The German art collector who introduced the “Blue Four” artists to the United States

Galka Scheyer in her house on Blue Heights Drive (circa 1940-1943) (photo by Lette Valeska © Estate of Alexander Hammid)

LOS ANGELES – The work “Refuge” by Paul Klee presented in the exhibition Master of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, shows the arms and head of a disembodied figure who appears to be swimming or perhaps rising out of the ground. Colors are dull and gray, and the fine hatch marks add a layer of instability to the cracked and uneven surface. Created in 1930, the work seems to portend a sense of terror that would seize a community of artists sandwiched between World War I and World War II, forced to create lives and produce art. far from their home.

Master of Modernism focuses on Emilie Esther Scheyer, a beloved art dealer who moved to Los Angeles in 1930. When she left Germany in 1924, first for New York, then the Bay Area, Scheyer dedicated his life to circulating works of art from the interwar period of the European Avant-garde to the United States. Although she has an eye for the work of El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters and Edward Weston, Scheyer primarily promoted the “Blue Four” artists, who became known for their foray into modernist abstraction: the aforementioned Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Alexei Jawlensky, and Vassily Kandinsky. Scheyer first became obsessed with art thanks to her acquaintance with Jawlensky, of Russian descent, whom she met as a young woman in 1916. He eventually linked Scheyer to the larger circle of European modernists. and named it with the nickname “Galka”, the word for the jackdaw bird.

Emil Nolde, “Head in Profile” (1919), watercolor and India ink on beige wove paper, 14-1 / 2 x 11-1 / 8 in. (Norton Simon Museum, the Blue Four Galka Scheyer Collection © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, Germany)

Scheyer loosely grouped the four artists together under the name “Blue Four” to refer to the artist group “Der Blaue Reiter” (Blue Rider) in which Kandinsky, Jawlensky and Klee had participated in Munich. Kandinsky, whose association with theosophy strongly shaped his theories of art and color, believed that blue had powerful mystical qualities. The name Scheyer chose and his visual identity – four parallel stripes in blue – were also easily translatable into many languages ​​and cultures, reflecting the universality of abstraction in artistic production. Scheyer’s influence has spanned California from north to south, from the Bay Area to Carmel-by-the-Sea to Los Angeles, and even spread to Mexico, where she has met and bonded from friendship with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The Norton Simon exhibition traces the history of the travel exhibition blue four exhibition, which will be launched in Los Angeles in 1926 and will travel to Oakland and Mexico City in 1931, among others.

Scheyer was friends with major collectors in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. She hosted informal, lounge-style gatherings at her elegant home designed by Richard Neutra in Los Angeles, and connected artists and artists. patrons thanks to its vast network. She introduced the work of the Blue Four to collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, who had settled permanently in Hollywood in 1921 and also played an important role in spreading the influence of the European avant-garde in Los Angeles and in all the countries. (Marcel Duchamp, a close friend of the couple, has often guided their sponsorship decisions.) Many Americans were skeptical of works of art originating in Western Europe, as evidenced by the critical outcry around the Armory Show of 1913. As critic Christopher Knight notes, the Sun, a conservative periodical, published accompanying the doggerel: “Terrible lack of technique / Lots of painting / Makes a cubist image / Looks like it’s not.” Regardless, the collections amassed by this group now inform the modern art wings of many art institutions in the United States.

Vasily Kandinsky, “Heavy Circles” (1927), Oil on canvas, 22-1 / 2 x 20-1 / 2 in. (Norton Simon Museum, the Blue Four Galka Scheyer Collection © Norton Simon Museum)

Scheyer donated his collection to the Pasadena Art Institute, now the Norton Simon Museum, in the 1950s. The exhibition includes two larger galleries and a smaller gallery: visitors enter a space dedicated to the presentation of works. Blue Four artists, then are guided through a gallery of works by other artists whose careers Scheyer has helped cultivate, such as Peter Krasnow, Imogen Cunningham, László Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Archipenko. There is abundant correspondence between Scheyer and many parties, including artists and art institutions. A letter Jawlensky sent to Scheyer in 1928 features a colorful sketch and complaints of cold weather, while Jawlensky lightly asks the dealership for more customers. Feininger writes to Scheyer that the “ship goes down, goes down, goes down” as the Bauhaus closes in Weimar. The smaller gallery has a group of charming portraits of Scheyer completed by his artist friends, as well as artwork from their young children – refrigerator designs by Felix Klee and Brett Weston – and announcements for Scheyer’s lectures. , which showcase Scheyer’s dedication to arts education. at all levels.

The Master of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California at the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA (photo by Nicholas Gingold / Capture Imaging)

These artists and intellectuals would also contribute to the educational foundations of various academic institutions in the United States, including developments in arts education at the Museum of Modern Art led by Victor D’Amico. Scheyer herself taught youth at Anna Head School in Berkeley and Broadoaks School in Pasadena. Feininger accepted a teaching post at Mills College in Oakland in 1936. Many Bauhaus associates lent their talents to experimental programs such as Black Mountain College in North Carolina. A contingent from the Frankfurt school has taken up residence at the New School for Social Research in New York. Intrepid figures of German avant-garde theater and cinema, such as Bertolt Brecht and Fritz Lang, would travel to Hollywood – exiled by the Pacific Ocean with some reluctance and bitterness.

As the historical records show, despite the efforts of those like Scheyer who attempted to cultivate and provide spaces for these emigrants to thrive in the United States while their homes and culture were ransacked in Europe, the United States Unis and their citizens did not necessarily welcome these artists with open arms. Roosevelt and his ilk limited quotas to curb the flow of immigration, and many protested the arrival of these desperate and weary refugees by aligning themselves with a local movement supporting white nationalists and the Nazis. Master of Modernism reveals Scheyer’s influence in shaping public perception of modern European art, as well as a glimpse into a not too distant past, icyly similar to ours.

Master of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California continues at the Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena until September 25.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Galka Scheyer moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1930. This is incorrect; she moved from the Bay Area. This has been corrected.

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