LONDON - Tucked behind a quiet, cobbled courtyard off Piccadilly,
one of the busiest and elegant thoroughfares in London, the Royal
Academy of Arts is easily accessible to passing tourists, fervent
museum-goers, throngs of students who swarm all over this culturally-loaded
city - or the merely curious. Eros and Piccadilly Circus are minutes
away, and the venerable "purveyors of foodstuffs," Fortnum
and Mason's, the Ritz Hotel and Hatchard's, the famous booksellers
- who host the hottest book parties in the city - are across the
The academy's location is in the heart of limestone gray London,
but its current exhibition of "Masters of Color: Derain to
Kandinsky, Masterpieces from the Merzbacher Collection,"
is explosively dazzling and proudly proclaimed in bright pink
and yellow banners. The Werner and Gabrielle Merzbacher Collection
is one of the finest private collections of pre-World War II 20th
Century art in the world, as this show gives more than ample proof.
The Merzbacher Collection is one of the most sharply focused,
intent upon revealing the variety of ways in which color has been
used by European artists in the 20th century, and it abounds in
masterworks by the Fauves and German Expressionists. In this exhibition
nothing dates later than 1948, concentrating on aspects of what
is often described as "Classic Modernism." Intensely
private, the Merzbachers have lent generously and anonymously
to museums and exhibitions around the world, which is why some
of their paintings are well-known to the general public, but the
name of the owners and the collection is not. The collection includes
outstanding examples of European and North American painting and
sculpture, from Impressionism to Abstract Impressionism. In 1988-99
several paintings in this show were included in "The Joy
of Color" exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, to
of the Merzbacher Collection began thirty years ago, but its roots
travel further back to Gabrielle Merzbacher's grandfather, Bernhard
Mayer, who was born in Germany in 1890 and became a prosperous
fur merchant, eventually settling in Zurich, Switzerland with
his family in 1916. In the exhibition catalogue, Gabrielle Merzbacher
is quoted as describing her grandfather as "a self-educated
man, whose open mind was always ready for the new: new knowledge,
new people, new discoveries. And, as always, the helping hand
outstretched toward his fellow man." His anarchistic ties
lead him to build a summer home in Ascona in 1909, which was also
home to many artists, including Jawlensky, Arthur Segal and Christian
Rolfs. In Mayer's memoirs he tells of their exploits. He was also
a generous supporter to many of them.
Soon after making his home in Switzerland, Mayer purchased modern
paintings including Cézanne's fine "Still Life with
Skull and Candlestick," (1866-67), Picasso's superb "The
Couple," ( 1904), And Van Gogh's interesting "Sunny
Lawn in a Public Park (Arles)," (1888), a very significant
painting for the future Merzbacher collection. Bernard Mayer's
paintings laid the groundwork for the present collection, although
some of the paintings had to be left behind when the family moved
to the United States in 1941; many were lost or sold. The heart
of the collection returned to Switzerland with the family after
World War II ,among them Van Gogh's "Postman Joseph Roulin,"
and works by Cézanne, Kandinsky, Klee, Matisse, Ensor,
Renoir and Jawlensky. Bernhard Mayer died in 1946, and each of
his two children was asked to choose what they liked from twelve
paintings. Ernst Mayer, Gabrielle's father, housed his collection
in the house in Ascona.
Gabrielle adored her grandparents and inherited from them a love
of Jewish causes, people, languages, art and literature. In America
they frequented art shows and met with many artists and connoisseurs.
Gabrielle studied literature in college and still enjoys books
and the theatre.
Werner Merzbacher was born in Germany in 1928. As the son of a
highly respected country doctor who considered himself a German,
like so many other Jews, Werner's life was destined to change
course dramatically. After the warning signals of Kristallnacht,
when Werner was 10 years old and no longer permitted to attend
school, his parents took the precaution of sending him with a
children's transport to Switzerland. A sympathetic Christian physician
and colleague of his father took Werner in to live with his family.
War broke out and the young boy never saw his parents again. They
died in Auschwitz after being held in a concentration camp in
With the help of scholarships, Werner remained in Switzerland
for 10 years, where he received his education. He loved film,
an interest that has persisted. In 1949 he emigrated to the United
States and met Gabrielle Mayer. In 1951 they were married, and
Werner completed his service in the United States Army. In 1953
he entered the firm of New York furriers, Mayer and Hoffman and
Max Pick, Inc.
In 1964 the Merzbachers returned to Switzerland with their three
children, where Werner Merzbacher eventually became sole owner
of the international fur traders Mayer and Cie AG; he is currently
also involved in international finance, which has been very successful
and which he dismisses as "my financial nonsense." A
relentless work schedule, social and cultural projects in Switzerland
and Israel have only enhanced his commitment to collecting great
works of art. He is, according to Stephanie Rachum's catalogue
essay on the collectors, a sponge for knowledge and is able to
retain quantities of divergent information simultaneously and
is approachable and courteous.
Werner Merzbacher's dynamism and energy is visible in the works
he has collected, which literally jump off the walls in the galleries.
His passion for art knows no half measures, and art is deeply
important to both him and his wife; their earliest purchases were
made as newlyweds, when money was a factor. Paintings which they
could not afford back then and which they would have loved to
own, have since taken their place in the collection: once loved,
a painting was always remembered and tracked. They were fortunate
to have inherited the few paintings from Bernhard Mayer - the
Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Early Twentieth Century
examples at the show, which set a high bar and guided their own
selections when they were able to purchase paintings of their
own. Another breakthrough came when they saw a Fauve show at the
Museum of Modern Art, "and more emphatically the exhibition
at the Leonard Hutton Galleries in New York that made an even
stronger impact," noted Ms. Rachum in her catalogue essay.
"Here, for the first time, they encountered the powerful,
dynamic forms and bold colors of artists such as Vasily Kandinsky,
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Franz Marc. The impression was indelible
and ignited in them a passion for the paintings of those artists
and others possessing similar qualities," she wrote.
After acquiring "Blooming Trees" they asked Gabrielle
Mayer's parents if they could take home "Interior at Collioure,"
by Matisse, one of a number of paintings on extended loan to the
Kunsthaus in Zurich. Merzbacher covered the insurance and the
Matisse became a starting point for the direction of the present
collection. Werner's "financial nonsense" soon enabled
him to afford the paintings he loved; the Huttons were a strong
influence, and towards the end of the 70s they purchased some
paintings from Thomas Ammann. Dealers were a recent phenomenon,
as the Merzbachers bought mainly at auctions, choosing works of
the highest quality.
is on view from July 27th to November 17, 2002. A sumptuous catalogue,
"Masters of Color" (Royal Academy Publications, 2002)
is available, 18 pounds 50 pence in softcover, and thirty-five
pounds hardcover. For further information, log on to www.theroyalacademy.org.uk. The fairly hefty
admission of 8 pounds 50 pence did not appear to dampen the appetite
of the lines of visitors queuing up in the entrance hall, which
is remarkable considering most of London's famous cultural institutions
such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, National and Portrait
Galleries, British Museum and British Library and the Tate Modern
and Tate Britain are now completely free. Sadly, the stiff admission
price did noticeably exclude young students laden down with backpacks,
who are a permanent, life-giving force to all the other free museums
in the city.
In a room
filled with works by titans in the history of modern art, the
strange green predominantly used by Van Gogh in "Sunny Lawn
in a Public Park (Arles)," shown above, sets it apart. Considering
the other paintings in the gallery are the heavily impastoed "Still-Life
and Candlestick" (1866-67) by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906),
"In the Greenery," (Woman Standing in a Garden (1890-91),
shown below, by Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec's (1864-1901), the
strong "Blue Period" "The Couple" (1904) by
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), a luscious "Portrait of a Young
Woman," (Young Lady in White, 1901) by Pierre Auguste Renoir
(1841-1919), a fine "Willows on the Banks of the Orvanne,"
(1883) by Alfred Sisley (1830-1899), and "Val de Falaise
(Giverny) Winter," (1885) by Claude Monet (1840-1926) - sublime,
shimmering "nature" paintings optimizing the use of
contrasting colors, this is no ordinary achievement.
unapologetic fluorescent greens, dragged mercilessly back and
forth with a palette knife, with contrasting, staccato stabs of
vermilion, cadmium and peach in the background, and the alternating
brushstroke patterns of leaves, grass and trees drawn with a possessed
paintbrush, point to a new order in a room already brimming over
with innovators. The other masterpieces possess some sense of
a boundary, whereas the Van Gogh, dated 1888, which is almost
impossible to believe it is so modern, heads off alone into uncharted
waters. One would expect nothing less of Van Gogh.
to wait for the lift, I took the stairs up to the spanking new,
light-drenched Sackler Galleries, donated by the American family
that has supported numerous museums, on the second floor. Passing
Michelangelo's beautiful "Tondo," carefully protected
behind glass, I turned into the first gallery of the show to be
greeted by a choice selection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist
and early Twentieth Century masterpieces. My eye was instantly
drawn to Van Gogh's "Sunny Lawn in a Public Park (Arles)"
and while the subject is nothing more than a mundane patch of
ground encountered in a public garden anywhere in the world, the
non-naturalistic colors, flattened perspective, oddly placed and
miniscule patch of blue sky and the frenetically alternating,
rhythmic brushwork in this painting arrests the viewer and sets
the tone of the entire show.
of the show highlight two memorable juxtapositions of paintings:
the first by Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) and André
Derain (1880-1954), whose wholesale exploitation of non-naturalistic,
vibrant color is unprecedented in the history of art, and, no
less powerful, the affinity of Paul Klee (1879-1940) with Emil
Nolde (1867-1956), who raised the delicate medium of watercolor
to unforgettable heights. The influence and inspiration of Vincent
Van Gogh, with his individualistic, expressive style and deliberate
disregard for painting the world in the colors in which he found
it, runs through the entire panorama of the show, most forcefully
in the work of Vlaminck and Nolde.
gallery is an explosion of unbridled color, and despite the hundred
years which separate the earlier Cézanne in the first gallery
and the Oscar Kokoschka (1886-1960) "Florence: View from
the Manelli Tower," (1948), in the last, and the strong emphasis
on Fauves and Expressionists in the intervening rooms, it is the
unity of the Merzbacher Collection, their high-voltage color and
power, which force a spontaneous intake of breath and an incredulous
"Wow!" While the earliest works by Monet, Picasso, Cézanne
and Van Gogh do not fit chronologically into the theme of the
show, it is the older artists' use of color and technique that
connects them to the younger generation of artists, who were deeply
influenced by them. The old guard represented here literally changed
the way we "look" at and "see" art; "Masters
of Color and Light: Derain to Kandinsky" reflects the passing
of the torch to their artistic descendants, to the next generation
of "movers and shakers," with spell-binding insight.
It is rare that such a "handing over" of an artistic
legacy is so clearly visible without words and theses as support,
and that is thanks to the vision of the Merzbachers, who chose
most of the works on view. The initial effect of this show is
a direct hit in the heart and the imagination, with classification
and analysis necessarily taking over as the sense of wonder subsides.
This feeling is echoed by Werner Merzbacher's own approach to
collecting, primarily driven by his heart: "Once a work entered
the collection it was never sold," wrote Stephanie Rachum
in the exhibition catalogue, adding that "Werner speaks of
a love for his paintings that makes you 'want to absolutely keep
them, a deep feeling that you cannot separate from them.' On another
occasion he explained, 'the best collections come from within
"Naturally, the unifying thread in the Merzbacher collection
runs deeper than the mere retinal pleasure gleaned from the exuberant
color found in so many of the works. An affinity, and sometimes
even a direct connection, exists between many of the paintings
and between the men and women who created them. These connections
were formative and determining. Bridges exist between individual
artists, groups of artists and artistic generations" continues
Van Gogh's "Sunny Lawn," has a direct link to the bold,
expressive colors and brushwork of Fauves like Derain, whose stunning
"Boats in the Port of Collioure" (1905), which illustrates
the cover of the exhibition catalogue and a detail of which is
shown above, and Vlaminck's "Potato Pickers" (1905-1907),
could be subtitled "Homage to Van Gogh". They are amongst
the treasures of the show, exuding vigor and virtuosity.
In 1905, Derain went to Collioure, a fishing village on the Mediterranean
coast of France, to work with his friend, Henri Matisse (1869-1954),
who was a fellow-"Fauve." Both artists' technique had
grown out of Seurat's "pointillism," and Paul Signac's
slightly less pedantic application of it, but Dérain went
a step further and took the contrasts of powerful colors from
Van Gogh - in larger, patchier strokes - as can be seen in paintings
like "The Landscape on the River Bank," (1905) and "Boats
in the Port of Collioure." While Seurat and Signac caused
a sensation with their new scientific, approach to color,"
their mechanical technique immediately aroused detractors, amongst
them Paul Gauguin, who disparagingly dismissed "pointillism"
For a sense
of "loosened-up," virtuoso Van Gogh brushwork, Vlaminck's
"The Seine at Pecq" (1905), shown above, is an riot
of palette-knifed cadmiums, acid greens and swirling black lines,
reaching a crescendo in the blood-red buildings in the distance,
which in reality must have been the drab muddy-browns and non-descript
grays usually associated with small-town port architecture. In
the artist's imagination, they are transformed by a unique interpretation
in raw color squeezed directly from the tube. The pale green sky
in "the Seine at Pecq" is especially reminiscent of
Van Gogh, who used it often in landscapes and as background color
in paintings like "Wheat Fields With Cypresses," (1889),
and "First Steps," (1890), at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art in New York.
soothing Fauve paintings in the second gallery, like Derain's
"London Bridge," (1905-1906) and Vlaminck's stunning
"View from Chatou" (1906), while still maximizing on
the complimentary (discordant) greens and reds, owe more to the
elegant spatial sensibilities of Matisse's "Interior at Collioure"
(1905-1906), which came to the collection through Bernard Mayer,
Gabrielle Merzbacher's grandfather, in the 1920s. Interestingly,
Derain became deeply suspicious of Matisse's earlier - Signac
inspired - "pointilliste" paintings, like "Luxe,
Calme et Volupté" (1904), in the Musée d'Orsay
in Paris, because of their overtly scientific and formulaic orientation.
Derain had abandoned the divided approach of pointillism earlier
than Matisse, asserting that while it did create harmony and luminosity,
it also inhibited intentional color discords. Matisse, as always
calm and methodical, deferred criticism of "pointillism:"
he simply moved on to his own, highly sophisticated style. It
is significant that despite the fact that Matisse has only one
painting in the show, he was influential to so many artists in
it. His impact on the German Expressionist, Ernst Ludvig Kirchner
(1880-1938), and other members of Die Brucke, was important and
significant. In other relationships not featured in this show,
namely that of Picasso and Matisse was crucial to the evolution
of 20th century art, as was demonstrated in the exhibition "Matisse/Picasso"
at Tate Modern.
"Interior at Collioure" marks Matisse's refreshing departure
from the constraints of theoretical pointillism. In its more perceptual
position and broad patches of contrasting and subtle colors, there
is the hint of a developing process of color-organization that
would be laid down in his classic essay "Notes of a Painter
(Notes d'un peintre) three years later: "it is necessary
that the various marks I use be balanced so that they do not destroy
each other. A new combination of colors will succeed the first
and render the totality of my representation I cannot copy nature
in a servile way. I am forced to interpret nature and submit it
to the spirit of the picture" It is ironic that, despite
Derain's protestations regarding Matisse's "pointilliste"
phase, there is more than a hint of indebtedness to Seurat's "points"
in his own, stunning "Boats in the Port of Collioure."
Clearly these artists criticized each other's work, but ultimately
they were absorbing and discarding one another's ideas to the
benefit - and greater glory - of their own individual styles.
the dazzling company of the Vlaminck's and Derains in the second
gallery, George Braque (1882-1963) holds his own with a sublime,
rosy hued "Landscape at L'Estaque," (1906) and "Landscape
at La Ciotat," (1907), a jewel of a painting worth kidnapping.
The sinuous curves and sumptuous colors of his Fauve period give
no hint whatsoever of the controlled color palette and intellectual
rigor of the Cubist revolution that Braque, together with Picasso,
later instigated. These works are like a joyous romp in a sun-drenched
garden, the calm before the storm. Even though it is well known
that Braque went through a Fauve period, his lyrical Fauve paintings
come as a surprise because they are touchingly uninhibited, colorful
and child-like. It made this viewer long for a gigantic retrospective
of his work.
Placing all the Fauve paintings chronologically in the first decade
of the 20th century, barely free of the constraints and artistic
taboos of the 19th century, makes them all the more amazing: "In
the late nineteenth century an emphasis on color in art was still
regarded by many critics with suspicion," writes John Gage
in his catalogue essay entitled "Color Theory and Color Practice
in Early Twentieth Century Art." He continues: "The
century which had seen the publication of several influential
color systems which had sought to bring order into what had hitherto
been a very disorganized order of experience notably those of
the poet Goethe in Germany and the chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul
in France had been unable to release color from the slur of subjectivity.
Indeed, for all their claims to objectivity, Goethe's and Chevreul's
theories were based on contrast-phenomena which were entirely
In 1904 the French critic F. Caussy wrote that color was "brute
and inorganic matter" and the preference for it was in the
same category as the exaggerated feeling for nature, which was
not as stable as the more aristocratic language of line. This
harks back to the old Renaissance debate about whether drawing
was more important than color, which moved from Italy to France
in the seventeenth century. At the time, drawing won the debate.
Colors that appeared unnatural, aggressive and savage earned artists
who first used it - Derain, Vlaminck, Braque and Matisse - the
sarcastic description "fauves," or wild beasts, in a
critical review of the exhibition in 1905. This branding as "savage"
and wild is in stark contrast to the opinion of the Dutch theosophist
M. H. J. Schoenmaeckers, a friend of the artist Piet Mondrian.
In his book, "The New World Image" (1915), he characterized
the joy of color as the joy of human aspirations towards higher
things, towards the light which embraces all color. "High-mindedness
was a prominent feature of the art and culture of that age in
Europe, not least in Modernism. A supporter of both anarchism
and socialism, Bernhard Mayer, Gabrielle Merzbacher's grandfather
and the initial inspiration for the collection, was no stranger
to it. But where light had always enjoyed the connotation of high
moral value in many religions as well as in the secular concept
of the Enlightenment, color had invariably had a much more ambivalent
status," wrote Mr. Gage.
The distrust of color may also be traced to the traditional identification
in European patriarchal societies with the "female"
as opposed to the "masculine" line. Bernhard' Mayer's
interests had been mainly political until he married Auguste Lipper,
who had a sensitivity to art and music. Color became a pre-occupation
of early Modernism and ultimately, as the show demonstrates, "produced
a kind of painting in which color is independent," observed
Mr. Gage. Bernhard Mayer began collecting in Antwerp, a city associated
with the sensual palette of Peter Paul Rubens. He acquired paintings
by the Belgian Symbolist painter, James Ensor, who was well aware
of his Rubensian coloristic history. This soon led the collector
to mainstream Modernism in Germany and France. (This exhibition
has no Ensor.)
One has only to look at the extraordinarily vibrant paintings
at this show to see the impact that the theory of color - and
color perception - an offshoot of the new experimental psychology
that was particularly prominent in Germany had on the Early 20th
Century artists. The explosion of color-based paintings towards
the end of the 20th Century in the work of Monet, Sisley, Renoir
became particularly focused in the work of Van Gogh, who was an
informed and highly sophisticated thinker about color amongst
the early modern artists. Van Gogh was an avid reader of Goethe,
including his theories on color, which ultimately found expression
in his work. Paul Klee was also a keen color theorist, and according
to his friend and fellow-artist, Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956),
Klee had a collection of over a thousand pigments, which were
inspirational in fuelling his wonderful imagination.
Lyonel Feininger is represented in this show by "Village
Church" (1915), which is influenced by Cézanne and
Klee, and has many of the fine nuances his later work would chisel
into some of the most sophisticated paintings of the 20th Century.
Born in Germany of German parents, Feininger lived there from
1887-1936, when he returned to the United States. He lived in
New York till his death in 1956. He participated in the exhibition
of "The Blue Rider" in 1913, "Der Sturm" (1916-19),
and exhibited in the United States and Europe throughout his life.
Feininger taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar from 1919-24 and was
artist in residence at the Bauhaus, Dessau, from 1925-33. While
it is never possible to make all viewers happy, I would have liked
to see a couple more paintings by this wonderful artist.
in the second "Blue Rider" exhibition in 1915, but his
colors were at that time still dull and monochromatic; greater
confidence and imaginative handling of color transformed his paintings
after a trip to Tunisia in 1914, where the North African light
had the effect of peeling off a dulling optical membrane, revealing
shimmering, light-infused, water-color visions like "Constructed
in Colour with Black Graphic Elements"(1919). "The Yellow
House" (1914), was the last picture Klee painted before his
trip to Tunisia, and it already shows a preoccupation with color.
The single, yellow rectangle representing the house, nevertheless
allows us to imagine everything surrounding it, which is a blur
of abstract geometric shapes. It is a jewel of a painting, even
though it is darker than his post-Tunisian paintings.
on military service, the mood becomes more menacing and the colors
more somber in "Stars Above an Evil House (1916), shown above.
"Moonrise-Sunset" (1919), is a sophisticated, exotic
patchwork in oils of palm trees, turrets and rooftops beneath
a starry sky. Suspended in the midst of this dark, tropical night
is a full-blown yellow sun, which ignites the composition. Klee's
magical paintings wash up on the shores of the imagination long
after the show is left behind. Although Klee (1879-1940) was a
supremely gifted artist, he took his time to develop. His discovery
of color was a catalyst, and in 1914 he wrote in his diary "Color
possesses me forever, I know. Color and I are one. I am a painter."
It is no coincidence that Klee's paintings are placed alongside
spectacular watercolors by Emile Nolde (1867-1956). Together with
Derain and Vlaminck, the juxtaposition of Klee and Nolde - which
accentuate their striking affinity - is the most memorable at
the show. Nolde will be discussed later.
Early 20th century French art was almost exclusively the work
of immigrant painters, represented in gallery two with works by
Vlaminck, (Belgian), Picasso and Julio Gonzalez (1876-1942), (Spain),
Jacques Lipschitz 1891-1973), (Lithuania), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920),
Gino Severini (1883-1966) and Umberto Boccionni (1882-1916), (Italy),
and Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957), the pioneer of abstract painting
came from what was then the Hapsburg Empire. The exceptions were
Fernand Léger (1881-1955), whose "Two Discs in the
City" (1919), celebrate city life and the machine, and Sonia
Delaunay Terk (1885-1979) whose "Le Bal Bullier" (1913)
is reminiscent of Severini's high-velocity "The Plastic Forms
of a Horse" (1913-14). Nearby, Severini's "The Speeding
Car," (1912-13) is a reminder of the famous assertion in
Marinetti's first Futurist Manifesto, (1909), that "a speeding
racing car is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,"
which must have endeared him to the curators of antiquities departments
in museums around the world.
Kupka's are a revelation, the most important being the musical
"Form of Yellow, (Notre Dame)" (1911). "Study for
a Fuge," (1912-19), and "Abstract Composition,"
(1913-19), are early examples of Kupka's series based on the cosmos,
which bear an uncanny resemblance to the more recent work of the
Abstract Expressionists, noticeably Clifford Still. There is no
attempt in these paintings to be representational: they are uniquely
"free-form" and the only purely abstract works in the
show. Perhaps this is why Kupka is credited with being the pioneer
Mayer was not particularly interested in color theory and its
exponents, though he did make a brave attempt to understand his
friend and artist Arthur Segal (1875-1944), who is represented
in the show by a canvas titled "Mayer & Co." (1919).
While Goethe's color theories are not manifest in Segal's brown
monotone painting, which possibly alludes to the Mayer fur enterprise,
Vasily Kandinsky's (1866-1944) gorgeous and unusual "Section
for Composition II" (1910) and exuberant "Angel of the
Last Judgment" (1911), shown above, not only pay homage to
Goethe's color theories, but embody Kandinsky's own philosophy
on color, as laid down in his great manifesto, "Concerning
the Spiritual in Art," (1911), which accompanied these paintings.
The magnificent Kandinskys at this show were added to the collection
by Mayer's grandchildren, the Merzbachers.
has some fine sculptures, most notably Ossip Zadkine's "The
Dwelling," shown above, a wonderful piece that should be
on the mantel of every apartment house developer.
include Amedeo Modigliani's sandstone "Woman's Head"
(1911-12), a terracotta "Woman in Childbirth," (1927)
by Henri Laurens (1885-1954) and a fantastic bronze by Julio Gonzalez
(1876-1942), "The Dream" (The Kiss)" (1931-34),
cast in 1980, shown above.
are strong paintings by Russian Modernists, completed before the
Russian Revolution of 1917. The original, personal styles of Natalia
Goncharova (1881-1962) in "River Landscape" (1909-11),
and especially "Dynamics of Color" (circa 1916-18) by
Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), arrive at abstraction before anyone
else was to do so, with the exception of Kupka, whose dates are
more arbitrary, as can be seen at the show. In addition, it is
noticeable that the Russian painters include several women, who
are otherwise conspicuously absent from this show, with the exception
of Sonia Delaunay.
The third gallery is dominated by the vital and towering presence
of Vasily Kandinsky, and includes other artists like Franz Marc
1880-1916), Paul Klee and Heinrich Campendock (1889-1957), commonly
associated with Der Blau Rider, ("The Blue Rider'). Never
a formal organization of artists, it was a name given to an illustrated
anthology of essays on art and music, "The Blue Rider Almanac,"
edited by Kandinsky and Marc, published in 1912. They also organized
two exhibitions in Munich in 1911 and 1913.
works displayed share (once again) a pre-occupation with non-naturalistic
color, which has caused the artists to be mistakenly thought of
as German Expressionist painters, there was never a unified Blue
Rider "style," or a manifesto; the artists differed
widely in subject and approach, as in Kandinsky's "Murnau
Village Street" (1908) and Franz Marc's "Landscape with
House, Dog and Cow" (1914), although the latter shows a strong
affinity with Paul Klee's luminous, post-Tunisian "The Yellow
House," also painted in 1914. Kandinsky's "Murnau-Kohlgruberstrasse"
(1908), which was painted in the countryside outside Murnau, south
of Munich on the edge of the Alps, leans towards abstraction,
which he accomplished by 1913. He and his partner, Gabrielle Munter
(1877-1962), liked the area so much that she bought a house there.
It was in Murnau that Kandinsky developed the pictorial language
that evolved into his abstract compositions. The give-and-take
between the artists becomes apparent in Kandinsky's gorgeous "Section
for Composition II" (1930), which shows the influence of
Matisse. The artist even painted the frame of this highly decorative
1908 and 1913, Kandinsky's pre-occupation with non-naturalistic
color developed from late Impressionist, Fauve-related landscapes
like "Autumn Landscape with Boats" (1908), shown above,
to the paintings mentioned earlier "Murnau the Garden II"
(1910) and "Angel of the Last Judgment" (1911) which
turned out to be crucial for twentieth-century painting. Nothing
is directly represented in "Angel of the Last Judgment."
The title alludes to the kind of image that may have inspired
it, but nothing can be deciphered besides pure forms and colors.
Kandinsky learned a great deal from Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941),
who liberated color from its traditionally descriptive paintings.
Both artists were Russian and arrived in Munich to study art in
1896. Although they became friends, Jawlensky never joined any
of the Blue Rider activities. However, Jawlensky's "Girl
in a Gray Apron" (1909), reflects his knowledge of the Fauves,
(as did Kirchner), in the interplay of red and green; black contour
lines flatten the image and make it more decorative. The painting
could have been painted from a model, but by the time Jawlensky
painted "Saviour's Face" (1917), and "Mystical
Head of a Girl" (1917), the subject is imaginary and spiritually
inspired. By the time he painted "Abstract Head" in
1929, although a face is discernible, the artist insisted it is
not a face: "It is that which closes itself downward, opens
itself upward and encounters itself in the middle." By which
he means the "inner" self. The "spiritual"
in man and woman, was now manifest in art.
Bernhard Mayer was well acquainted with the work of Jawlensky,
who also lived and worked near the Mayers in Ascona, Switzerland,
and whose mistress was Marianne von Werefkin: he was unhappy with
the intensity of color in von Werefkin's paintings and in her
equally flamboyant attire, with its associations to fashion. Werefkin,
who had been with Kandinsky and Jawlensky in Munich in 1896, was
one of the many turn-of-the-century artists who felt that color
was more important than form. Despite the difference in outlook,
Mayer bought several paintings by her, which are no longer in
"It would be misleading to suppose," writes John Gage,
"that the widespread rejection of traditional quasi-objective
color theory around 1900 left a vacuum. This was the period of
the modern development of phomenology and of Gestalt psychology,
and as these were dependent on the method of introspection, they
could not fail to provide a context for Bernhard Mayer's sensualist
approach to color."
It is left to Emile Nolde, whose work is hung close to Klee's
and Jawlensky's, to use full-blooded color and direct handling
to convey heightened feeling in his stunning paintings. Born in
Germany in 1867, and every inch a German Expressionist, Nolde
was most emphatically influenced by Van Gogh, whose "Sunny
Lawn" in the introductory gallery, deploys the same agitated,
impastoed brushwork, vivid, non-naturalistic colors, and unconventional
perspective in paintings like, "Flower Garden Woman with
Purple Dress" (1908), the only Nolde oil in the show. The
remaining watercolors further heighten the tension, with "Evening
Sky, (Landscape)" depicting the flat landscape of North Germany,
with a bright red cloud that catches the sunlight eerily reflected
in the water. It is moody and brooding in the extreme, which was
intentional, but not as controversial as Nolde's figurative art,
which the Nazi's condemned as degenerate, actually banning Nolde
from working and exhibiting, which was unusual even for them.
Always controversial, Emil Nolde was a member of the Nazi party;
however, this did not let him off the hook (as was probably his
underlying intention in joining), and undated paintings like "Evening
Sky" belong to his "Ungemalte Bilder," (Unpainted
Pictures), made between 1937 and 1945, which was an attempt by
the artist to appease the authorities with less controversial
subject-matter. While there are flower paintings in the show by
Kandinsky, Schmidt-Rottulf, Goncharova and Beckmann - all of them
memorable "takes" on the blossom - it is Nolde's watercolors
of flowers which hit a new plateau: "Nolde's watercolors
stand out for their brilliance because they have none of the distractions
of surface texture and emphatic brushwork that appear in the oils
of these other painters. The identity of the bloom is almost incidental,
and color comes entirely into its own. Here the spaciousness of
field or garden and the stiffness of cut flowers in the traditional
indoor still-life subject have been abandoned, and the joy of
pure color reaches a new pitch." (John Gage, Masters of Color,
Royal Academy Publications).
uniquely beautiful works, including "Poppy," (undated),
shown above, and the exquisite duo of "Sunflowers,"
(undated), Nolde gives a nod to Van Gogh, whose sunflowers have
become synonymous with the idea of a flower, and who, by painting
them so often, bestowed upon the humble blossom a degree of importance
previously absent from "haute" art. Nolde's sunflowers
instantly draw comparison with Van Gogh's unique "Two Sunflowers,"
painted in the summer 1887, now in the collection of The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York.
of Die Brucke included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Erich
Heckel (1883-1970), Karl Schmidt-Rottulf (1884-1976) and Fritz
Bleyl. The group was founded in Dresden in 1905, its name "Die
Brucke" borrowed from a Nietzsche quotation. Max Pechstein
(1881-1956), together with Nolde, joined the group in 1906, and
with the exception of Kirchner, all were self-taught. The purchase
by Werner Merzbacher of Schmidt-Rottulf's "Blooming Trees,"
shown below, in 1919 marked a turning point in the collection;
its wild handling and raw colors, which, once again, owe so much
to Van Gogh, competed with the earliest paintings collected by
Mayer, forcing the Merzbacher's to think differently about the
works they acquired.
was essential to Die Brucke, and paintings like Erich Heckel's
luscious "Houses in the Autumn," (1908) Kirchner's magical
"Sertig Valley Landscape," (1924) and Max Pechstein's
"The Red Bathhouse, (1910), while demonstrating their exposure
to Fauvism, owe much more to Van Gogh. In Schmidt-Rottulf's "Gateway,"
(1910), however, there is a subtle shift. Despite the high-voltage
color and the rapid brushwork, which were intended to assault
the eye and disturb the mood (all traceable to Van Gogh) the pigment
is thinner, and less textured. His individuality as a German Expressionist
was asserting itself. While it is evident that the artists of
Die Brucke were influenced by contemporary French painting, especially
the Fauves, their work remained intentionally less harmonious
and essentially Germanic.
Nudes by Die Brucke strike a particularly innovative chord as
they sought to re-invent the human figure in a non-academic way.
Kirchner's "Two Nudes on a Blue Sofa," (1910-20), while
indebted to Matisse, used friends as models, not professionals,
and was painted to emulate tribal woodcarving, especially from
New Guinea. Kirchner was so inspired by such art that he decorated
his studio as a fantasy interior in a South Sea Island hut, and
made furniture and sculpture to match. Could he possibly have
been receiving imaginary bulletins from Gauguin via Van Gogh one
wonders? "Nude Woman, Sitting with Her Legs Crossed,"
(1912) is a wonderful lady seated on a log - carved by Kirchner
from sycamore, with hair, eyebrows and eyes painted in black.
Eric Heckel's sultry "Group on Holiday," painted in
1909, must have raised an eyebrow or two amongst the monocled
ladies and gents in the salon: anything less consistent with the
principals of a classical life-drawing class would be hard to
find. It is intentionally unsettling and discordant in the very
best Van Gogh tradition, but the deft modeling and sophisticated
use of black contours also allies it to Matisse, who called black
"the queen of colors."
Kirchner had experimented with Fauvist-type "pointillism"
in 1906, but rejected it after reading Goethe's "Theory of
Colors," written in 1810! "Goethe was much studied by
both psychologists and painters in the first decade of the century,
and his "Theory of Colors" suggested to Kirchner that
he could create strong, complimentary, after-image effects directly
on canvas, rather than having to represent them, as, for example,
a Pointillist such as Seurat had been obliged to do. It was Goethe
who, in an important section of his book, "The Sensual and
Moral Effect of Colors," had helped to persuade painters
as well as psychologists that color might itself constitute a
language of emotions," wrote Mr. Gage.
The coloristic style shared by members of the Brucke artists was
comparable in many ways to the evolution of Matisse's art, and
in 1908 he was invited to join the group - everyone wanted a piece
of Matisse! In addition, a manuscript translation of his "Notes
of a Painter" by his subject, friend and pupil, Greta Moll,
was in circulation in Germany in 1909, a year before it was officially
published in "Kunst und Kunstler." Emphasis was less
on color as content or meaning than as an instrument in the process
of perception: "Artists of an older generation, such as Monet
and Sisley among the Impressionists and Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec
among the Post-Impressionists," Mr. Gage maintained, "were
well able to employ a great range of subtle nuances; and a substantial
vocabulary is required, in, for example, the varieties of green
in Sisley's "Willows on the Banks of the Orvanne," or
Van Gogh's "Sunny Lawn in a Public Park (Arles)." We
are reminded that the French eighteenth-century landscape painter
Claude-Joseph Vernet, a remarkable precocious advocate of outdoor
painting in oils, used the various greens of meadows and foliage
as a paradigm of how to observe through comparison."
Unable to achieve success in Dresden, Die Brucke moved to the
artistically more advanced Berlin by 1911. Undermined by mutual
recrimination, it disbanded in 1913, by which time all their work
had changed. The assertion of their individuality superseded the
intention of creating a cohesive group style. Kirchner's "Unicycle
Rider" reveals an increasing interest in big-city subjects,
such as street scenes and circus acts, and his palette became
more restricted, although he continued to use color expressively.
is well known in New York auction rooms mainly because a self-portrait
sold for the record sum of $22,555,750, including buyer's premium,
at Sotheby's May 19, 2001 (see The City Review article), and now stares enigmatically
out at viewers at Ronald Lauder's "Neue Galerie," on
86th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, which features gorgeous
works by German Expressionists in equally aesthetic surroundings.
A member of Die Brucke, Beckman was condemned as degenerate, left
Germany in 1937, and lived in poverty in Amsterdam until 1947,
when he emigrated to the United States. The three Beckman's at
the show are far less austere than the self-portrait, and they
share with the Fauves a richness of color. Beckman also shares
with Kirchner, Modigliani and Picasso the use of distorted forms
(figures) to heighten expression, and the degree to which Beckman's
Merzbacher paintings relate to Matisse was as surprising a discovery
as it was memorable.
it was the same quality in "Interior at Collioure" which
caused the Merzbacher's to choose sumptuous Beckman's instead
of the more complex and disquieting imagery for which he is also
Flowers, women, pet cats and dogs and mythological birds all find
their way into Beckman's art. "Still Life with Red Roses
and Butchy" (1942) refers to Butchy the pet Pekinese, who
entered the family when Beckman married. This was on the condition
that his wife never wish for children and promised to give up
her budding career as a singer and violinist. In return, he had
to give her red roses every single day. Well, artists are not
the most predictable - or reasonable - individuals.
had plenty of takers for his "flower" paintings and
still-lifes, which appealed to dealers and collectors more than
his melancholy, mythological-allegorical figure paintings: "Still-Life
with Mirror and Tiger Lilies" (1950), shown above, was picked
up by Beckman's New York dealer Curt Valentin almost before the
canvas had dried on the easel. This sophisticated painting is
typical of Beckman's last American phase and with its bold coloring,
and its masterful command of form, it is more than a bow to Matisse.
Yet it is, at the same time, as fresh and new as anything that
is painted today, without appearing contrived.
With equally strong connections to Matisse, whose importance to
20th Century art has been acknowledged by the blockbuster exhibit
"Matisse/Picasso" at Tate Modern, which will open at
the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2003, the "Woman
with Red Rooster," (1941) is an exotic "odalisque,"
in which the rooster suggests a glorious bird of paradise, which,
frankly, would be far more "hip" and compatible with
the elegant pose and attire of the reclining blond beauty on the
sofa. The bird, like the woman, is sensually appealing; it is
also a symbol of Beckman's more abstract ideas and concepts, some
of them erotic.
It is particularly interesting to ponder the old Renaissance debate
over color and line in the work of Beckman and its inextricable
link to Matisse. The gap between color and line closes noticeably
in Beckman's work, merging in the sublime "melding"
of a woman as alluring as Ingres's and Manet's. Beckman's "Woman
with a Red Rooster" has a complex history that is linked
to her classical, unclothed forbears, but she is far more relaxed.
Even though she is camouflaged in a modernistic interpretation
of a classical ideal, she now possesses more confidence thanks
to emancipation, the vote, and the choice whether or not to bear
children, even if the "choice" in this artist's life
happens to be Beckman's. Such things were impossible not so long
made in the exhibition catalog of the synthesis of impressionism
and expressionism in the painting "Florence: View from the
Minelli Tower," (1948), which is one way of looking at it,
but frankly I did not feel it was a particularly successful synthesis.
It is, however, one of the cheeriest Kokoschka paintings I have
ever seen, which was surprising. (For other examples of his work
City Review article on Kokoschka by John E. Delmar.)
a great many spectacular paintings in this exhibition such as
"Bec de L'Aigle, La Ciotat" by Emile-Othon Friesz, shown
at the top of this article, that resonate with dynamism and indelible
It would be a wonderful thing if this show could be brought to
the United States, a country which proved to be a sanctuary for
so many of the artists in "Masters of Color," who sought
freedom from oppressive regimes. This collection is heavenly and
all that it needs is more works by Feininger and Matisse and an
all-out, "full throttle" Van Gogh.