I had never heard of Valeska Gert, but there was something about her pixyish face, with its rubbery, slightly bruised features that called to mind other clowns with melancholy overtones: Judy Garland as photographed in clown make-up by Richard Avedon, or Pagliaccio. A Sally Bowles meets Carolee Schneemann hybrid, Gert was a prominent figure in the cabaret life of 1920s Berlin and would go on to make a name for herself as an envelope-pushing performance artist who would be a muse for both the Dadaists and the Punks.
Gert was fearless, taking a provocative and anarchic approach to performing, using her body to confront societal conventions. Informed by Berlin’s cabaret scene and the nascent film industry, Gert developed a performance practice that combined theatre, dance, cinema, poetry and song. She loved burlesque and the grotesque, the marginal and the unexpected, incorporating all this into her performances.
Born Gertrud Valesca Samosch to a well to do Jewish family, Gert began taking dance lessons when she was nine. Acting classes would follow. World War I adversely affected her family's fortunes, forcing her to earn her own way. She joined a dance group and created revolutionary dances that were performed at various theaters around Berlin.
In the 1920s, she used dance to express such unconventional subjects as a traffic accident or an orgasm. Pause was performed at a movie theater during the interval when film reels were changed. Gert came onstage and literally just stood there doing nothing in an effort to showcase inactivity and silence amidst the chaos of modern life. It was revolutionary.
At the same time, Gert was also performing at Berlin's famous cabaret, Schall und Rauch (Sound and Smoke). She toured with her dances: Dance in Orange, Boxing, Circus, Japanese Grotesque, Death and Whore.
Gert appeared in several early films including G. W. Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and The Threepenny Opera (1931).
In 1933, Gert was banned from the German stage because she was Jewish. She left Germany and lived in London for a time where she worked both in theatre and film, including a role in the experimental short film, Pett and Pott.
Gert emigrated to the States in 1938, settling in New York. She supported herself by washing dishes and nude modeling. Cabaret remained a focus and in 1941, she opened Beggar Bar. Living Theater founders Julian Beck and Judith Malina worked for her, as did Jackson Pollack and Tennessee Williams.
Gert returned to Europe in 1947, spending time in Paris and Zurich. She returned to Berlin, opening the cabaret Hexenküche (Witch's Kitchen) in 1948. She moved to Sylt, an island in the Frisian Archipelago where she opened Ziegenstall (Goat Shed).
In 1965, Gert had a role in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. She also appeared in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day and Volker Schlöndorff’s Coup de Grace. In 1978 German film director Werner Herzog asked her to play the real estate broker Knock in his remake of Nosferatu. She died two weeks before filming began.
In 2010, Valeska Gert’s importance was finally acknowledged with Pause: the Art of Valeska Gert presented by the Berlin Museum for Contemporary Art, Hamburger Bahnhof.