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ESSAYS

Oskar Laske

65TH ANNIVERSARY EXHIBITION, PART I

Austrian and German Expressionism

As many people know, in 2001 the New York collector Ronald Lauder decided to name his Museum of Austrian and German Art, the Neue Galerie, after the original Vienna gallery of Otto Kallir, founder of the Galerie St. Etienne. It was an exceedingly gracious way to honor the man who had introduced such luminaries as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele to the United States, and whose 57th Street gallery has, since 1939, been a way station for many other pioneering German and Austrian modernists. The august, exquisitely renovated museum on Fifth Avenue is also a telling affirmation of the extent to which, over 65 years, the Galerie St. Etienne has succeeded in securing the American reputations of artists who were once entirely unknown on these shores. And yet it is hard to imagine two places as different as Lauder’s grand museum and the original Neue Galerie, a warren of unassuming rooms on the Grünangergasse, about a block from the Cathedral of St. Stephen in the heart of old Vienna. The history of the Galerie St. Etienne’s last 65 years is a tale of triumph, but it is also a tale of massive change and upheaval.

 

In 1923, when the original Neue Galerie opened, Austria was at a political and economic crossroads. The nation had only just emerged in 1918 from the far larger Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was dismantled after its defeat in the First World War. As the new country struggled to reconfigure a national identity, it also had to contend with the loss of an industrial base located in former territories that were now independent. The widespread fear that Austria could not make it on its own was one factor that eventually contributed to its absorption, in 1938, into the German Reich of Adolf Hitler. Thus from the beginning of his career, Kallir had to contend personally with fallout from historical events. His once prosperous, middleclass family had lost most of their assets with the collapse of the Empire. And the rising tide of anti-Semitism after World War I made it impossible for Kallir to pursue his chosen profession, engineering. Having served a brief apprenticeship with an uncle who owned a printing press, he turned his childhood interests in manuscript collecting and art into his first business venture. The Verlag Neuer Graphik, a publisher of original art prints and deluxe book editions, issued its inaugural publication, a portfolio of lithographs by the abstract artist Johannes Itten, in 1919.

 

Although both the Verlag Neuer Graphik and Neue Galerie were established at an inauspicious political moment, Kallir was responsive to the tastes and economic requirements of his times. Trial and error, false starts and concessions to practicality were thus as much a part of the program at both enterprises as were the ambitious projects for which they are today best remembered. With the backing of the financier Richard Kola, Kallir's Verlag issued a portfolio of eight Schiele prints in 1922, as well as lavishly bound editions containing original graphics by Alfred Kubin, Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel, Oskar Laske and Julius Zimpel (co-director, from 1923 until his premature death in 1925, of the Wiener Werkstätte). Kola’s bankruptcy more or less coincided with the founding of the Neue Galerie, and the Verlag Neuer Graphik morphed into the Johannes Presse, named after Kallir’s newborn son. The Neue Galerie represented many of the same artists as the Verlag Neuer Graphik, and the Johannes Presse continued to publish their work periodically. Among the Johannes Presse’s more notable achievements was a comedy, Ebbi, written and illustrated with etchings by Max Beckmann, and a play illustrated by Oskar Kokoschka and written by his brother Bohuslav. Sometimes working in conjunction with the Hagenbund, a non-profit artist’s association, the Neue Galerie mounted major exhibitions of such modern Austrian masters as Schiele, Klimt and Kokoschka. In 1931, Kallir “discovered” Richard Gerstl, a totally unknown artist who had committed suicide in 1908 and who is now considered one of Austria’s foremost and earliest Expressionists. Equally important, at a time when Austria suffered from entrenched cultural provincialism, the Neue Galerie promoted the work of major foreign artists such as Lovis Corinth, Edvard Munch, Auguste Renoir, Paul Signac and Vincent van Gogh.

 

Yet the Neue Galerie’s many forward-thinking projects, though sometimes quite costly, were not necessarily lucrative. Austrian collectors remained essentially conservative, and Kallir paid his bills primarily though the sale of works by nineteenth-century artists such as Thomas Ender, Friedrich Gauermann, Anton Romako and Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller. During the Depression that followed the American stock-market crash of 1929, Kallir widened his net even further in an attempt to make ends meet. Tapping his own old collecting interests, he showed musical manuscripts by Johann Strauss, historical documents from World War I and aeronautical memorabilia. He held periodic exhibitions of low-budget works, rented out the Neue Galerie at night to an acting school and took photographs of stage personalities for the local press.

 

When faced with imminent, massive changes in ones historical circumstances, it can be hard to distinguish between prudence and paranoia. Otto Kallir, who all his life had been aware of the process of history unfolding around him, was keenly attuned to the threat posed by Hitler’s rise to power in neighboring Germany. As early as 1935, Kallir sold his aeronautical collection in Switzerland and banked the proceeds there. He fought for Austria’s independence up until the moment of the Nazi Anschluss in March 1938 (a position that soon put him on the Gestapo’s watch list), but he also sent more money abroad in late 1937, so that when the time came, he had the wherewithal to finance his family’s emigration. As it was illegal for Jews to own businesses under the Nazis, he sold the Neue Galerie to his “Aryan” secretary, Vita Künstler. With the help of Künstler and other sympathetic gentiles, he was quickly able to wrap up his affairs and arrange to export his household goods and a portion of his art inventory (consisting chiefly of the so-called “degenerate” modern works that were of little interest to Hitler). In June, after depositing his wife and two children in German-speaking Switzerland, Kallir set off for Paris, where he established the Galerie St. Etienne. The new French name was an homage to the Cathedral of St. Stephen and to the Viennese heritage that he hoped to preserve.

 

Because the Swiss would not give him a work permit and the French would not grant his wife and children entrance visas, Kallir searched for a third country willing to take them all. In 1939, through the exceptional kindness of his former sister-in-law and her American second husband, Kallir obtained United States visas for the entire family. They arrived in New York that September, just days before the Second World War broke out in Europe. By November 1939, the Galerie St. Etienne’s New York branch was up and running. The gallery’s initial program covered the same eclectic mix of subjects that had lately characterized the Neue Galerie; if one venture failed, Kallir had the flexibility to mount another. In addition to introducing the principal Austrian modernists—Klimt (given his first American one-man show in 1959), Kokoschka (1940), Kubin (1941) and Schiele (1941)—the gallery showcased nineteenth-century Austrian art (far less successfully than in Vienna), historical documents and French modernism (the only school of modernism for which there was then a market in America). The Galerie St. Etienne came, over the years, to focus more intently on some of the German artists, such as Lovis Corinth and Käthe Kollwitz, who had figured only sporadically in the program of its Viennese predecessor. Among the German artists who had their first American one-person exhibitions here were Erich Heckel (1955) and Paula Modersohn-Becker (1958).

 

Although he mounted a pioneering show of American abstract art in 1940 (which included work by Josef Albers and Arshile Gorky), Otto Kallir found the local contemporary art scene on the whole disappointing and derivative. Believing that American photographic postcards were completely lacking in artistic merit, he sponsored an emigré photographer, H. W. Hannau, and launched a short-lived company to publish scenic views. Kallir felt that the intrinsic genius of his adopted homeland was encapsulated not in its “high” art, but in Native American crafts, Walt Disney cartoons and folk art. During the first four decades of the twentieth century, interest in self-taught artists was very much part of the modernist philosophy, and Kallir was attracted to both nineteenth-century and contemporary exemplars of the genre. He is, however, most frequently associated with the “discovery” of Grandma Moses, who had her first one-woman show at the Galerie St. Etienne in October 1940. (Part II of the Galerie St. Etienne’s 65th Anniversary Exhibition, scheduled to open on January 18, 2005, will focus on self-taught art.)

 

When Otto Kallir was a boy in Vienna, art dealers were hardly different from other small shopkeepers, such as booksellers. (And in fact, several prominent early twentieth-century Austrian art dealers, such as Hugo Heller and Richard Lanyi, were booksellers.) Both in Austria and elsewhere, however, modernism demanded a change in the art dealer’s approach. In order to create a market for art that was deliberately challenging, dealers had to become impresarios and ambassadors, forging links between the artistic community and a skeptical public. In America, modernism was initially a foreign import, and dealers often served an educational function which equaled or surpassed that of local museums. This was a role, as it turned out, to which Kallir was extremely well suited, and he flourished in New York’s adventuresome environment as he never could have in more conservative Vienna. That is not to say he had an easy time of it. At first his English was poor, his American professional contacts nil and his most-cherished artists virtually unknown outside of Austria. Nonetheless, Kallir gradually built bridges to American curators and collectors, patiently imparting his own carefully cultivated knowledge and enthusiasm.

 

From 1939 to the present, educational activities have formed a significant part of the Galerie St. Etienne’s agenda. Starting with the Neue Galerie’s early collaborations with the Hagenbund, and continuing through Schiele’s and Klimt’s first American museum shows, Kallir allocated significant energies and resources to mounting loan exhibitions in which little or nothing was for sale. Understanding that American museums serve as gatekeepers to the public’s tastes, he endeavored to place as many major works as possible in institutional collections, selling them at a discount or giving them outright. He also shared his knowledge through the compilation of catalogues raisonnés: three on Schiele (1930, 1966 and 1970), and one each on Grandma Moses (1972) and Richard Gerstl (1974).

 

After Otto Kallir’s death in 1978, the Galerie St. Etienne not only continued but expanded upon these scholarly activities. Owing in part to the success of Kallir’s efforts, there was a much greater institutional demand for exhibitions on Austrian modernism, and over the last twenty-five years we have curated shows for museums all over America and Europe. Ambitious loan shows have also been a regular feature on our own 57th Street premises. Jane Kallir (Otto’s granddaughter and, along with his long-time partner Hildegard Bachert, gallery co-director) has written over a dozen art books, including the first catalogue raisonné of Schiele’s work in all media (1990; revised 1998). In addition, every Galerie St. Etienne exhibition since 1979 has been accompanied by an essay that either discusses an art-historical theme in depth, or endeavors to place the exhibited works in the context of current events and the market.

 

While the growing interest in Austrian and German Expressionism has created more demand for exhibitions and books on the subject, it has also, paradoxically, created less need for them. It is not longer necessary to proselytize on behalf of Germanic modernism, or for that matter, modernism in general. In this sense, many secondary market dealers today somewhat resemble the shopkeepers of yore; they do not have to mount exhibitions or even maintain public spaces. They cater to an established clientele, and their main task is chasing after an ever-dwindling supply of good inventory. The sort of scholarship required by today’s market is not so much educational as commercial. Rising prices have placed greater emphasis on such once arcane areas of study as authenticity and provenance. At the same time, an obsession with “masterpieces” often obscures the art-historical context provided by an artist’s lesser works or those of less illustrious contemporaries.

 

If there is one leitmotif that underlies all the Galerie St. Etienne’s activities, it is the appreciation of art-historical and historical context. The gallery was, after all, profoundly shaped by the forces of history: we and the art we represent literally would not be here today had Hitler not expelled us and it. None of us knows where history may take us next, but we do know that the present moment is only a transitory link between the past and the future. Thus in our exhibitions, books and checklist essays, we are constantly sifting through the shards of history, making connections and looking for explanations. The dialogue between art and its public changes all the time, as needs and interests change. In our ongoing attempts to chart that dialogue, we hope to offer not definitive answers, but at least helpful guidance.

 

We would like to warmly thank all the lenders whose generous cooperation has made this exhibition possible, including Mrs. Henry Grunwald, the Neue Galerie, New York, Mrs. Gilbert Rothschild and numerous anonymous collectors. A more detailed history of the Galerie St. Etienne may be found in Jane Kallir’s book Saved From Europe (112 pages; 33 color plates; 36 duotone illustrations). Copies may be ordered for $25.00 (hardcover) or $15.00 (soft cover), plus $7.00 postage and handing; New York residents please add sales tax. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Full sizes are given for paintings, watercolors and drawings, image sizes for prints. A selection of the exhibited works can be viewed on-line at www.gseart.com.