How the Museum of Modern Art in New York Canonised German Expressionism

By Langfeld, Gregor | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2014 | Go to article overview

How the Museum of Modern Art in New York Canonised German Expressionism


Langfeld, Gregor, Journal of Art Historiography


This paper will consider why and how the negative attitude towards German Expressionism in the USA changed abruptly in the second half of the 1930s.1 Alfred H. Barr Jr., the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) at that time, played a crucial role in canonising this form of art. In order to gain an insight into this volte-face, it will be necessary to consider the reception of German Expressionism that preceded it. Although the movement was present in the USA from the beginning of the 1920s, for a long time German Expressionism had only very few supporters and collectors and it was generally met with disapproval.

Obviously, various groups and institutions play a role in the art canonisation process: artists, gallery owners, private art collectors, patrons and art dealers all responded to modern art earlier than the museums. However, it was the museums in the first half of the twentieth century that eventually gave a real boost to the art forms that they patronised and their vision of them. MoMA, founded in 1929, marked an increasing institutionalisation and professionalisation of the modern art scene. The New York museum quickly became a role model, recognised as the most important museum of modern art in the USA. Crucially, it contributed to the establishment of the reputation of modern German art outside of Germany.

Other groups on the American art scene, and the artists themselves, had supported this art even earlier and maintained close contacts with German artists, but they were unable to gain acceptance for their view. Katherine Dreier and the Société Anonyme that she cofounded with Marcel Duchamp in 1920 can be regarded as an example of this. Their goal had been to foster understanding of modern art in the USA. Very soon, however, it was primarily Dreier who organised the society's ongoing activities, since Duchamp returned to France in early 1923. Over the next two decades she organised around ninety exhibitions, gave numerous lectures and organised discussions and symposia.2

When Dreier was studying in Munich in the winter of 1911-12, she heard about Wassily Kandinsky for the first time.3 His influential book Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1912)4 helped her clarify her vague ideas of art. She agreed with Kandinsky's analogy of painting and music. In late 1922, after meeting him at the Bauhaus in October, she appointed him the 'first honorary vice-president' of the Société Anonyme.5

Dreier's idea of modern art was tied to theosophy. Avant-garde artists in particular felt a tie to this religious doctrine because it attributed particular importance to abstract art. They were convinced that they were living at the beginning of a great new era, whose effects would be revealed internationally in all intellectual fields. Ultimately, Katherine Dreier felt artistically closer to Kandinsky's intuitive approach and his idea of the spiritual significance of abstract art, than to Duchamp's more intellectual position. Although she advocated the broad spectrum of the avant-garde that was inclined to abstraction, she distanced herself from naturalism and figurative Expressionism. To Dreier, the realism of the Brücke (Bridge) artists, who directly depicted their sensory experiences, did not seem spiritual enough.

In essence, she subordinated everything to her ideas of universal, 'cosmic forces'.6 Her irrational, extra-aesthetic view of art must have seemed suspect to the experts and to sober observers. The critics had no sympathy for Dreier's metaphysical views, her assumption of a cosmic force as the driving force of artistic activity. Several critics responded cynically and rejected her views as mere rhetoric used to legitimise weak art. In connection with Dreier's most important exhibition, International Exhibition of Modern Art (1926-27),7 most reviewers found that abstract art was purely decorative, lacking sensitivity and intellectual depth.8 Only a very small number of critics saw a lasting value in the exhibits, even as applied art outside the museum. …

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