April 5, 1892 – Sebastian Dorste
In 1925 in New York City, dancer Sebastian Droste met Francis Bruguière (1879 – 1945) a photographer from San Francisco, and together they composed over 60 photographs for a project they titled The Way, part of the promotional material for a proposed Expressionist film starring Droste. The film never got made, but Droste sent a handful of the stills to Die Dame magazine with an article titled Photography As Art: Remarks on Recent Photographs by Francis Bruguière. Bruguière made his living photographing for Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar and as the official photographer of the New York Theatre Guild.
Droste is rarely remembered anymore except in the context of his brief collaboration with Weimar, Berlin’s most notorious cabaret performer.
He was born Willy Knobloch in Hamburg in 1898. His father owned a silk-stocking factory in Chemnitz, and Droste lived a privileged life growing-up. As a teenager he attended an art school where he excelled in languages and dance.
He was drafted into the army in 1915 and fought on the Western Front. When he turned 27-years-old in 1919, he moved to Berlin and changed his name to Sebastian Droste. He was hired by Celly De Rheidt as a lead dancer in her cabaret show Dance Of Beauty. He became a moderately successful ”naked” dancer, choreographer and poet. His first poem appeared in Der Sturm magazine in 1919, which published 15 more of his pieces in the following years.
He took the name of the near-naked, arrow-pierced saint whose martyrdom he burlesqued in his stage act. In costume or as a civilian, he embodied a dark, calculated glamour inspired the nightmarish contemporary expressionistic German cinema. His drug taking was the greatest factor in the success or failure of a any given night’s performance of his stage act.
In the summer of 1922, he met the decadent, androgynous Anita Berber; both were fame hungry cocaine addicts. Berber’s hair was fashionably cut into a short bob and was frequently bright red, seen in the 1925 portrait of her by the German painter Otto Dix.
Droste was skinny and had black hair with gelled up curls that looked like sideburns. In their act neither of them wore much more than G-strings, or even that, and Berber occasionally wore a corsage, placed below her boobs. She wore heavy make-up with jet black lipstick painted across the heart-shaped part of her skinny lips, and charcoaled eyes.
Their dances, with titles such as Cocaine and Morphium, broke boundaries with their androgyny and total nudity, but it was their public appearances that really challenged the social taboos of the era. Their bisexuality was much gossiped about. In addition to cocaine, opium and morphine, one of the pair’s favorite forms of inebriation was chloroform and ether mixed in a bowl, stirred with a white rose, the petals of which they would then eat.
Droste was the perfect partner for Berber. He became her manager and together they produced The Dances Of Depravity, Horror And Ecstasy which was staged in a theatre in Vienna and then toured in 1922 and 1923.
Droste and Berber were combustible in combination. He was as much a hustler as an artist, finding a way to repackage Expressionism and other avant-garde trends in a way that could be absorbed by the club-hopping bourgeoisie. The 1920s were a decade whose excesses were reflected, exaggerated, and grotesqued in the clubs and cabarets of Germany.
In 1923 they returned to Berlin, both deeply addicted to cocaine. Berber, the infamous naked dancer, had even less to wear when Droste stole her furs and jewels, cashed them in and fled to New York City like a swishy Nosferatu and tried to seduce the city with his own druggy Weimar dread.
He also invented a new persona, a baron, who was captured by the photographer Bruguière. With his dark-ringed eyes, the result of cosmetics and dissolution, he/she became a bit too exotic, it seems. In May 1925, The New Yorker ran an article that included:
The Baron Sebastian Droste (creator of dances of Sin, Vice, Horror, Ecstasy, and Death) recently arrived at an exclusive dinner party, perfume and all, without sight of shirt or collar to accompany his Bond Street dress clothes and discovered the hostess so out of sympathy with this radical departure in attire that he found it best to depart early.
Looking like a 1980s goth girl, he tried and failed to raise interest for his film projects, he wrote articles about what was going on in NYC for German language newspapers and he continued to compose campy Expressionist poetry. One of his poems depicts a fantastical androgynous sylph getting ready for a night of cruising:
He took the powder puff/and powdered his slender thighs
He dyed his eyebrows/And painted his lips
Then he put a golden chain around his hips
And he dipped his fingers into rosewater
He put on white, silken socks
And he tied them with golden ribbons around his shaved legs
And his narrow feet slipped into soft suede shoes…
Somehow, even for New York City, his art was too showy, too avant-garde, but it never mattered because he was too ill to take on the persona of creatures that he had invented. He returned to Germany in 1927 where he soon succumbed to tuberculosis, which also took Berber a year later. Droste was just 35-years-old when he left this world.
A year after his early death the Art Centre in NYC had a show with 35 photographs from The Way shoot. The exhibit sold out and was acclaimed by the critics. The pictures are still some of the best examples of Expressionist photography.
In The Seven Addictions and Five Professions Of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess Of Debauchery (2006) by Mel Gordon, Berber collapsed while performing her act in Damascus, returned to Germany and died surrounded by empty morphine syringes. Berber was buried in a pauper’s grave in St. Thomas Cemetery in Neukölln.
Gordon describes Droste as possessing a cold-hearted, nearly inhuman personality. Even his collaborators thought him vicious and self-serving. He did have an enviable ability to manipulate Berlin’s seen-it-all night people.