by Angelina Giovani
[Editor’s note: This is the second installment of the story of the “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” by Vincent van Gogh. The first part, entitled “Happy Birthday, Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of Dr. Gachet, a book review” was posted on March 30, 2015.]
|Count Harry Kessler|
Count Harry Kessler was born in Paris in 1868. He was the son of Adolf Kessler, a Hamburg banker, and Alice Blosse-Lynch, an Irish explorer’s daughter. He was educated in England and Germany, traveled a lot and wrote for Pan, an Art Nouveau journal, Pan. In 1903 he was appointed director of the Grossherzogliches Museum für Kunst un Kunstgewerbe in Weimar. He brought the Portrait of Dr. Gachet to his house in Cranachstrasse, Weimar, which was designed by Henry van de Velde. The house itself was impeccably conceived to entertain and display the Count’s collection, the perfect vehicle through which to introduce The Portrait of Dr. Gachet to critics, artists, writers, and other members of the intelligentsia. For many, it was their first encounter with a van Gogh. As director of the Grossherzogliches, Count Kessler strove to turn Weimar into a center of modern culture. He organized monthly public exhibitions of Impressionists and neo-Impressionists which eventually drew rebukes from Weimar’s conservative circles.
Four years after acquiring the picture, Kessler consigned Dr. Gachet with Eugène Druet, in Paris. A specialist in Postimpressionists, Druet had started out as a photographer of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures and made significant purchases of van Gogh works. The Paris art market was in constant evolution. After Cézanne's death, Ambroise Vollard organized Matisse’s first one-man show, Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, while Georges Braque produced his first collage. Collectors from Europe and North America dominated the Paris art market, driving Impressionist prices higher than ever before. Duet exhibited Dr. Gachet in 1908 together with thirty-five other pictures, and although the exhibition ran for twelve days, he did not sell a single painting. Despite this, the Portrait of Dr. Gachet stayed with Druet until February 1910, when he purchased it himself, for 14.000 francs. Then he lent it to Roger Fry, the British art critic and a leading painter in the Bloomsbury circle. Just like with the French, the British were not ready for van Gogh. A critic with the Daily Express called van Gogh’s works "unintelligible". Seeing how "England had no use for Dr. Gachet" the portrait returned to France.
The following year, on February 20, 1911, Druet shipped the painting to Georg Swarzenski, the director of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt since 1906, an institution renowned for its Old Master collection. Prior to acquiring the picture, Swarzenski had seen it in Kessler’s house in Weimar and also at Galerie Druet in Paris. This was the first postimpressionist canvas to enter the Städel. Swarzenski planned to transform the museum into a shrine for modern art.
By 1911, the tendency to buy Impressionist works from France stirred a protest called “A protest of German Artists” fueled by 140 participants consisting of conservative artists, critics and museum directors. Swarzenski asked Victor Mössinger, a businessman who later became his father-in-law, to purchase Dr.Gachet and donate it to the Städel.
On August 3, 1914 Germany declared war on France. Communication between art world figures in France and Germany became more complicated. The advent of war severed ties between Johanna van Gogh-Bonger and Paul Cassirer who was inducted into military duty as was Swarzenski. At war’s end in 1918, Swarzenski ordered that construction resume on the modern galleries, which were completed in 1923. By 1928, Swarzenski wore many hats in the Frankfurt art world, as head of the Städel and the Städtische Galerie but also of the Museum of History, and the Museum of Art and Crafts. Until the mid 1930, van Gogh and his works gave rise to new art historical writings as well as treatments in psychological and psychoanalytical literature.
In Spring 1933, months after Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany and, with him, the Nazi Party, Swarzenski removed Dr. Gachet from the walls of the Städel and locked it in a room under the museum’s roof together with a lot of Expressionist paintings. On March 12, the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda was established under Dr. Joseph Goebbels. His mission was to align German culture with the ideology of the Nazi party. In September 1933, he established the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture) which among other things imposed strict controls on the production of art in the Reich as well as on art exhibitions and the art market. Nazi ideology condemned modern art and labeled as ‘degenerate’ all forms of German and French Expressionism.
On March 13, 1933, Frankfurt’s Socialist mayor was replaced by Göring, and within weeks Swarzenski was suspended from his position as director at the Museum of History, the Museum of Arts and Crafts, the Städtische and his position as professor at the University of Frankfurt. Yet, Swarzenski managed to remain as director of the Städel, which was a private foundation and technically the Nazis had no jurisdiction. Still, he was summoned before a commission, and only managed to hold on to his position thanks to the Lord Mayor, Friedrich Krebs, who had been an early member of the Nazi party and oversaw the closing of over 500 Jewish-owned businesses in Frankfurt during the first year of the Third Reich. Krebs also belonged to Alfred Rosenberg’s Combat League for German Culture, a rival of Goebbels’ Ministry to promote Nazi-approved art and attack modernism. Krebs did not consider Swarzenski as a threat.
On December 1st, 1937, Adolf Ziegler, one of the chief organizers of the Degenerate Art exhibit and a rabid anti-Semite, met Wolters and demanded five more paintings to be delivered to the Propaganda Ministry, including Dr. Gachet. Stalling for time, Wolters asked the Ministry for an official written request. Wolters was able to buy only a few days. The Portrait of Dr. Gachet was taken out of storage. It left the museum on December 8, 1937, a move reported in an article published by the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung (FAZ). Johanna, Victor Mössinger ’s wife, read the article and inquired about the painting’s whereabouts. No one knew that the painting had ended up at a Berlin museum depot for "degenerate art" on Köpernickusstrasse, along with tens of thousands of other art works slated to be destroyed. The Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent van Gogh was number 15,677.