Exhibition review: Alfred Flechtheim: Kunsthändler der Moderne at the Georg Kolbe Museum, Berlin

Art historian and Museum Bookstore friend, Jean Marie Carey reviews Alfred Flechtheim: Kunsthändler der Moderne at the Georg Kolbe Museum, Berlin - an exhibition about the colourful art dealer and publisher, Alfred Flechtheim.

Exhibition poster for Alfred Flechtheim: Kunsthändler der Moderne at the Georg Kolbe Museum, Berlin

Alfred Flechtheim: Kunsthändler der Moderne is the first exhibition in Berlin dedicated to one of the avant-garde’s most beloved enthusiasts, its uniqueness elevated by its emphasis on sculpture. Though curator Dr. Julia Wallner clearly knows better, she casts this collection assembled around artists Flechtheim befriended and represented as an historical bygone, the phenomenon of a decade of innocence long ago, not an 85-years- long confrontation over the nature, and then the fate, of entartete Kunst.

It is in fact precisely the issue of Raubkunst – art looted by the Nazis – that has returned Flechtheim to mainstream prominence. The heirs of the collector and dealer have filed a lawsuit against Bavaria, and by extension several German and U.S. museums, over paintings by Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and others seized from Flechtheim’s galleries in Germany and Austria when he was forced to close them and flee to London in 1933. [1]

Yet Wallner’s curatorial strategy has paid off in a striking exhibition in which Flechtheim is far more than a phantom. We meet him in the comfortable foyer of Kolbe Museum in the form of the stark, sensual bust by Rudolf Belling that has become the sigil of the show: expressive profile, mobile eyebrows, and robust mouth – lively, decadent, vulnerable, and sad.


From this vestibule I could also look out into the garden at four very large sculptures by namesake Georg Kolbe, whose home and studio the property on Berlin’s west side once was. This physical and mental re-placement here, and via the museum’s skylights and floor-to- ceiling windows facing the same grotto in its main gallery, made for a nice flow of meditation on history as well as formal content. 

There is not a single, canonical marquis work as headliner. The differentiation amid forms should also not be confused with an effort to represent typologies of style but rather examples of the visibly intensive labour of sculpture, a quest for visual symbols, in the break from the academy, that would express inner realities, for shapes and textures that would provoke wonder and create sensation. At the same time the strand of Modernism that is manifesto and outrage is not at once evident.

Alfred Flechtheim exhibition Berlin

Some of the most poignant figures come via France. Edgar Degas's search for form ranged widely through medium, and though this quest was one of the driving forces in his painting, sculpture was not one of his obvious achievements. It was Flechtheim who saw the possibilities in the more than 100 wax models Degas left behind in his Paris studio, discovered after his death.

Flechtheim secured the rights to have the models cast in bronze, bringing many to German museums and private collectors. The Kolbe exhibit features two of these small dancers, displayed in vitrines, in poses that call attention to not only the grace but the strength of the female body, which is also the subject, though in a more transcendental guise, of Moissey Kogan.

Degas sculpture

Yielding to cultural pessimism and rejecting popular faith in material progress, Kogan’s response to modernity was to reestablish contact with age-old sources of meaning and vitality, connecting him to the Expressionist painters with whom he worked in Munich before the First World War. But it was also in Paris where Flechtheim and Kogan met. The lone Kogan work in the exhibition – a serene, three-quarter length classical pale torso – is really the show’s key work, effectively symbolizing the sense of death and loss that hovers.

Flechtheim exhibition Berlin

In fact Arno Breker’s bust of Kogan from 1928 strongly recalls a funeral mask, which in some ways it is. Breker, the sculptor who renounced internationalism to become a federal artist under National Socialism seems to have already been poised press physiognomy into service in what would soon become the cult of the body. After the Second World War, Breker cynically used his earlier acquaintance with Flechtheim and Kogan to rehabilitate his image. Kogan, a Jewish Russian, and Flechtheim, a Jew born in Münster, could not dispute Breker’s version of events. Ten years after Flechtheim was forced into exile in England, where he died penniless in 1937, Kogan, who had fled to Paris at the beginning of the war, was arrested in 1943, then transported to and murdered in Auschwitz.

Arno Breker's sculpture of Kogan

Perhaps the one bit of curatorial humour in the show is another Belling work, a large metallic abstraction, assertive in organic energy. Positioned to intrude on the conversation between a serene seated woman cloaked in alabaster by Gerhard Marcks and a standing, stretching bronze by Marg Moll, this sinister, dancing flower is the focal point of the Kolbe’s main gallery area.

The interesting placement of this sleek abstraction makes Ernst Barlach’s normally monumental works look rugged or like pastiches of pre-Columbian totems, but even to the most inexperienced eye, they still have a presence that places them outside of any temporal or categorical criteria.

If the character of the museum suggests an overall professional space of refinement, then anti-formal personal photographs and informational alcoves offer as an alternative the comfort and chaos of home. In fact one of the most striking aspects of the exhibition are displays about Flechtheim and his wife, Betty Goldschmidt Flechtheim (who, facing deportation, committed suicide in 1941), and also some of artists who were Flechtheim’s clients and friends in their intimate spaces, complete with stacks of toppling books and dogs hugging hearths. One vitrine displays covers, columns, and illustrations from Flechtheim’s house organ Der Querschnitt, a less-political, more pop-culture leaning Berlin counterpoint to Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm. The museum’s archival impulse extends through a particularly unusual and compelling ode to Renée Sintenis, incorporating tiny, Passbild-sized vernacular photos of the artist and her wire-haired fox terrier which make a lovely complement, and invite similar close inspection, of Sintenis’s palm-sized bronzes of foals and dogs.

Der Querschnitt

With respect to Flechtheim, the wall texts and photos must tread a thin line in presenting him as a unique man of outsized appetites that seemingly conflict with his refined collector’s eye; a ringmaster even amid the avant-garde’s carnival of characters; and a “type” of Modernist impresario – publisher, gallerist, socialite – who flourished briefly in Germany in the first decades of the 20th Century.

Flechtheim exhibition Berlin

In sculptural form this aesthetic quandary is perhaps expressed best again by Belling in his 1929 naturalistic study of Max Schmeling, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world – who was also friends with Flechtheim. Sports as an acceptable theme had, since the beginning of the 1900s, already crept – to the objection of some of the historical avant-garde including Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc – into modernist paintings by Max Liebermann and Robert Delaunay. As opposed to Breker, Belling’s interest in the boxer and other sports figures was, as with Delaunay, simply an acknowledgment of a more mediated modern world.

Rudolf Belling's sculpture of a boxer

No specific corresponding catalogue elaborates upon each sculpture in the exhibition, so visitors will want to make note of the informative wall texts in German and English. There is however an excellent companion volume of essays, Sprung in den Raum: Skulpturen bei Alfred Flechtheim (in German) which includes substantial essays about the featured artists, including those by Helen Shiner, the Oxford-based art historian compiling the Moissey Kogan catalogue raisonné and Arie Hartog, director of the Gerhard-Marcks- Haus in Bremen.

Jean Marie Carey (@PollyLeritae/ germanmodernism.org)

[1] Graham Bowley. “Jewish Dealer’s Heirs File Suit Over Art in Bavarian State Collection.” The New York Times, 6 December 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/06/arts/design/jewish-dealers- heirs-file-suit- over-art- in-bavarian- state-collection.html

The Georg Kolbe Museum, Sensburger Allee 25, Charlottenburg, Berlin. Daily from 10:00-18:00 through 17 September.

Sprung In Den Raum Skulpturen Bei Alfred Flechtheim, ed. Ottfried Dascher.  Nimbus Books,Switzerland.

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