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Masters of Color: Derain to Kandinsky

Masterpieces from the Merzbacher Collection

Royal Academy of Arts, London

July 27-November 17, 2002

Vibrant Masterworks

"Bec de l'Aigle, La Ciotat" by Friesz

"Bec de l'Aigle, La Ciotat," by Emile-Othon Friesz, oil on canvas, 65.5 by 81 centimeters, 1906-7

By Michele Leight

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 road.

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 great acclaim.

The heart 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 France.

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.

The exhibition 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 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.

"Sunny Lawn in a Public Park (Arles)"  by Vincent Van Gogh

"Sunny Lawn in a Public Park (Arles)," by Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas, 60.5 by 73.5 centimeters, 1888

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.

"In the Greenery (Woman Seated in a Garden" by Lautrec

"In the Greenery (Woman Seated in a Garden)" by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, oil on cradled panel, 55 by 46 centimeters, 1890-1

Van Gogh's 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.

New Sackler Galleries at the academy

View of new Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy with large tondo sculpture by Michelangelo at right

Too impatient 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.

"Potato Pickers" by Vlaminck

"Potato Pickers," by Maurice de Vlaminck, oil on canvas, 46 by 53.3 centimeters, 1905-7

First impressions 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.

The second 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 you.'"

"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 Stephanie Rachum.

Cover of exhibition brochure

Cover of exhibition brochure with detail from André Derain's "Boats in the Port of Collioure"

Most obviously, 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" as "petit-points."

"The Seine at Pecq" by Vlaminck

"The Seine at Pecq," by Maurice de Vlaminck, oil on canvas, 86 by 118 centimeters, 1905

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.

The more 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.

"Landscape at L'Estaque" by Braque

"Landscape at L'Estaque" by Georges Braque, oil on canvas, 46 by 55 centimeters, 1906

Even in 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 perceptual."

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.

Klee exhibited 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.

"Stars Above an Evil House" by Paul Klee

"Stars Above an Evil House," by Paul Klee, watercolor and sand on canvas, 19.7 by 22 centimeters, 1916

Later, while 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.

"Form of Yellow (Notre Dame)" by Kupka

"Form of Yellow (Notre Dame)" by Frantisek Kupka, oil on canvas, 73 by 59.5 centimeters, 1911

Three remarkable 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 of abstraction.

"Angel of the Last Judgement" by Kandinsky

"Angel of the Last Judgement" by Vasily Kandinsky, oil on cardboard, 64 by 50 centimeters, 1911

Bernhard 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.

"The Dwelling" by Zadkine

"The Dwelling" by Ossip Zadkine, bronze, 63 by 40 centimeters, 1959

The collection 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.

"The Dream (The Kiss)" by Gonzalez

"The Dream (The Kiss)" by Julio Gonzalez, bronze, 65.5 centimeters high, 1931-4

Other sculptures 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.

Also represented 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.

While the 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 image.

"Autumn Landscape with Boats" by Vasily Kandinsky

"Autumn Landscape with Boats" by Vasily Kandinsky, oil on board, 71 by 96.5 centimeters, 1908

Between 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 the collection.

"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).

"Poppy" by Nolde

"Poppy" by Emil Nolde, gouache on paper, 44.5 by 36 centimeters

In these 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.

Other members 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.

"Blooming Trees" by Schmidt-Rottluff

"Blooming Trees" by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, oil on canvas, 69 by 80.5 centimeters, 1909

Landscape 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.

Max Beckmann 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.

Perhaps 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 known.

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.

"Still Life with Mirror and Tiger Lilies" by Max Beckmann

"Still Life with Mirror and Tiger Lilies" by Max Beckmann, oil on canvas, 76 by 61 centimeters, 1950

Beckman 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 ago.

"Florence: View from the Mannelli Tower" by Kokoschka

"Florence: View from the Mannielli Tower" by Oskar Kokoschka, oil on canvas, 85.5 by 110 centimeters, 1948

Much is 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 see The City Review article on Kokoschka by John E. Delmar.)

There are 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 imagery.

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.

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is at and at


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