Preserving links to Germany's avante-garde past
While the reception of German modernist art in the United States was long dominated by the role played by key museum professionals such as Alfred Barr and William Valentiner, private collectors of what was then contemporary art also contributed significantly to this history. Early collectors of modernism not only gathered together important works of art, but also helped to extend and sustain the institutional and interpersonal networks that supported the development and dissemination of German modernist art movements. Two such collectors were the Frankfurt-based Ludwig and Rosy Fischer. The fate of their collection of German Expressionist art—at one point one of the most significant private collections of Expressionism in Europe—helped to determine perceptions of this type of work in the United States in the second half of the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries. Today, a substantial portion of this collection is housed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia, where it stands as a valuable document of the networks that nurtured and sustained Expressionism in the early twentieth century.
As members of the wealthy Jewish bourgeoisie in pre-World War I Frankfurt, the Fischers believed that supporting art and culture was a civic duty. For them, support for the arts meant support for a better society, and their commitment to the arts was, in effect, a commitment to social progress. The Fischers declared that they began collecting paintings and sculptures because they wanted to “live with art,” and they firmly believed in the positive impact the exposure to art had on people’s lives. Accordingly, they surrounded themselves with art for their own edification and enjoyment, but, more importantly, they also collected with the goal of donating major works from their collection to a public museum so that others could also benefit from these works. Further, they focused on contemporary art, believing that their support for emerging artists not only helped the individual artists, but also ensured that the arts would continue to flourish in Germany.
Collecting Expressionist Art in Interwar Frankfurt
The Fischers began collecting art in 1905, and began to focus on Expressionism during World War I. Between 1916 and 1922, they assembled a collection of Expressionist work distinguished by its extraordinary quality and breadth. They purchased works primarily by artists formerly affiliated with the leading Expressionist artist groups that had formed before WWI, Brücke and the Blue Rider, focusing on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde. They also acquired works by members of the so-called “second generation” of Expressionists—artists radicalized by the horrors of the war, the moral and legislative strictures of the imperial regime, and the glaring inequalities that defined German society. Most of these artists allied themselves with socialist causes, and many supported the revolution that broke out at the end of the war. According to the Fischers’ daughter-in-law, Anne Fischer, although Ludwig and Rosy were properly bourgeois in many ways, they were deeply sympathetic to these radical artists’ goals, and they were, ultimately, “avant-garde” in their thinking.
The Fischers’ advocacy of Expressionism was rather unusual when compared with the aesthetically conservative tastes of the Frankfurt bourgeoisie. Expressionism was understood primarily as a youthful, anti-bourgeois form of artistic expression, and Ludwig was already in his mid-50s when he became interested in this work. Yet he and Rosy had been introduced to Expressionism by a very compelling guide—the gallery owner and dealer, Ludwig Schames. The gallery Schames and a partner opened in 1895 featured the latest developments in French art, primarily Post-Impressionism, along with the work of contemporary Frankfurt-based artists, and was significant for its location well outside the usual centers of artistic experimentation, Berlin and Munich. Schames also showed Expressionist art in the years leading up to and during the First World War, and one of the artists whose work he promoted most heavily was Kirchner. In fact, Schames’ gallery introduced the works of Kirchner to Frankfurt, and it was at the first show of paintings by this former Brücke artist in 1916 that the Fischers initially encountered his work.
This encounter set the course for the Fischers’ subsequent collecting. From Schames’ first exhibition of Kirchner’s paintings the Fischers purchased the Portrait of Dr. Alfred Döblin (1912), which can be understood as the germ of their Expressionist collection. The Fischers soon became experts in Expressionist art, and over the next 10 years, they steadily acquired Expressionist art, eventually amassing over 500 works. They drew on Schames’ expertise and his extensive contacts with artists and other dealers, but they quickly became acquainted with many of the artists themselves, and they immersed themselves in the study of Expressionist periodicals and literature, building a library of art historical and critical materials that reflected the depth of their knowledge of Expressionism and its aesthetic and historical contexts.
The Fischers’ collection became an important document of some of the key networks of exchange and support that both fostered and sustained the work of Expressionists. The subject matter of many of the pieces in their collection documents the composition of these Expressionist networks. The Fischers acquired a remarkable number of portraits of Expressionists and their milieu, including depictions of Schames, the composer Arnold Schönberg, the writer Döblin, Kirchner’s companion Erna, the painter Hans Gewecke, and numerous other portraits and self-portraits by various artists. Later additions to the collection provide further evidence of the importance of the Fischers as patrons for struggling artists.
These later additions mark a dramatic shift in the course of the collection. Ludwig had died in 1922, and Rosy, in an effort to find means to support her sons and herself during the period of interwar hyperinflation, opened her own gallery in her home, focusing primarily on the “second-generation” Expressionists. The gallery was not a financial success—Rosy Fischer was not, it seems, a very good businesswoman. As her son Ernst remarked years later, she often bought too much from artists for whom she felt sorry and refused to sell work to anyone who did not seem to understand the art fully. She did manage to stabilize her finances, however, with her decision to sell a select group of 24 paintings to the City Museum for Fine and Applied Arts in Halle. The sale was mutually beneficial. Rosy Fischer received a sizable sum, paid out as a lifetime annuity that enabled her to live comfortably without further sales, while the museum was able, in a single purchase, to acquire one of the highest-quality selections of German modernist paintings in any German public museum. However, Rosy was only able to enjoy this stability for a brief amount of time. While traveling in Egypt, she contracted an illness and died in 1926.
Emigration: The Fischer Collection and Expressionism in the United States
The remainder of the collection was divided between her sons Ernst and Max. Both of these men were well-educated professionals who, having been raised in their parents’ liberal household, understood the significance of the artwork that their parents had collected and were committed to keeping it in the family. However, once the Nazis came to power and the brothers found themselves forced into exile, the coherence of the collection was shattered. As a Jew sympathetic with socialist causes, Ernst Fischer, a physician and academic, was forced to resign his position in Frankfurt, and he and his wife Anne left Germany in 1934. Ernst was able to take his portion of his parents’ collection to his new home in the United States. The rest of the collection met with a very different fate. His brother Max, a journalist, remained in Germany longer, convinced that conditions would improve, and by the time he was forced to leave in 1938, he was only able to take, at most, a few paintings with him. The remaining works, as well as those sold to the museum in Halle, fell victim to the Nazis’ cultural purges. Expressionist art, declared by the Nazis to be “degenerate,” was ridiculed, removed from public view (except when included in the infamous Degenerate Art exhibitions), and either sold in order to finance Hitler’s military goals or destroyed.
The largest intact portion of the original Fischer collection is now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. After emigrating to the United States, Ernst and Anne Fischer eventually settled in Richmond, where Ernst became the chair of the Physiology Department at the Medical College of Virginia. Like Ludwig and Rosy, Ernst and Anne initially kept the collection primarily private, preferring to “live with art” as the collectors had, rather than selling the work (with the exception of four paintings), or even adding to the collection. Because Expressionism remained relatively unknown for many years in the United States—particularly in comparison with other forms of European modernism such as Impressionism and Cubism—visitors to the Fischers’ suburban home reacted with bafflement or patronizing curiosity when they saw the prints and paintings. The jarring perspectives and anti-naturalistic colors that define Expressionist art seemed strange, even amateurish, to eyes unfamiliar with Expressionism. Over time, however, Expressionism began to gain an increasing number of admirers in the United States. This broader acceptance emerged after several exhibitions devoted to Expressionist art. The Fischer collection played a role in helping to cultivate this greater appreciation of Expressionism in the United States, particularly in regions outside of the major U.S. cultural centers like New York and Chicago.
The Fischers were conscientious custodians of their collection and were careful about making decisions to loan their works for exhibitions. Most of the shows to which they loaned their pieces were smaller venues that were close enough to ensure that the works would not have far to travel. By lending works to these relatively obscure, regional exhibitions, Ernst and Anne Fischer ensured that the works would be seen by people who would likely have no other opportunities to travel to see art like this. One of the most significant show to which they loaned pieces was a 1958 retrospective of the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Held at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina, this exhibition was the first American retrospective devoted to Kirchner, and it is still regarded as the show that helped to establish Kirchner’s reputation in the United States as a significant twentieth-century artist. It was organized by the German émigré Wilhelm Valentiner. Valentiner was an art historian who, prior to his appointment as the first director of the NCMA, had worked at various American art museums since the first decade of the twentieth century, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Detroit Institute of Art. Valentiner had become a U.S. citizen in 1930, but maintained close contact with modernist developments in Germany and acted as a strong advocate for modern German art at the various institutions with which he was affiliated. Valentiner was well aware of the significance of the Fischer collection and its numerous works by Kirchner, and his show featured 20 items from the Fischers, including paintings, prints, and two rare examples of Kirchner’s experiments with jewelry-making. Valentiner’s decision to devote an entire exhibition to an artist who was virtually unknown in the United States at this time was bold. In the late 1950s, despite the influx of Germans who had fled to the United States to escape National Socialism, German modernism was not widely known outside of cities like New York, which had promoted German Expressionism and the Bauhaus for decades. French modernist movements such as Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism defined U.S. perceptions of European modernism at that point, and the Kirchner retrospective—and its featured works from the Fischer collection—helped to expand that definition.
While Ernst and Anne Fischer did not loan to exhibitions in Europe for many years, pieces from their collection became the centerpiece of a 1990 exhibition organized by the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, Germany entitled Exil und Expressionismus: Die Sammlung Ludwig und Rosy Fischer (Exile and Expressionism: The Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection). The museum, which had opened in 1988, was the result of concerted efforts to re-connect the city with its pre-National Socialist past, when Jewish contributions to the cultural life of Frankfurt had made it one of the most important sites of intellectual activity in Germany. When the exhibition’s organizers contacted Anne Fischer about the possibility of a show featuring the Fischer collection (Ernst had died in 1981), she readily agreed to loan works to it, indicating how fully she understood the significance of such a show. In a letter to the organizers, she wrote, “Your suggestion to arrange an exhibition of the…collection touched me deeply. For me, it is significant—as it is for you—that this collection of contemporary art, which was once driven from its home, can return and be shown in the new Jewish Museum—no longer as ‘degenerate,’ but as lovingly rescued by its Jewish caretakers.”
In order to convey the full scope and quality of the original Fischer collection, the curators attempted to reconstitute the original collection as much as possible. The works that Anne Fischer sent from the United States were thus reunited for the first time in decades with pieces from Max Fischer’s portion of the collection and with the paintings that had been purged from the museum in Halle, providing visitors to the exhibition with an opportunity to begin to assess the broader historical and cultural impact of the art that Ludwig and Rosy Fischer had assembled. Discussions of the exhibition appeared in newspapers and magazines all across Germany. Most reviewers noted that the significance of this “homecoming” of the collection was not simply its reassertion of the enduring vitality of Expressionism, but, more importantly, its status as testimony to the key role played by Jewish collectors in Germany’s cultural life and evidence of how deeply rooted support for progressive art and ideas had been in Germany before the Nazis came to power. This late twentieth-century exhibition of the Fischer collection thus helped to re-establish connections with Germany’s early twentieth-century, modernist past.
However, as important as it is for German history, the Fischer collection is of international significance. It stands as a record of Expressionist networks and has functioned as a key source of understanding the development and circulation of Expressionist art. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the 1989 exhibition in Frankfurt, the collection stands as a reminder of the enduring impact of regions not often thought of as sites of artistic experimentation. From its roots in Frankfurt to its current home in Richmond, the Fischer collection serves as a powerful transatlantic link between communities that fall outside of the usual cultural circuits. While Richmond and Frankfurt seem to have little in common beyond their status as cities not traditionally associated with significant support for radical art and ideas, they are joined by this important art collection and so participate in the ongoing circulation of the art and ideas encoded in the Expressionist works that comprise it. The collection continues to educate viewers about Expressionism and its history as part of the permanent holdings of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In keeping with Ludwig and Rosy Fischers’ original intentions, Ernst and Anne Fischer donated their collection to this public museum, where rotating selections of its many works ensure that these masterpieces of Expressionism will remain visible and freely accessible to all.
German modernism was not, however, completely unknown outside of New York. Valentiner promoted Expressionism while he was at the Detroit Institute of Art, and the well-known painter Max Beckmann had a considerable impact in St. Louis, having found a teaching position at Washington University after leaving Europe and a staunch supporter in the collector and advocate of German modernism Morton May.
“Ihr Vorschlag, im Jüdischen Museum in Frankfurt eine Ausstellung der Sammlung… zu veranstalten, hat mich tief gerührt. Wie für Sie, so ist auch für mich der Gedanke bedeutungsvoll, daß diese Sammlung von zeitgenössischer Kunst, die einst aus ihrem Heimatort vertrieben wurde, zurückkehrt und sich im neuen Jüdischen Museum zeigen darf—nun nicht mehr als ‘entartet,’ sondern als liebvoll gerettet durch ihre jüdischen Betreuer,” qtd. in Cordula Frowein, “Schicksal der Sammlung Fischer,” in Expressionismus und Exil. Die Sammlung Ludwig und Rosy Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, edited by Georg Heuberger (Munich: Prestel, 1990),119.