05 January 2012

Franz Marc’s “The Large Blue Horses”

Die grossen blauen Pferden, Franz Mac
Source: Walker Art Center
Franz Marc’s “The Large Blue Horses” [Die grossen blauen Pferden], which he painted in 1911, have adorned the walls of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN, since late 1941 when Mrs. Gilbert Walker acquired the painting from the Karl Nierendorf Gallery in New York.

This German Expressionist work had been touring a select number of museums across the United States as part of a group of works dubbed “Twentieth Century Banned German Art”, itself a sub-set of a major exhibit of nearly 150 works of art banned by the Nazi Party that had taken place in London in 1938. That exhibit, a direct rebuke to the notorious July 1937 “Entartete Kunst” exhibit in Munich, Germany, was labeled as “Twentieth Century Banned German Art”, organized by the New Burlington Galleries.

The 1938 London Exhibit was organized by an unusual assemblage of individuals, including, but not limited to, Herbert Read, a noted British poet and art historian, and Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens, an idiosyncratic Belgian art critic, gallerist, dealer, and remnant of a splinter group within the Dadaist movement, living in Brussels. While Read was the titular chair of the Organizing Committee for the Exhibit, Mesens was one of its logistical and operational cogs. In addition to Mesens, there were two Swiss modern artists, Irmgard Burchard and Richard Paul Lohse, briefly married to one another, who contributed to the organization of the  London Exhbit of "banned German art" which ran from July 8, 1938, to August 27, 1938.

Meanwhile, where was Franz Marc’s painting before the 1938 London Exhibit? According to the Walker Art Center’s fairly careful research, there were two to three owners before the Walker acquired "The Large Blue Horses": two Swiss men from Zurich, J.E. Wolfensberger and F.J. Weck; and possibly, one German owner based in Berlin, Curt Glaser. Glaser appears as a likely owner because of circumstantial evidence that he might have been the person who sold the Marc painting to Wolfensberger before the First World War. In any event, Weck was the proud owner of “The Blue Horses” by 1919. The Walker’s research points out that Weck owned the painting at least through 1925. However, it assumes that he was the one who lent it to the 1938 London Exhibit. Although that is a plausible theory, it is not necessarily convincing. There was a vibrant market before and after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 which affected German Expressionist artists. There is always a likelihood that the Marc painting might have returned to Germany into the hands of another owner.

That is not to say that anything reprehensible took place which affects the past ownership of this particular painting. But the thirteen year gap in the provenance, when viewed within the context of the period—a dynamic effervescence in the dissemination and collecting of German Expressionist works, the growing internationalization of the market for such works, the dramatic shifts in ownership and control over such works resulting from the change in government in Germany, the ensuing exodus of these unwanted, condemned works to foreign countries—one has to be careful not to assume that Weck had continual possession of the painting “at least up to the time it is known to have left Switzerland in 1938.” By the same token, the Walker research acknowledges that Karl Nierendorf had a gallery in Berlin, before opening his new outpost in New York in 1936. More work needs to be done on this painting for the period between 1925 and 1938.

In a tidbit of trivial history, the Walker research mentions Blanche A. Byerley as the organizer of the 1939-1940 American tour of “Twentieth Century Banned German Art”. It indicates that “little is known” about her. After poking around a bit, the following can now be said about Blanche:

She hailed from Westport, Connecticut. At some point before the mid-1930s, she married a well-connected naval officer by the name of Charles Felton Pousland, who held the rank of Lieutenant-Commander in the US Navy. Pousland had been a graduate of Harvard University and of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. His father, Charles, a banker and investment broker, had died in 1917. His older sister, Elizabeth Cutting, was a graduate of Radcliffe College. Although Blanche became Mrs. Pousland, she maintained her maiden name when she opened a Lecture Bureau in New York City, the “Blanche A. Byerley Lecture Bureau” which, among other activities, specialized in tours of art exhibits. She apparently left that career behind in 1941 when she and her husband moved to a tony suburb in Wilton, CT. Blanche Byerley Pousland definitely had a yen for modern European art as well as for African-American women artists since she was responsible for organizing exhibits featuring the works of American women artists of color such as Lois Mailou Jones, Selma Burke, Laura Warine, and Katherine Gardner. Finally, Blanche raised money in 1942 for the Russian War Relief, a true believer in the Allied war effort.

Back to the 1938 London exhibit. Most of the 150 or so works on display at the New Burlington Galleries "Banned German Art" exhibit were lent without the consent of the artists or the owners. Most, if not all, of the works were shown to be sold, which raised the specter of sales proceeds being sent back to Germany and, thereby, voiding the anti-Nazi mission of the exhibit in the first place. If not to Germany, then where and to whom, especially if the works had been exhibited without prior consent? There has never been a proper accounting of these “banned” works, those that were returned unsold to the sources which lent them, those works which were then shipped to the United States or other destinations, like the Franz Marc painting which Nierendorf’s New York gallery received to be sold on behalf of the owner. Which one, though?