Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Galerie St. Etienne
Moses, Anna Mary Robertson ("Grandma")
Art Spiegelman, an artist represented by the Galerie St. Etienne in the 1990s, subtitled his renowned Holocaust memoir, Maus, "My Father Bleeds History." This can probably be said of every Holocaust survivor. However, it might more accurately be said that Otto Kallir, founder of the Galerie St. Etienne, and before that Vienna's Neue Galerie, breathed history. Kallir was keenly aware that history surrounds us, and he had a sure instinct for discerning which of myriad daily experiences could likely prove to be of lasting significance. As a boy, he followed the Wright Brothers' experiments in distant North Carolina, convinced that aviation would one day revolutionize human travel. As a collector, again from a young age, he was fascinated by the physical traces of human achievement, be these in the form of aeronautica, musical manuscripts or historical documents. When Hitler came to power in neighboring Germany, Kallir had no illusions about the potential threat, and he made preliminary plans to emigrate already in 1935. He and his immediate family fled Austria in June 1938, scarcely three months after the Nazi Anschluss and just hours before the Gestapo intended to arrest him.
Kallir's eye for art was of a piece with his feeling for history. Equally appreciative of quality and context, he was absolutely steadfast in his judgments. In many cases, his choices were not at the time obvious. The Austrian modernists--Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin and Egon Schiele--were virtually unknown in the United States when the Galerie St. Etienne opened its doors here in 1939. Anna Mary Roberston ("Grandma") Moses was an obscure farmwoman when Kallir mounted her first exhibition in 1940, and her rise to fame after World War II flew in the face of the entire American art world. Overall, St. Etienne's program was decidedly at odds with the formalist dogma put forth by critics such as Clement Greenberg and his allies at the Museum of Modern Art. Figural, folk, humanistic--the Galerie St. Etienne's artists present dissenting views and suggest alternate histories that challenge the dominant narratives of twentieth-century art.
The advent of modernism in Europe at the turn of the last century upended the structure of the Western art world. Through responses varied from country to country, artist to artist, modernists shared an aversion to the existing art establishment: the academies and salons that controlled the market and, in the artists' view, perpetuated stultifying, moribund aesthetic traditions. The modernists were not necessarily political, but they possessed an inochoate belief that art might remake society, or at the very least, that the rampant social changes of the industrial age demanded a new art. Their art was unlike anything that had graced the walls of nineteenth-century salons. Difficult for the average viewer to comprehend and widely reviled by professional critics, modern art in its early days depended on the support of a small cadre of committed collectors, curators and dealers. Gallerists such as Ambrose Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in France, Paul Cassirer and Herwarth Walden in Germany and Otto Kallir in Austria were proselytizers for the new art. By painstakingly educating the public, they created not only a market for modern art, but also the modern art market.
The selling of modern art, both commerically and intellectually, accelerated significantly in the years between the two world wars. The genre's subordinate "isms"--Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, Surrealism--became brands that could be used for promotional purposes, as well as explanatory categories wielded by art historians and curators. During the First World War, both sides had banned the enemy's culture, and as a result, many of the "isms" acquired nationalistic associations in the postwar period. "Expressionism," a term originally used by Lovis Corinth to distinguish the Fauves from the Impressionists, now became a specifically Germanic designation, albeit one artists themselves seldom embraced. In the United States, modernism was a foreign import with a decidedly French orientation. For Americans, wartime alliances enduringly ratified Paris's stature as the cener of the international art world.
Within this context, Austria was doubly cursed. Not only had that nation been on the losing side in World War I, it had sacrificed its identity to Germany as a result of the 1938 Anschluss. The Galerie St. Etienne's inaugural exhibition of nineteenth-century "Austrian Masters" in November 1939 was characterized as a "quaint display" by the New York Herald Tribune. Klimt and Schiele, introduced to the American public in a group exhibition several months later, were given scant chances of success. "It is difficult to awaken enthusiasm at this time for artists so little known and appreciated here and for many years passed from the contemporary scene in Europe," the Tribune opined. Among the triumvirate of great Austrian modernists, only Kokoschka was still alive, and because he had spent much of his career abroad, he was routinely grouped with the German Expressionists. Though Kokoschka's work was hardly popular (the New York Times called his colors "bilious"), the artist's higher profile yielded the Galerie St. Etienne some modest successes, most notably the sale, in 1940, of a major landscape oil to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo.
German Expressionism, unlike its Austrian counterpart, did enjoy some recognition in the United States. In addition to the Albright's Director, Gordon Washburn, American advocates of Germanic art prior to World War II included Henry Rossiter at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Carl Schniewind at the Brooklyn Museum, Carl Zigrosser at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Perry Rathbone at the St. Louis Museum and William Valentiner, Director of the Detroit Institute of Art. Valentiner was, among other things, an advisor to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the guiding force behind the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA's founding Director, Alfred Barr, had traveled widely in Europe, and in 1931 the museum mounted a groundbreaking exhibition of German Expressionism. Nevertheless, Barr noted disapprovingly in the catalogue that "German art is as a rule not pure art." Unlike French modernism it did not focus on "form and style as ends in themselves."
As MoMA's first Director, Barr wanted to contruct an intellectual framework that could be used to explain modernism and sell it to the general public. His efforts culminated in a highly influential chart, which was reproduced on the cover of the museum's 1936 catalogue, "Cubism and Abstract Art." With scant attention to the artists' individual contexts or avowed philosophical aims, Barr reduced the welter of multinational "isms" to their lowest common denominator. His chart plotted two essentially formal trajectories: the first leading from Cézanne to Cubism and thence to Constructivism, and the second leading from Gauguin through the Fauves to Expressionism and Surrealism. The first thread culminated in geometrical abstraction, the second in nongeometrical abstraction. That was it. Modernism came down to a choice between regular or irregular shapes the "square" or the "amoeba."
It is no coincidence that the interlocking "isms" on Barr's flowchart were almost exclusively European. Barr prized innovation, and Americans had not thus far been leaders in the international move towards abstraction. Believing that when it came to painting and sculpture, Americans remained inferior to the French, Barr placed special emphasis, in MoMA's programming and departmental structure, on photography, film, architecture and industrial design: areas in which the United States was widely agreed to excel. The view was resoundingly, and somewhat more harshly, affirmed by the French press in 1938, when MoMA sent a survey, "Three Centuries of American Art," to the Jeu de Paume. For Europeans, America was synonymous with Hollywood and skyscrapers. The United States was simply too youg, as a nation, to have developed the cultural traditions required to nurture meaningful fine art.
Europeans responded more favorably to America's folk arts and self-taught painters. Serious interest in such work had been initiated by modernists like Picasso and Kandinsky, who were inspired by the relative creative freedom of unschooled artists. This viewpoint became established in the United States when a Pittsburgh housepainter, John Kane, was admitted to the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition in 1927. MoMA, founded two years later, quickly became a strong supporter of nonacademic American art. During the museum's first decade, Kane was included in no fewer than four roundups of contemporary trends, as well as a groundbreaking 1938 survey of self-taught artists, "Masters of Popular Painting." Barr at the time described the genre as one of the "major... movements of modern art," on a par with Cubism and Surrealism. In 1941, when MoMA opened its first gallery devoted to the permanent collection, the selection was limited to the work of untrained painters. Averring that these so-called "modern primitives" were more "international in character" than their trained American colleagues, Barr thought the new display was an ideal way to introduce the American public to the museum's tenets. This was modernism lite.
Like Barr and other partisans of the European avant-garde, Kallir did not initially find the contemporary American art scene particularly inspiring. He felt that the nation's nonacademic creations, whether produced in the pueblos of the Southwest or the hills of upstate New York, were far more vital and original. While the Galerie St. Etienne's 1940 Grandma Moses exhibition fit within an accepted art-world paradigm, it turned out that the artist also had an overwhelming popular appeal. Partly this was due to her advanced age and genuinely folksy personality, but beyond this, Moses represented an idealized vision of America that had originated in the depths of the Great Depression and would continue to resonate in the Cold War years. Similar to other self-taught painters who caught the eye of the art establishment in the 1930s, Moses epitomized democratic egalitarianism and self-made success. Often wrongly characterized as nostalgic, her paintings did not so much enshrine the past as depict enduring human values capable of withstanding both economic upheaval and the destructive force of mechanized warfare.
For a very brief period, self-taught artists like Kane and Moses were accorded a singular stature within the U.S. art world: they were perceived as being simultaneously American and modern. However, trained American artists resented being upstaged by amateurs, and when MoMA gave a one-man show to the retired garment worker Morris Hirshfield in 1943, a huge uproar ensued. MoMA's chairman, Stephen C. Clark, perceiving Barr as a threat to the museum's dignity, had him removed forthwith from his post as Director. Not only did MoMA hereafter cease promoting the work of self-taught artists, but the art word as a whole turned its back on the genre. In the wake of World War II, the United States needed a sophisticated art commensurate with its new position as a global superpower. When a Grandma Moses show, sent to Europe in 1950, received rave reviews, American critics were nonplussed. "Europeans like to think of Grandma Moses as a representative of American art," the New York Times complained. "[She] represents both what they expect of us and what they are willing to grant of us."
Moses unwittingly got caught up in a far-ranging battle for America's artistic identity. Even as the art world yearned for a sophisticated national art, the American public remained suspicious of modernism. "Ham-and-eggs art," President Truman called Jackson Pollock's dribbles. Right-wing congressmen thought abstration was a Communist plot. At the same time, Moses was probably the most beloved artist in America, the subject of best-selling books, mass-produced greeting cards and one of the first televised "docu-dramas." Unfortunately, popular success proved anathema to the postwar art establishment. Critics such as Dwight Macdonald, Russell Lynes and Clement Greenberg believed that democracy, universal literacy and technology were destroying American culture by dumbing it down for the masses. They sliced culture into high, low and middlebrow segments, or as Greenberg famously put it "avant-garde and kitsch." In a consumer society, only the avant-garde was capable of creating legitimate art, which was, by definition, incomprehensible to the masses.
Greenberg was pivotal in retooling Barr's formalism for the postwar era. Both men agreed that since the merits of an artwork derive solely from its aesthetic components, resemblance to nature might as well be dispensed with. Greenberg further decreed that the only viable subject for art is art itself. "Content," he wrote, "is to be dissolved so completely into form, that the work of art... cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself." This art of pure form first revealed itself, to Greenberg and others, in Abstract Expressionism. The Abstract Expressionists had absorbed the lessons of the European avant-garde and then bested it at its own game. The many vectors in Barr's flowchart, implying historical inevitability, had merged and then emerged in a single location: The United States of America.
Despite the American public's lingering unease with Abstract Expressionism, the genre proved to be the perfect art form for the Cold War. Ideologically neutral, abstraction was said to represent creative freedom, an imposing moral counterweight to the Soviet Union's socialist-realist propaganda. In jettisoning content, however, apologists for the postwar American avant-garde rejected, ignored or misinterpreted vast swaths of modernist art history. Combined with the Cold War's political agenda, this created a vexed environment for socially engaged artists such as Käthe Kollwitz. Contemporary humanists like Leonard Baskin found themselves in a position similar to that of Grandma Moses: successful, but increasingly at odds with the critical elite. The irony is that, for all its purported political neutrality, abstraction was promoted by an anti-Communist idealogy as rigid as anything in the Soviet Union.
Yet even at the height of the Cold War, the American art scene was far from monolithic. Kallir persisted in his program of educating the public about Austria's figural Expressionists by repeatedly exhibiting their work, and he gradually forged alliances with like-minded museum personnel. Under the aegis of Richard Davis, the Minneapolis Institute of Art became the first American museum to acquire a Schiele oil, through a bargain sale facilitated by the Galerie St. Etienne. Through gift or sale, Kallir placed Klimt paintings in the collections of Harvard, MoMA, the Carnegie Museum and the National Gallery of Art. MoMA turned down Kallir's offer to give them a Schiele oil, but Thomas Messer, Director of the Guggenheim, was delighted to accept. Messer also collaborated with Kallir on the first American museum show of Schiele's work, which traveled to six institutions in 1960, and on a monumental Klimt/Schiele exhibition, held at the Guggenheim in 1965. Many of Kallir's scholarly counterparts had roots in Central Europe. Messer was a Czech émigré, and Peter Selz, who wrote one of the first English-language textbooks on Expressionism, had fled Nazi Germany before the war. Gradually these cumulative efforts trickled down to younger American art historians like James Demetrion and Alessandra Comini. Modernism's Germanic strain has since been acknowledged on its own terms in major exhibitions at the Getty, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery and many other American institutions, as well as by the establishment of the Neue Galerie New York, Ronald Lauder's museum of Austrian and German art.
These relatively recent developments are part of a broader, ongoing effort to extract modernism's multivalent components from the formalist schema imposed by Barr, Greenberg and others. Modernism is no longer seen as a singular movement, deriving from similarly cohesive component "isms," but rather as a complex web of loosely related aesthetic impulses incorporating minutely calibrated personal and local differences. "Folk," "primitive" or "outsider" art, long modernism's impoverished stepchild, is also coming in for reappraisal. For the first time, the self-taught artist's intentions, methods and individual context are receiving serious attention. To some extent, these changes reflect the decentralization of the art world produced by globalization. The United States is no longer an overarching superpower. As centrifugal forces continue to draw money and attention to areas like China, India and the Middle East, we can expect to witness the critical elevation of innumerable artistic creations that would formerly have been dismissed.
Today it is not so necessary to win "converts" to the cause of figural Expressionism, but correcting the broad stereotype of the past through in-depth research remains of pressing concern. Since Otto Kallir's death in 1978, his successors Hildegard Bachert and Jane Kallir have considerably expanded the Galerie St. Etienne's commitment to scholarship. The Schiele catalogue raisonné project, begun by Otto Kallir when he was still in Vienna and continued by his grand-daughter Jane, has acquired increased significance in light of the artist's high values and the concomitant proliferation of forgeries. Provenance research, too, has greater meaning in a climate newly hospitable to Holocaust-related restitution, a cause championed by the Galerie St. Etienne long before it became fashionable. In addition to her many Schiele publications, Jane Kallir has writted extensively on all the gallery's artists, and her quarterly newsletters have won a wide following. In 1980, St. Etienne established the practice (then virtually unheard of for commerical galleries) of mounting ambitious loan shows on its own premises. The gallery has also, in the intervening decades, curated exhibitions for over 50 museums across Europe, the U.S and Asia, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Belvedere in Vienna.
The artists represented by the Galerie St. Etienne over the course of its 75-year history vary greatly, but all share a common humanistic orientation. Content and form complement one another in their work, combining to affect the viewer on a profoundly personal level. In the last decades, the gallery has broadened its original Austrian base to encompass the full range of German Expressionism. Similarly, the gallery has extended its reach from prewar self-taught painters, such as Hirshfield, Kane and Moses to art brut and "outsiders." Sue Coe, a contemporary artist who mines the same vein of social criticism as Käthe Kollwitz, has been represented by St. Etienne since 1989. Leonard Baskin joined the gallery's roster in 2007.
The alternate views of art history presented at the Galerie St. Etienne offer more than just a corrective to an outmoded formalism. The lasting resonance of the St. Etienne artists cautions us not to take too seriously any of the art world's momentary trends. As Otto Kallir knew, one needs a deep understanding of historical context, as well as an instinct for quality, to assess any artist's long-term importance. Kallir once predicted that formalist art would not ultimately survive, because future generations will lack the specific theoretical grounding required to make sense of it. Great art taps into universals that transcend the boundaries of time and place.