Sebastian Droste was born Willy Knobloch in Hamburg in 1898. His father ran a family business making silk stockings in a factory in Chemnitz which allowed Willy a privileged upbringing. As a teenager he sought to escape his parents and enrolled in a local art school where he excelled in languages, physical culture and dance.
In 1915 he was drafted into the army and most likely fought on the Western Front, however, little is known of his military service.
He moved to Berlin in 1919, aged 27 and changed his name from Willy Knobloch to Sebastian Droste. Once there the newly christened Droste was hired by Celly De Rheidt as a dancer to play the centre piece for her Dance of Beauty evenings at the Schwartzer Kater on Friedrichstraße. Here he became a moderately successful ‘naked’ dancer, choreographer and Expressionist poet. His first poem appeared in Der Sturm in 1919, and between then and 1923 a further 15 poems and ‘grotesques’ would appear in the journal.
On 13 June 1922 he met Anita Berber, both were cocaine addicts with a desire for fame, Droste was a like minded individual and the perfect partner for Berber. He became her manager and together they produced The Dances of Depravity, Horror and Ecstasy which was staged in November the same year at the Konzerthaus-Saal in Vienna.
In 1923 they returned to Berlin, both deeply addicted to cocaine. Droste stole furs and jewels from Berber and left for New York.
In 1925 in New York, Droste met the San Franciscan photographer, Francis Bruguiere and together they composed over 60 photographs for a project titled The Way. This was to act as promotional material for a proposed Expressionist film starring Droste, UFA ultimately passed on the proposal. Droste sent a handful of the stills to Die Dame magazine with an article titled ‘Photography as Art: Remarks on Recent Photographs by Francis Bruguiere’, the piece was published in July the same year.
Droste returned to his parents home in Hamburg in July 1927, he had tuberculosis and died a few weeks later at the age of 35. The same year, after Droste’s death the Art Centre in New York exhibited 35 photographs from The Way shoot. The series was acclaimed by the critics and stands to this day as some of the best examples of Expressionist photography.
Droste is one of the lesser known figures from Berlin’s Cabaret era, he’s the side story to the far more flamboyant and decadent Anita Berber. Whilst Droste may have been overshadowed by Berber, it certainly wasn’t for his lack of trying. He’s that curious phenomena, a little like Ed Wood, he was a man whose ambitions far outweighed his talent. That’s not to say that he wasn’t a talented man, having read some of his poetry he feels unpolished, but certainly not lacking in ideas or vision which is something that The Way photo shoot proves.
This brief biography is all I’ve managed to find out and most of this has come from a biography of Berber. The only known surviving footage of him comes from Algol – Tragödie der Macht starring Emil Jannings, Droste is credited simply as Ein Tänzer.
There are hints in the Berber book about what Droste was like, it describes him as possessing ‘a cold-hearted, nearly inhuman personality. Even his collaborators thought him vicious and self serving.’ He’s also described as being sexually creepy with an ‘ability to manipulate Berlin’s seen-it-all show people’.
See also: The Wicked and The Naked by Sebastian Droste
The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber by Mel Gordon.
Dances of Vice, Horror & Ectasy by Anita Berber & Sebastian Droste (Translated by Merrill Cole)