Kandinsky Anew | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

The Obstacle Course Kandinsky Ran:
3. Collectors, Art Dealers, Galleries, Museums
Jelena Hahl-Fontaine and Lissa Tyler Renaud
Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud

Editorial Note:

Please see the previous installments of The Obstacle Course Kandinsky Ran. 1. His Early Critics, is here, and 2. The Consequences of War, is here.


And a reminder:

Most of what follows comes from the important, least known parts of Kandinsky's exciting letters. Half of these have remained unpublished, or known only in Russia or France. Until now: eminent co-author of this "Kandinsky Anew" entry, Jelena Hahl-Fontaine, has finally translated them—"with enormous pleasure," she says—and is about to publish them in a German edition. Jelena muses, "Perhaps a similar edition might be of interest in English?" In the meantime, we have worked to give Scene4 readers a historic, English-language preview of what the letters—not available to the public—contain.




The year 1933 brought Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany, and among the many horrific consequences that followed for the world, the rise in nationalism was catastrophic for any internationalist hopes in the art world. It was first harder, and soon impossible in Germany for "foreign artists"—such as the Russian Kandinsky—to sell their paintings. Not so for museums! German museums with works of the new art that were judged by government officials to be "degenerate" had new laws to protect them: they were now allowed either to destroy or sell their own, out-of-favor holdings.




Improvisation 28 (second version), 1912, oil on canvas.
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum


As a result, in 1936 the renowned Folkswangmuseum in Essen sold their Kandinsky, divesting themselves of his "Improvisation 28" of 1912 for the high price of 9000 marks. The director of the Folkswangmuseum, Count Karl von Baudissin, defended his sale of the oil painting by the foreign-born Kandinsky this way:

    It is no loss for the museum ... We cannot say it is by chance that it is an individual estranged from his own nation who started this nonsense (abstract art), the senseless play of an intellect that sets itself up as absolute—an intellect that is half-educated, moral-less, self-destructive, and life-negating.



Hitler and Propaganda Minister Goebbels visiting the Munich exhibition
"Degenerate Art" in 1937. Photo © picture-alliance/dba


Adding insult to injury, the one who von Baudissin sold the painting to was the art dealer, Ferdinand M枚ller (also M眉ller). In the 1910s and '20s, M枚ller had been a successful gallerist who had exhibited Kandinsky and other modernist and progressive artists. But he was unable to carry on in the Hitler years; in 1938, M枚ller would be one of four art experts selected by the authorities to find and eliminate the thousands of "degenerate" artworks then hanging in Germany's museums and other public buildings. [For more on the "Degenerate Art" exhibition, see "Kandinsky Anew" entry here.] This was Nazi cooperation from which M枚ller's promising early career never recovered.


In 1937, Kandinsky wrote about this moment with Ferdinand M枚ller in a letter to his friend, Otto Nebel, the well-known German poet, painter and performer:

    Have you heard about the "Degenerate Art" exhibition? ... and "Der ewiger Jude" ["The Wandering Jew," antisemitic Nazi art exhibition], also in Munich? My dear Munich, what has happened to you? … And my paintings are "moving." M枚ller had to pack all my works in a hurry and get them out of his gallery.  There are many art lovers chasing after our paintings.

Indeed, when such "art lovers" were buying paintings from museums forced to remove disallowed artworks, they were both benefitting and rescuing the paintings from destruction or other disappearance. In Kandinsky's case, there were galleries that made offers to museums or purchased his works; there were critics and museum people who tried to protect him. He still had friends. One case in point: Kandinsky wrote to M枚ller to send to Switzerland the paintings of his that he had, "for exhibition purposes," suggesting that Kandinsky perhaps had friendly support for showing in Switzerland what he could not in Germany. But M枚ller may or may not have sent the paintings, as we will see.

Kandinsky's reaction to the Essen museum's sale of his "Improvisation 28" can also be found in his letters. For example, also in 1937 he sent a long letter to his European representative in the U.S.— especially active in Oakland and Los Angeles, California—Emilie "Galka" Scheyer. First, he pointed out to Scheyer that M枚ller had of course bought the painting for someone else—suggesting that the art dealer would be making a profit from the sale. Indeed, Kandinsky was right in his conjecture: his oil painting, "Improvisation 28," is now property of the Guggenheim Museum, and the catalogue raisonn茅—the authoritative list of Kandinsky's works—states clearly that the painting came directly from the dealer Ferdinand M枚ller to Mr. Guggenheim in 1936. 


Kandinsky, who never saw any money for the sale of his famous painting, added in the Scheyer letter, with some irony:

    The newspapers wrote that the price for it is the highest seen in Germany since the Nazis took power, and that it is I who now command the highest prices in Germany.

In 1940, he referred to the sale of the oil in a letter to his former Bauhaus student and friend, Josef Albers, who had emigrated to the U.S. and founded the art program at the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina. American collector Solomon Guggenheim, Kandinsky wrote, already owned quite a few of his paintings, "but very few purchased directly from me. Otherwise one might imagine that I have become a millionaire!"




As an aside, readers of our Peace and War entry in this "Kandinsky Anew" series (July 2020) have met "Improvisation 28," not the oil painting but when it was a fine watercolor sketch—identified as "a study" for the oil painting—that the artist gave to art collector Michael Sadler (also Sadleir). Sadler and his father visited Kandinsky in Munich in late 1912, and after the visit, Sadler became Kandinsky's important English translator. From last year's Peace and War:

    In December of 1913, Kandinsky sent a painting to collector Sir Michael Sadler. who named it "War in the Air." Theda Shapiro quotes Sadler in her 1976 Painters and Politics: "A year later, by which time we had got only too familiar with bombs and fighting planes, I wrote to Kandinsky in Sweden to ask whether, when he painted the picture he had foreboded war. 'Not this war,' he replied, 'I had no premonition of that. But I knew that a terrible struggle w颅颅as going on in the spiritual sphere…'"



Irene Rothschild Guggenheim, Wassily Kandinsky, Hilla Rebay, Solomon R. Guggenheim at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, July 1930. Hilla von Rebay Foundation Archive. Photo by Nina Kandinsky, courtesy Biblioth猫que Kandinsky, Centre Pompidou, Paris.


Of course, we now know Kandinsky as a celebrity of the art world. His "success story" is with us in spite of so many of his works having been lost due to his various tribulations over the war years. For one, at least 57 of his paintings were lost in the Nazi campaign of mass confiscations to empty Germany of "degenerate" artworks. So when we can see the oil painting, "Improvisation 28," or the watercolor study for it—also identified in the literature as "Improvisation 28"—at the Guggenheim Museum, it's interesting to think about how it got to be there, and without direct reward to Kandinsky himself.


The oil painting became essentially a spoil of war, traveling from the Essen museum in Germany to the Nazi dealer, M枚ller, to the Guggenheim in New York. The watercolor, which Kandinsky had originally given to Sadler as a collegial gift, was eventually sold to the distinguished collector Arthur Jerome Eddy,and later became  the property of the Hilla von Rebay Foundation in New York. From there, since 2007 it has been on "extended loan" to the Guggenheim Museum, where Rebay had played a decades -long, primary role in building its collection, before being forced out by Guggenheim's family after his death.




Such long, strange roads were traveled similarly by countless thousands of other paintings. Today, stories of Nazi plunder and destruction of artworks are always with us, along with both failed and successful efforts to recover works that vanished. In this context, Kandinsky's 1910 "Improvisation 10" is an interesting case: In 2002, BBC News reported that a settlement was finally reached between Jens Lissitztky, son of the Russian painter, and the Swiss collector The New York Times called "Europe's pre-eminent dealer in modern art," Ernst Beyeler.


Here, an interesting interjection: the "Kandinsky Anew" series has a tie to Mr. Ernst Beyeler through frequent co-author, Dr. Jelena Hahl-Fontaine. Under the name "Hahl-Koch," the distinguished Jelena wrote the gorgeous, large-format Kandinsky, a cornerstone of the world's contemporary understanding of the full breadth of Kandinsky's work. Describing Beyeler as "a distinguished-looking gentleman," she adds this remark about Ernst Beyeler's unusual kindness to her: "He was the most generous helper for my book; he gave me, for free, all ectachromes of all the works of Kandinsky's he had sold."


To return to the case:


Jens Lissitzky had inherited the rights to "Improvisation 10" from his mother, the painting's original owner, who had lent the painting to a museum in Hannover in 1926, from where the Nazis confiscated it in 1937; Stalin exiled her to Siberia in 1944 and she died there in 1978; her son emigrated from Russia, tracked the painting to Beyeler in Switzerland in 1989 and filed a "Complaint." In 1991, Beyeler moved the painting to his "Foundation" and its museum.


When Beyeler died in 2010, an obscure Paris publication relayed the story of how he had bought the painting, in a piece combining obituary with information about the case. The case hinged on the "known Nazi dealer" now familiar to readers here: Mr. Ferdinand M枚ller.  

    The Complaint provides specific details concerning the suspicious circumstances surrounding Mr. Beyeler's purchase of the painting from Mr. M眉ller in 1951, many of which have been admitted by Mr. Beyeler in the catalogs of his collection describing his acquisition of the Kandinsky. At the suggestion of a museum director friend, who told Mr. Beyeler that M眉ller had hidden away a good deal of "degenerate art," Mr. Beyeler crossed the Swiss border into occupied Germany to meet M眉ller in a shabby attic apartment in the British Occupation Zone. M眉ller, a known Nazi dealer, took the painting from behind a cabinet, where he had hidden it. The Nazi inventory number was marked on the back of the painting. …Despite all the "red flags," however, Mr. Beyeler nevertheless purchased the painting and smuggled it into Switzerland…  


    Finally, the dispute was settled out of court. However, a dark shadow was cast onto the Swiss collector's otherwise impeccable reputation. Mr. Beyeler himself… must have experienced the conflict more painfully than any others involved.

Ultimately, it has been cloak-and-dagger operations since the 1930s that allow us the challenges and fascinations of Kandinsky's paintings today.



Jelena Hahl-Fontaine (formerly Hahl-Koch) PhD, Art History and Slavic Studies, Heidelberg. Teaching: Universities of Erlangen-Nurnberg, Bern; State University of Texas, Austin; Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Curator: the Kandinsky -archive, Lenbachhaus, Munich. Publications: Kandinsky/Arnold Schoenberg Letters; the monograph, Kandinsky; the Kandinsky Forum I-IV, etc.; also texts on Jawlensky, Sacharoff, Bechtejeff, Russian Avant-garde, etc. Lectured widely: Europe, America, Australia.
For her other articles, check the Archives.

Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Lissa Tyler Renaud , lifelong actress, M.F.A. Directing, Ph.D. Dramatic Art (thesis [with Art History]: Kandinsky and the theatre), U.C. Berkeley, 1987; founded the Actors' Training Project studio for training based on Kandinsky's work. Since 2004, training actors, directors and scholars; lecturing and publishing widely–as visiting professor, master teacher, invited speaker, actor-scholar, recitalist–around the U.S. and Asia; in England, Mexico, Sweden, Russia. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.

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