The visual unity of the canvas was transposed into a quest for scenographic unity. The figures move like marionettes through lights that change to the rhythm of the sounds, in front of a decor described as planes of color.

So words are used here to serve a musical function.

Oskar Schlemmer — For Oscar Wilde is right when he says that when the critics squabble the artist can be at peace with himself. The recipe the Bauhaus Theater follows is very simple: one should be as free of preconceptions as possible ; one should act as if the world had just been created ; one should not analyze a thing to death, but rather let it unfold gradually and without interference. One should be simple, but not puritanical (“Simplicity is a noble concept!”). One should rather be primitive than over-elaborate or pompous ; one should not be sentimental ; one should be sensitive and intelligent. That says everything – and nothing! Furthermore: one should start with the fundamentals. Well, what does that mean? One should start with a dot, a line, a bare surface: the body. One should start with the simple, existing colors: red, blue, yellow, black, white, gray. One should start with the materials, learn to feel the differences in texture among such materials as glass, metal, wood and so on, and one should let these perceptions sink in until they are part of one. One should start with space, its laws and its mysteries, and let oneself be “captivated” by it. This again says a great deal – or it says nothing, if these words and concepts are not felt and made reality. One should start with one’s physical state, with the fact of one’s own life, with standing and walking, leaving leaping and dancing for much later. For taking a step is a grave event, and no less so raising a hand, moving a finger. One should have deep respect and deference for any action performed by the human body, especially on the stage, that special realm of life and illusion, that second reality in which everything is surrounded with the nimbus of magic…
All these are the precepts one should follow! They will lead, if not to the key, at least to the keyhole to the riddle which the Bauhaus Theater seemingly poses.

T. Lux Feininger,* Oskar Schlemmer as Musical Clow*n, b/w photograph, c. 1927. Collection Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin. - © Oracles: Artists’ Calling Cards

T. Lux Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer as Musical Clown, b/w photograph, c. 1927. Collection Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin.

Oskar Schlemmer,
“Diary May 1929”, The Letters and Diaries of Oskar Schlemmer ; Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 1972
(Passage quoted in extenso)

Véronique Borgeaud — In 1908, back in Munich after a long voyage to Europe and North Africa in the company of Gabriele Münter, Wassily Kandinsky moved into an apartment at 36 Ainmillerstrasse in Schwabing, the artists’ quarter of Munich, where he lived till the war broke out in 1914. From 1908 to 1912, alongside his pictorial explorations, he conceived a singular form of hybrid artwork: a series of Bühnenkompositionen, compositions for the stage combining sound, color and movement, whose principles were set out in his first theoretical writings, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). These four “color-tone dramas” were titled The Yellow Sound, The Green Sound, Black and White and The Black Figure. Russian composer Thomas von Hartmann, whom he had met in Munich in 1909, wrote the music to some of them.
Color plays the leading role in these compositions, and actors without assigned parts embody colors with human voices (colors are living beings to Kandinsky). The figures move like marionettes through lights that change to the rhythm of the sounds, in front of a decor described as planes of color. The sound is emitted “either by the human voice (unarticulated or articulated in words of lyric poetry) or by musical instruments”. So words are used here to serve a musical function. According to the artist, the spoken word creates an atmosphere “to make the soul receptive”.
In his 1908–1909 preface to this set of stage compositions, Kandinsky proposes the idea of combining sound, color and movement on stage in a manner modeled on musical composition. In the first scoring of the third composition, Black and White (1908–1909), he describes the movements of the figures, the actors. Their minimalistic gestures and colored garments serve solely to highlight the colors moving on stage, in harmony or disharmony with the music :

I. [sketch]
Clouds [?] moving
II. [sketch]
Black and white walk. Many walk around (rhythmically). Then from left, freeze in walking position. About-face slowly, arms hanging, spread wide. Women (white) walking behind FLTR. Same thing upon stopping. (Sound of a horn, very brief). Silence, only moving clouds.

The fourth and final composition of his tetralogy, Black Figure
(1908–1909), is a staging of the sound produced by human voices. Music is absent from this composition. The voices emit sounds that are “sometimes veiled by mysterious words and sometimes used solely to product a direct effect on the spectator’s soul”. The first tableau in this composition is a series of words spoken by the characters, each voice being of a specified timbre:

Tableau I.
On stage eight figures in costumes of various colors. They are stationary. The voices have various timbres musically tuned to one another.
Figure 5: “Full… full…” (mezzo voice)
Figure 7: “Depth” (bass voice)
Figure 8: “No sound” (toneless voice, mezzo)
Figure 4: “Razor-sharp striving” (high-pitched female voice)
Figure 6: “Tense quavering” (contralto)
Figure 1: “Wholesome living” (tenor)
Figure 2: “And deep fervor” (bass)
(The orange crescent moon, reddening bottom right, goes down slowly, on a slant, stage right)
Figure 8: “No tone, no sound”
Figure 2: “Hidden word”Tutti (drawing out the words, not loudly): “Who built it ?”

Thanks to the publication of The Yellow Sound in Der Blaue Reiter Almanach in 1912, this first composition for the stage came to be known and appreciated by a large number of Kandinsky’s contemporaries. The Viennese composer and painter Arnold Schönberg, who also contributed to the almanac, was much taken with the text and hoped to see it staged in order to assess its impact. Hugo Ball, artistic adviser to Munich’s Kammerspiele theater at the time and a great admirer of Kandinsky’s work, was planning to stage a first production of Yellow Sound as well as his other composition for the stage, Violet (written in 1914 and revised by Kandinsky in 1926). This pre-Dadaist work moved away from the others to include elements of the absurd and humor. The scenes and the action are more realistic, and the words are given more prominence, even if they convey nonsense. But color, the chief element of these compositions, is present throughout Violet from the very first tableau:

Tableau I.
Plain yellow dirty gray backdrop. White floor. In the middle of the rear wall is a small door covered with a violet curtain. In the corners, two horrid fake palm trees. The wings [of the stage] are decked out in tacky red velvet fringed with gold.

These stage compositions, a novel kind of theater “designed to immerse the spectator (whose participation is required) in a total artwork”, were not performed in the artist’s lifetime.

Jessica Boissel (ed.)
Kandinsky: du théâtre = Über das Theater = o Teatpe, Paris, Adam Biro, 1998

Christian Derouet, Jessica Boissel (eds.)
Kandinsky: Œuvres de Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Paris, Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 1984

Angela Lampe — We do not know much about this unusual Paul Klee card. According to Klee expert Stefan Frey, the graphic design shows various features of a card used by the artist back in 1906 in Munich, whereas the writing on the back more likely refers to the period around 1930. The addressee remains unknown. We do not even know whether the two blue blotches that frame Klee’s name are accidents, or brushstrokes or fingerprints deliberately left by the artist. Klee’s remark on the back of the card Sam(m)eln aus Liebe und in Bezug auf das Geistige ist eine gute Sache (Collecting for love and with regard to the spiritual is a good thing), doesn’t help us very much. The two amorphous dabs of paint at the beginning and end of his name, by dint of their size and shapes, could punning on the colloquial word for quotation marks: Gänsefüsschen (literally: “little goose feet”) – or here rather its prints. But Klee takes the association to another level: the splashes of blue are related to the spiritual realm. Which in turn suggests the card was written at a time when the Bauhaus professor was more deeply immersed in spiritual currents. First of all, he was close to Wassily Kandinsky, whose groundbreaking book Über das Geistige in der Kunst, Insbesondere in der Malerei (Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Especially in Painting) came out in Munich in December 1911, only two months after he had met Klee, who was living only a few houses away from him. The Russian artist gave Klee a copy of his book with the inscription “Meinem lieben Freund Paul Klee, herzlichst Kandinsky” (To my dear friend Paul Klee, sincerely, Kandinsky). The resounding success of the book, reprinted twice in a single year, could not have escaped Klee’s attention, although the color symbolism developed by Kandinsky – blue was the color of spiritual profundity – probably did not concern him much yet as he was working mostly in graphic design. In his book, Kandinsky stresses the importance of Helena P. Blavatsky’s writings and the establishment of the Theosophical Society, which had ushered in the spiritual transformation he advocated. Kandinsky is also known to have attended lectures by Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner and possessed a copy of the first German edition (1908) of Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater’s Thought Forms, in which auratic apparitions and states of mind are represented by colored figures (a blue cloud, for example, corresponds to a vague religious sensation).

Klee’s interest in spiritual matters, however, seems to have been aroused later. It was not until 1917, in the middle of World War I, while clerking at the Royal Bavarian Flight School in Gersthofen, that he took a closer look at Steiner’s teachings. He wrote to his wife Lily : “This morning I read something in the Steiner book, it is actually pleasant reading. Want to see if we can be converted ?” (Letter to Lily Klee Oct. 8, 1917). Two days later he complained to her about Steiner’s longwindedness, “If only it were all said more briefly,” though admitting “some of what’s written reinforces our own insights. […] It gives form to certain inner nebulae, and out of form, manifold variations (works) can be created.” Klee is presumed to have read Steiner’s Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos. The more he read, however, the more skeptical he became. A few days later he noted : “An introductory course in Theosophy ? ? ? I admit there is a great deal of spirituality about it, but still far more nonsense and things that cannot be universally valid. Some aspects of the chromatic phenomena described even seem suspect to me. I don’t mean to say there’s any humbug involved, but the believers are being tricked all the same. The chromatics is inadequate, and the hints about the formal structure are downright funny. […] Also suspect is the psychological side of the ‘training’. It uses suggestion. […] Naturally I only read part of the book because after a while, with all its truisms, it becomes insufferable.”
The ironic levity with which Klee assigns plain blue smudges of paint on a calling card to the spiritual realm once again points up his independence from trends and theories. So he must have been all the more incensed when after the war he was associated with the occult in order to torpedo his reputation at the Stuttgart Academy. In spite of Oskar Schlemmer and Willi Baumeister’s efforts on his behalf, Klee’s application for a teaching post was turned down on the grounds of his purported proximity to Theosophy, to which, driven by “fashionable considerations and dilettantish fantasy”, he had allegedly converted. Ever since Kandinsky, Expressionism had come to be conflated with Theosophy. Schlemmer then produced a flyer with a quote from a letter Klee had written him setting the record straight : “I have never messed about with Theosophy.”

Felix Klee (ed.)
Paul Klee, Briefe an die Familie 1893–1940, Cologne, M. DuMont Schauberg, 1979

Osamu Okuda
“‘Diesseitig bin ich gar nicht fassbar’: Paul Klee und die Esoterik” ; Das Bauhaus und die Esoterik, Hamm, Gustav Lübcke Museum, 2005

Corine Pencenat — The lettering on Fernand Léger’s business card recalls the exercise books children used in the early 20th century to learn how to write. It was a standardized learning process designed to foster a simple, elegant hand and neutralize, if possible, any expression of personality. Fernand Léger’s choice of a printed card reflects his natural humility. The business card was not the medium through which he sought to distinguish himself. The calligraphy is all in italics but expresses the rapidity and importance, underscored by the extension of the last letter, of the offer of a box at the theater. The initials on the left would have come in handy when presenting the card… in all likelihood at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. We know Léger was active not only in painting, but also in motion pictures and the performing arts.
The card is addressed to Robert Delaunay, with the name Paul Guillaume penciled on the back. I would discount the possibility, however plausible, that it was Paul Guillaume, the psychologist who introduced Gestalt theory in France, and bet instead on his namesake, the art collector who died in 1934. So the invitation could only be for a play Fernand Léger worked on prior to that date, and in a theater that actually had boxes. This is why I suppose it was the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where the Ballets Suédois staged two productions, Skating Rink in 1922 and La Création du Monde (The Creation of the World) in 1923, though there was no denying the success of the Ballets Russes that Diaghilev had brought to Paris.

Yvan Goll,* Les Cercles Magique*s, Paris, Falaize, 1951; cover by Fernand Léger. Collection Museum of Mistakes, Brussels. Photograph copyright Fabrice Schneider. Copyright Succession Fernand Léger, Paris. © 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich - © Oracles: Artists’ Calling Cards

Yvan Goll, Les Cercles Magiques, Paris, Falaize, 1951; cover by Fernand Léger. Collection Museum of Mistakes, Brussels. Photograph copyright Fabrice Schneider. Copyright Succession Fernand Léger, Paris. © 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich

The Ballets Suédois got started when the Russian dancer and choreographer Michael Fokine left the Ballets Russes. He trained their choreographer, Jean Börlin, so the same aesthetic principles prevailed. I think it safe to say both companies’ productions really did accomplish the Gesamtkunstwerk, the synthesis of the arts to which Wagner had aspired. The ethical, even mystical, dimension with which Wagner sought to endow his “total artwork” was reinterpreted by the Symbolist artists and by Le Monde de l’art, the art review directed by Diaghilev, though they retained his concept of art as salvation. Unlike the painters Wagner called in, those recruited by Diaghilev were fully-fledged exponents of an avant-garde bent on liberating pictorial representation from its imitative function. Music, painting and choreography, accorded equal importance, conspired to form a whole that was tied together by the action. The human form took on an ornamental aspect, accentuating the flatness of the painted backdrops. By bringing together the most contemporary artists of the day, the Russians and Swedes succeeded where, at least in terms of painting, Wagner had missed the mark. His set designers produced overblown, even academic, backdrops that were a century behind the current developments in avant-garde art. The Ballets Russes, followed by the Ballets Suédois, turned the stage into a tableau vivant.
Fernand Léger was an admirer of Diaghilev, specifically of his ability to integrate the human body into the decor through costumes and movement, building a unified, organic whole, whose mechanical precision was the yardstick of perfection for the 1920s painter. The visual unity of the canvas was transposed into a quest for scenographic unity. For Skating Rink (music by Arthur Honegger, libretto by Riciotto Canudo), which depicts a modern world in which masses of men and women meet, mix and separate, “The problem is to achieve a visual whole without thereby destroying the fellow’s realistic value. A possible and overall rapport has to be found between two contrary values : a semi-realistic character and a purely imaginary pictorial backdrop. We have a form that might allow for more variety, more picturesque, but we lose in visual unity on account of a human measure that’s too realistic […]. This human measure, as I have said, is the obstacle to attaining the level of grandeur […].” (Autour des Ballets/1, unpublished manuscript, Musée Fernand Léger, Biot).
The Symbolist acceptance of the effectiveness of art on stage involved effacing the actor’s presence in favor of an “android” (Maeterlinck) or “super-puppet” (Craig) concept. Although far from espousing such an approach to the function of art, the painter nonetheless espoused a monumental and unified conception of scenic space. Eradicating the physical presence of man in favor of a visual presence meant championing the “spectacle value” of the show and rivaling modern life, in which the eye had become “the primary organ with a thousand responsibilities”. The production as a whole – sets and costumes elaborated in pure solid colors –, unified by movements inspired by gliding on the ice, eliminated any irregularities. Cocteau considered this last characteristic of period paintings, which were seldom well received by the public, and of this ballet, which met with a better reception, detrimental on the stage of a theater.
The date written on Léger’s card, February 29, corresponds to this particular production. La Création du Monde did not premiere until October 25, 1923, whereas Skating Rink had already opened on January 20, 1922. The six theatergoers in the box might well have been the Delaunays, Léger accompanied by Jeanne, Paul Guillaume and his wife. That same spring, Robert Delaunay had an exhibition in Guillaume’s gallery. The collector had canvases by Modigliani, Soutine, van Dongen and Marie Laurencin, which are now at the Musée de l’Orangerie. Did he enjoy the show and pick up a painting by Léger, or was he put off by this other modernity that reduced humanity to a component of a visual spectacle ? That would be another story…

Christian Derouet, Isabelle Monod-Fontaine et al.
Fernand Léger, Paris, Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 1997

Christophe Wavelet — In the vaults of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, preserved in a transparent sleeve, is this precious handwritten visiting card. Its sender, François Marie Martinez Picabia, was forty-one years old at the time. Barely two years younger, its recipient, Fernand Léger, replied by return post informing him that he was “absent from Paris”.
Their friendship began in 1911, at a time when the Section d’Or (Golden Section) group became interested in the theories of mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincaré and non-Euclidiean geometry, as well as the wonderful work of fiction Voyage au pays de la quatrième dimension (Journey to the Land of the Fourth Dimension) by Gaston de Pawlowski. Archipenko, Kupka, Gleizes, Gris, Metzinger and their friends would gather at the home of Jacques Villon and his two brothers in Puteaux, a suburb of Paris situated on the left bank of the Seine. Cubism’s constellation of works and geographic reach continued to expand, from Rome to Amsterdam and from Geneva to Brussels, before winning over New York where Duchamp, Picabia and Léger shared in the considerable success of the Armory Show in 1913.

However, when this “voucher for one free entry” – the equivalent of a theatre or concert ticket – reached Léger’s home, the collective hope for a mathematics of Cubism was more or less over. While, from February 5–28, 1919, the Galerie de l’Effort Moderne had presented the first one-man show of Léger’s recent works, Picabia was driving around in a brand new Mercer he’d just had shipped over from New York. He had not exhibited anything in Paris since 1914 so he took advantage of the Salon d’Automne, held at the Grand Palais from November 1 to December 10, 1919, to present four new paintings. He now opposed the deliberate reification of his pre-1914 works of Orphic Cubism with mechanomorphic drawings he had purposefully and repeatedly made since 1915. He also published the first Parisian issue of 391, the magazine he founded in 1917 and would continue to publish until 1924.
The day that the postal service forwarded his note to Léger’s studio, Picabia no longer lived at the address shown on his visiting card. The vast apartment located at 3 avenue Charles-Floquet, a tree-lined artery in the 7th arrondissement of Paris that runs parallel to the Champ de Mars and next to the Tour Eiffel, was now only occupied by his spouse Gabrielle Buffet and their four children, including Vicente, born on the September 15, 1919. Marcel Duchamp stayed in Paris from August to December, and found both board and lodging there, as well as Gabrielle’s continued friendship. Picabia was now residing in an apartment he shared with journalist Germaine Everling at 14 rue Émile-Augier (today rue Jean-Richepin), in the 16th arrondissement. Having met in 1917, his new partner also gave birth to a child, Lorenzo, on the January 5, 1920. On that same day, a twenty-four-year-old André Breton arrived unannounced. He had come to urge his elder to contribute to Littérature, the magazine he had founded with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault.
Twelve days later, a tiny paleo-punk with a monocle and a Romanian accent moved in to this very same apartment ; his name, with its dental fricatives, crackled like a taunt : Tristan Tzara. Picabia had met him a year earlier at the Kunsthaus Zurich, during the Das Neue Leben, Erste Austellung. They had exchanged an abundance of letters from 1918, before actually meeting after Picabia – who had come first to Bex then to Bégnins to treat a depressive episode – published in Switzerland three of Tzara’s collections in a row : Poèmes et dessins de la fille née sans mère, followed by L’athlète des pompes funèbres then Râteliers platoniques. Tzara wrote to express his admiration, then offered to collaborate on the magazine Dada – which he did.
At once an actor, a theoretician and a propagandist for the movement that emerged in the spring of 1916 out of the activities of the Cabaret Voltaire, located at the Spiegelgasse in Zurich, it was his dazzling Dada Manifesto 1918 that truly brought Tzara to the attention of his Parisian counterparts. Because his prose was seen as endowed with the gift of immediately withering what only yesterday would have passed for being highly subversive, he was welcomed as a new Rimbaud. Some were amazed, others irritated. In its September 1919 issue, the Nouvelle Revue Française took the Dada movement to task. Tzara gave a counter response the following December in the columns of the magazine founded by his exact contemporary and future rival, Breton. With this done, Paris could now witness the start of what Aragon would call the “Dada Season”.
The spring of 1920 would see a regular succession of events put on by the movement. First, on the February 5 for the Salon des Indépendants at the Grand Palais ; then on the February 7 at the Club du Faubourg ; and then an event on the March 27, held at La Maison de l’Œuvre in the Salle Berlioz – which Fernand Léger did not attend –, that opened its doors at 8.15 pm, just as Picabia’s handwritten note had specified. This latter event was located at 3 cité Monthiers, not far from 55 rue de Clichy in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, where a scandal had already been provoked by the premiere of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu roi on the December 10, 1896. Orchestrated by Tzara, who intended to re-create, in the manner of the Cabaret Voltaire, this collusion between stage and audience so typical of traveling theatres, the event comprised three parts and counted nineteen performers. Ticket prices went from 3 to 20 francs, and it is still a mystery what rules were applied, whether conventional or not, in establishing the pricing pyramid that night. Only Musidora (the unforgettable Irma Vep in Feuillade’s Vampires, the first film “series” in the history of French cinema), Marguerite Buffet (pianist and Gabrielle’s cousin) and Hania Routchine (opera singer at the Vaudeville theatre) were professional performers. All the others (artists and poets) performed as amateurs offering a variety of delights. Six Dada manifestos were presented to the audience that night, penned by Picabia, Ribemont-Dessaignes, Soupault, Tzara, Aragon and Éluard. Various sketches, mini-dramatizations, monologues and other musical interventions were mixed together. Tzara played himself in his Première aventure céleste de monsieur Antipyrine (The First Heavenly Adventure of Mr. Antipyrine), while Breton read out Picabia’s Manifeste cannibale (Cannibal Manifesto) saddled with a sandwich board :

You are all indicted, stand up!
It is impossible to talk to you unless
you are standing up.
Stand up as you would for the Marseillaise or God Save the King.

Stand up, as if the Flag were before you. Or as if you were in the presence of Dada, which signifies Life, and which accuses you of loving everything out of snobbery if only it is expensive enough.

One dies a hero’s death or an idiot’s death – which comes to the same thing. The only word that has more than
a day-to-day value is the word Death.
You love death – the death of others.

Kill them! Let them die! Only money does not die ; it only goes away for a little while.

That is God! That is someone to respect: someone you can take seriously!
Money is the prie-Dieu of entire families. Money forever! Long live money!
The man who has money is a man of honor.

Honor can be bought and sold like
the arse. The arse, the arse, represents life like potato-chips, and all you
who are serious-minded will smell
worse than cow’s shit.

Dada alone does not smell:
it is nothing, nothing, nothing.
It is like your hopes: nothing
like your paradise: nothing
like your idols: nothing
like your heroes: nothing
like your artists: nothing
like your religions: nothing.

Hiss, shout, kick my teeth in, so what?
I shall still tell you that you are half-wits. In three months my friends and
I will be selling you our pictures for a few francs.

Accompanied by Brancusi and Cendrars, Léger attended the Dada Festival, held at the Salle Gaveau, on Wednesday May 26 at 3 pm. Gleizes and Metzinger were also there. For this last event of the Season – as he prepared to say his goodbyes the following year to a movement he would rather not see shipwrecked in the brackish waters of a new academism – Picabia, much wealthier than most of his Dadaist friends, had signed the venue’s rental contract and secured half the funding. In the theatre, chroniclers of the day would recognize André Gide, Paul Valéry, Jacques Copeau and Jules Romains, from the Nouvelle Revue Française  ; as well as Rachilde (author of the astonishing work Monsieur Vénus) and Paul Léautaud, from the Mercure de France literary magazine. A veritable social event, the audience also counted the American lesbian writer Nathalie Clifford Barney and couturier Paul Poiret, among others. Picabia’s La nourrice américaine was played, the only musical composition he ever authored, which is made up of “three notes repeated ad infinitum” – similar to the colorful works he would create over and over again in the last years of his life.

Marc Dachy
Dada & les dadaïsmes: rapport sur l’anéantissement de l’ancienne beauté, Paris, Gallimard, 2011

Francis Picabia
Écrits critiques, Paris, Mémoire du livre, 2005

Arnauld Pierre
Francis Picabia: la peinture sans aura, Paris, Gallimard, 2002

Michel Sanouillet
Dada à Paris, Paris, Flammarion, 1993

Christiane Mühlegger — The following extracts are from “Im Spiegel”, an autobiographical piece by Emil Pirchan (b. 1884 in Brno, d. 1957 in Vienna) in the Brünner Tagesbote newspaper of June 23, 1935, and his CV (c. 1951, from the partial estate of Emil Pirchan in the Steffan-Pabst Collection, Vienna).

Emil Pirchan — In the beautiful month of May […] I saw the light of day in Brünn’s Alleegasse [Brünn was in Moravia, Austria-Hungary. It is now Brno, Czech Republic. […]. I grew up amongst my father’s paint tubes and paintings, illustrated at the age of seven a storybook I had written myself, and I have been alternating back and forth between painting and writing ever since! My first time at the theater, Sleeping Beauty, I cried out so adamantly towards the stage that the princess had better be careful and not prick her finger on the spindle that I had to be dragged out of the auditorium. Since then I have been smitten with the theater as a credulous spectator, then as a devoted collaborator.
An autobiography written at the age of eight begins : “My father is a painter and professor of drawing, my mother an ordinary housewife.” I painted watercolors under my father’s guidance, secretly executed an architectural design at fourteen years of age, showing… a theater.
At the Vienna Academy, under Otto Wagner, amid the clash over art, modernity, the Secession, the disciple naturally admired and worshipped the master, the painter Klimt, Uncle Josef Hoffmann with his new Wiener Werkstätte [a design collective (1903–32) established by architect/designer Hoffmann and artist Koloman Moser], the whole effervescent circle around Ver Sacrum [official magazine (1893–1903) of the Vienna Secession] and the Hohe Warte [a Viennese artists’ colony designed by Hoffmann].

Meanwhile, thrilling experiences at the Burgtheater : Sonnenthal, Kainz, Reimers, Baumeister, Bleibtreu, Rettich [prominent members of the Burgtheater ensemble at the time]. And at the opera : Mahler-Roller’s Don Giovanni. […] Came home to Brünn with awards and traveling scholarships from the academy. Two high school drawing instructors sought to kindle their pupils’ feel for ornamentation by having them design their own (as opposed to drawing plaster casts as in the past). […]
Impelled to new pursuits, I fled to Munich. Honed my art through practical commissions, which were plentiful in Germany after the 1908 industrial exhibition. Did commercial graphic design, from appetizing goose liver pâté packaging to novel posters that soon spread throughout Germany and abroad. Collaborated productively with Viktor Oppenheimer from Brünn : applied arts, buildings, furniture. Collective exhibitions of over a thousand works at applied arts museums in Stuttgart, Cologne, Mannheim, Zurich, Hamburg etc.
And the Moderne Galerie in Munich held a special exhibition of… set designs. […] Founded my own art school in Munich, but it was soon stifled by the war. Reported for duty to the Brünn army regiment, did military service in Schwaz and Hall.
Returned to Munich, no more commissions in wartime. Wrote a novel, Der zeugende Tod, a play, Weinwunder, and Das Teufelselixier. Plenty of copies were printed despite the unfavorable times, the boldly launched bibliophile magazine for art and literature Eos was soon sold out by subscription !
Appointed director of set and costume design at Munich National Theater right after the war by the theater manager Schwanneke, who remembered that show at the Moderne Galerie, I came up with a completely new type of set for the premiere of Grabbe’s Hannibal. […] Jessner, having been appointed theater manager in Berlin, noticed the evolving innovations, the problematic intention, and telegraphed : “PLEASE SEND ME HANNIBAL ARTIST.” Dove headlong into Berlin with the William Tell stairs made famous by the theater scandal. […] Marquis von Keith, Othello, Josephs Legende were then undisputed successes in the theater metropolis ; when the curtain rose on Schreker’s Schatzgräber, applause for the set broke out spontaneously although the orchestra was playing, which had not happened yet at the Berlin State Opera.

Emil Pirchan, set designer forthe Staatstheater Berlin, modeling character masks, 1923. Photograph by A. Frankl. Courtesy of Teilnachlass Emil Pirchan, Sammlung Steffan-Pabst, Vienna. - © Oracles: Artists’ Calling Cards

Emil Pirchan, set designer forthe Staatstheater Berlin, modeling character masks, 1923. Photograph by A. Frankl. Courtesy of Teilnachlass Emil Pirchan, Sammlung Steffan-Pabst, Vienna.

I worked on hundreds of sets – with all the decors, costumes, props, lighting – as director of set and costume design at the three – later four – Berlin state theaters, as well as for almost all the other major Berlin theaters, too, […] as well as in New York, Buenos Aires, Helsingfors ; in Vienna (State Opera), Zurich, Cologne, Breslau, Prague – only not… at the German Theater in Brünn !! Nemo propheta in patria sua!! (No man is a prophet in his own land.)
Put out a novel, Pyramide, a collection of novellas, Mensualströme, a “guide to Faust”, a “guide to the Bible” and a volume of essays, Die lebende Stadt. My Chinese play Gong premiered in Magdeburg to great acclaim […] Der zeugende Tod was adapted for the screen : I designed the sets and acted in it myself ; other big films followed. Directing Cˇ apek’s Insect Play myself, my dream of successfully uniting set design and directing came true…
The 1932 economic crisis brought all my other plans to a halt. In March 1932 I accepted Dr. Egers’s suggestion that I go to Prague as director of set and costume design at the German Theater and as a professor at the Academy of Performing Arts with my own department of set design…
I have designed the decor and costumes for over four hundred operas, operettas, ballets, large-scale revues and plays on 36 stages […]. […] Thanks to my many lectures on scenography in most German cities and essays in the leading newspapers, my renown lived on in Germany after I moved to Vienna in 1936, where I founded and ran the Master School of Set Design at the Academy of Performing Arts. My pupils now work at eighteen different theaters in Austria and abroad. I have published twenty-six books about theater and art, […] one work on Bühnenmalerei (Scene painting) is in widespread use as a textbook, and my book about Maskenmachen und Schminken (Mask-making and makeup) came out in February 1951.

Emil Pirchan
“Im Spiegel”, Brünner Tagesbote, June 23, 1935, unpublished
(Passage quoted in extenso, our translation)