Ernst Ludwig Kirchner



Material / Technique
Bildmaß 60 × 50,6 cm
Rahmenmaß 81,2 × 71,2 × 4 cm
Related Digital Projects
Related Albums
Acquisition details
Erworben 1971 als Schenkung von Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Zirkusszene, 1911, Öl auf Leinwand, Brücke-Museum, Gemeinfreies Werk
Object Reference
Rückseite von Kopf mit Pfeife

Exhibitions (selection)

Literature (selection)

  • Magdalena M. Moeller (Hg.), Brücke-Museum Berlin, Malerei und Plastik. Kommentiertes Verzeichnis der Bestände, Hirmer Verlag, München 2006.

  • Werner Murrer, Lisa Marei Schmidt und Daniel J. Schreiber (Hg.), UNZERTRENNLICH. Rahmen und Bilder der Brücke-Künstler, Ausst.-Kat. Brücke-Museum Berlin, Koenig Books, London 2020.


Nicht signiert (Signatur)
auf dem Bildträger: Kopf mit Pfeife (Bezeichnung)
auf dem Keilrahmen um 180° gedreht: E L Kirchner (Bezeichnung)
auf dem Rahmen um 90° gedreht: Kopf mit Pfeife (Bezeichnung)

Inventory Number
46/71 v

Catalog Number
Gordon 296 v

(Maria González Leal)

Commentary: The Supposed Orient and the Zirkusszene (Circus Scene)

When we look at a painting, we don’t merely see the painting. The way we see the painting is influenced by our social context. The exciting thing about it is that there will never be a collective, unanimous statement about a painting. The painting’s potential statements are as multi-dimensional as its viewers. These multidimensional interpretive possibilities can be further expanded if we consider painters and their intentions. And the way we think about them is likewise influenced by our social context. The question of one true meaning is thus obsolete.

When we look at depictions of the Orient, we do not see an “objective” depiction of the Orient. We see a version of it as it was imagined or experienced by painters. Thus it is also important to know: Who are the painters, where do they come from, when did they live, what class do they belong to, etc.? We can also infer painters’ political and socio-cultural attitudes from their works: What are their views on gender relations or regarding gender, race, class, bodies, etc.?

In the “best possible sense,” this painting is a caricature of the East and its people. Another potential interpretation is that the Eurocentric-colonial voyeurism towards the Orient becomes painfully evident and clearly legible here. This depends on the position we adopt when considering the painting. We can presume that the painters are white and act as the observers of this “scene.” Conversely, we do not see depictions of white people. We see a group of men of colour and the caricature of a woman. The men in red robes with long black beards stand in a menacing circle. The woman has unnaturally white skin. It recalls theatrical white powder or make-up on a Black woman’s skin. The Black woman seems to be a dancer. She is wearing a blue miniskirt reminiscent of bananas, which inevitably brings to mind the image of Josephine Baker dancing. A man turns away from the scene with his whole body. His look is one of disapproval. It could be that he disapproves of the dancer or the fact that the dancer is Black.

Let’s recall the title of this painting: Zirkusszene (Circus Scene). We go to the circus to be entertained by clowns and marvel at exo***/rare animals. But who is supposed to be entertained and who is supposed to be marvelled at in this painting?! The painter shows us a circus in the East, where men watch women dance instead of animals or clowns. The moralistic, patronizing gaze of an allegedly culturally superior society is one of this painting’s themes. White colonial culture creates “the Orient.” It creates an artificial culture and people who live only in the imagination: mystical, frivolous, distant, unknown, aggressive… other.

But let’s get back to the dancer. The dancer’s depiction is no less disturbing. Her skin is an unnatural white. A kind of black-facing of a Black woman so that non-Black people can identify her as Black. Her features strongly evoke white people’s idea of Black women. And the depiction of her body is highly reminiscent of depictions of Sarah Baartman. Interestingly, both Black women perform the function of entertaining other (often white) people. And, in most cases, they can be bought for money. The dancer adopts a pleading posture, and the way she is painted robs her of her dignity. The hierarchisation of people based on colour – skin colour – constantly plays out here, like a film in the background. This perspective on people’s value has endured to the present day: white men, then men of colour, and then Black women. Even back then, the painting already visualized the importance of an intersectional approach. A Black woman’s body only exists to satisfy the needs of others. The Black woman is made into a kind of thing – something whose value can be determined by a price, something that has no inherent dignity of its own. Her positioning in the painting says everything about her social status – she is the dregs of society.

Paintings can be violent. They are not created separately from their time and political or geographical contexts. Zirkusszene (Circus Scene) shows how art was and is one of the biggest propaganda machines in Germany, white spaces and society at large. A tool that legitimizes violence by claiming that there are inherently specific “differences” between people. This painting shows us a society’s zeitgeist that is still widespread and far from over.

(Sydney ) Interview
(Maria González Leal )
Commentary: The Supposed Orient and the Zirkusszene (Circus Scene)
(Noah Sow )
(Elena Schroll )
About the Work
(Nadine ) Violent porn
(Nadine ) Museums
(Nadine ) Gaze
(Nadine ) Being sexualized
(Nadine ) Trigger warning
(Princela ) Foreground
(Princela ) Everyday life
(Princela ) Begging
(Princela ) Secret
(Nadine ) Workshop Reflection