentioned in a letter to Dr. Carl Hagemann dated 25th August 1931.