The idea of establishing an institution devoted to the collection and display of contemporary art was controversial. Artists feared that creativity would become institutionalized. If paintings and sculptures were taken out of the living environment, the museum would merely serve as a mausoleum or dumping ground.
As modernists defined art in terms of continuous movement and change (innovation was the new permanency), the idea of a “museum of modern art” seemed an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. It needed clarification.
The Hanover Impact
In 1927, art historian Alfred Barr, a graduate at Princeton University, traveled to Dessau, Germany, to study at the Bauhaus. With interest he took note of the visionary activities of Alexander Dorner, Director of the Landesmuseum (Provincial Museum) in Hanover, who was closely associated with the Bauhaus artists.
Dorner insisted that the museum was not just an institution for showcasing past master pieces. It should also function as an educational resort that highlights and interprets the work of living artists. He invited contemporary painters such as Piet Mondrian or Kazimir Malevich to design displays that would offer a modern extension to the museum’s historical galleries.
Barr liked the concept. He made it his mission to use the museum as a means of educating and engaging the visitor. The gallery was there to challenge established canons. The experience of Bauhaus taught him that modern art encompassed not only painting and sculpture, but also design, architecture, film, photography, and theatre.
Two years later he was appointed the first director of MoMA. He promoted contemporary art, purchased paintings and sculptures associated with Bauhaus, and organized the museum’s first exhibition Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh.
A champion of Pablo Picasso, he was able to add the artist’s epoch-making Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) to MoMA’s collection, a painting in which the artist obliterated the tradition of perspective and directed to the modernist movement towards Cubism.
In 1932/3 Barr was given a year’s sabbatical. He spent the time in Stuttgart, a city then known for its ground-breaking contemporary architecture. Barr observed Hitler’s election as Chancellor and the subsequent Nazi closure of Stuttgart’s art galleries.
On the night of May 10, 1933, Nazi students organized the first book burning outrage at Opernplatz, close to the University of Berlin. That same year the Bauhaus School of Art and Design was closed down. Barr witnessed the murder of modernism. Back in the United States, his alarming and first-hand accounts of developments in Germany were ignored.
In 1936, he organized MoMA’s landmark exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art. In a comprehensive overview, he assembled nearly 400 works of painting, drawing, sculpture, furniture, and typography for the exhibition. Barr established the avant-garde as the dominant artistic force of its time, but the display invoked an inevitable sense of ending. Modernism had become history.
For the British, avant-garde had long been an alien concept. There was an undercurrent of young architects and artists who felt the pull of Paris and Berlin, and enthusiastically embraced the experimentation taking place at the other side of the Channel. The schism between them and the traditionalists was deep and antagonistic.
The art establishment was hostile to a modernist Continental culture. As late as 1928 the Tate Gallery’s catalogue did not include a paintings by Picasso or Matisse. It mentioned a single work by George Braque which had been donated to the museum by the French dealer Paul Rosenberg.
The first course on contemporary art at the prestigious Courtauld Institute did not begin until October 1932. Britain’s brief acceptance of the avant-garde coincided with its liquidation on the Continent. In 1933 Arthur Kenneth Chesterton, the biographer of Oswald Mosley and second cousin to novelist G.K. Chesterton, joined the British Union of Fascists. It highlighted the growing threat to democracy and artistic freedom.
Reginald Blomfield, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, published a book in 1934 that was (ironically) entitled Modernismus in which he identified the modernist vanguard as an alien plot. It was a “vicious” movement that spread “like an epidemic,” threatening to undermine art and literature by offering the fallacious prospect of a “new heaven and a new earth.” He was speaking about art, not politics.
Little changed in the bleakness of post-war Britain. Professional and public attitudes towards European modernism remained belligerent. Avant-garde was blasphemy in the High Church of Art. In London, gallery-goers had barely adjusted to Post-Impressionism, let alone grasped the challenge posed by Picasso. In his departing speech as President of the Royal Academy of Art in 1949 (after sherry), Alfred Munnings made a slurred attack on modern art, claiming that the work of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso had corrupted painting.
This climate of hostility made gallery manager Ala Story decide to leave London for New York and establish the American-British Art Center on West 57th Street. In 1952, she became the second Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Then everything changed. Fugitive experts from Nazi-occupied Europe resolved to introduce modernism to the public. Outsiders by language and driven by tragic personal histories, these mostly Jewish refugees were drawn to artists who explored alternative ways of depicting the world.
London’s gallery-scene became dominated by German and Austrian dealers, including Paul Ignaz Wengraf, Heinrich Rosenbaum (who changed his name to Henry Roland), Gustave Delbanco, and Lea Bondi Jaray. Having settled in Bond Street and other exclusive locations, they broke down the old isolationist barriers with the introduction to the public of radical work by László Moholy-Nagy, Naum Gabo, Alberto Giacometti, and others.
Alfred Barr’s pre-war exhibition had given status and credibility to contemporary art. Founding modern art museums became the rage of the post-war era. Dealers in Paris and London were ready to cash in. Curators rushed to their galleries, eager to fill gaps in their collections.
Erica Brausen was born in 1908 in Düsseldorf. With the rise of Nazism she left for Paris and by 1935 she was fighting Fascism in Spain. She arrived in London at the outbreak of war. A penniless lesbian, she married a British homosexual artist friend in order to gain citizenship. During the mid-1940s she worked at London’s Redfern Gallery. Involved in organizing a Graham Sutherland exhibition, the artist urged her to visit Francis Bacon’s London studio and see his Painting 1946.
It turned out to be a happy intervention. She identified the painting as a masterpiece and bought it there and then. It was shown at the Redfern during the summer, and at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, in December 1946. A few months later Erica left the Redfern. Bankrolled by the flamboyant Arthur Jeffress, the son of an American tobacco tycoon, she opened the Hanover Gallery at 32a St George Street, Mayfair (named after nearby Hanover Square).
It became an influential establishment, holding more than 300 exhibitions over two decades. Bacon’s presence was central to its success. His paintings left much of London society gasping in disbelief (at best), but this formidable art dealer recognized the significance of his work.
Her connection with Bacon proved to be controversial. Jeffress withdrew his backing, but she maintained her support for the artist and organized his first solo exhibition. In 1948, Alfred Barr acquired Painting 1946 on behalf of MoMA. For the artist, it was his first creation to enter a museum and the beginning of a spectacular and often controversial career.
Dorner & Barr
The first U.S. exhibition of the Bauhaus was organized in 1930 by a group of undergraduate students who had founded the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art to which Alfred Barr acted as a consultant. In Germany, in the meantime, the Nazis identified Alexander Dorner’s museal ambitions with the artistic ideals of Bauhaus which they abhorred and repressed. Having been removed from his post, he left Hanover for the United States.
In 1938, Dorner was appointed Director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and set out to re-organize its galleries based upon the principles he had developed in Hanover. He summarized his position that year in a speech entitled “Why Have Art Museums?” at Harvard. It is almost certain that Barr was present to listen to his mentor’s presentation.
A year later, MoMA celebrated its tenth anniversary. In his public address, Barr argued that it had been his long term ambition to turn the museum into a “laboratory” for carrying out experiments in which the public was invited to participate. His presence served as a catalyst that helped transform the appreciation of modern art.
Illustrations, from above: Alexander Dorner’s Landesmuseum, Hanover, 1928; Alfred Barr’s 1936 diagram of the origins and influences of modern art as reproduced on the dust jacket of the catalogue to the exhibition; Alfred Barr and some of MoMA’s treasures; Painting 1946 by Francis Bacon; and Catalogue for the Harvard Bauhaus Exhibition (Records of the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, Harvard University Archives).