The Munich Secession Demystified – An Interview with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker

An interview with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, Frye Foundation scholar and curator of the exhibition The Munich Secession and America, on the history and importance of this art movement.

Tell us a little bit about the significance of the Munich Secession.

The Munich Secession was the first of the Secession movements in Europe to “secede” or break-away from the conventions of nineteenth century salon painting and salon-style exhibitions. It was quickly followed by the Berlin Secession and the Vienna Secession but it was in Munich that important steps were first taken towards radical new ways of looking at the role of art, and at the presentation of art, just before the dawn of the twentieth century.

For the first time art works were presented on light colored walls, with space between them, so that viewers could concentrate on a single art work rather than be distracted by a multitude of other paintings hanging above and below. Architecture became the domain of the artist, as well as furniture, design and even clothing, and not just painting, sculpture and the graphic arts.

The Munich Secession was committed to excellence in all areas of artistic endeavor and, above all, to an international and multidisciplinary approach to art. Many of the international “stars” of the time were invited by the Secession’s Executive Committee to participate in its exhibitions in Munich. These exhibitions were carefully choreographed in order to further dialogue around particular issues, for example, in landscape painting (which was an area of great accomplishment in German art).

In the work of leading Secessionists in the 1890s we can see the first stirrings of abstraction, new and highly expressive painting styles, politically and socially aware realism, powerful symbolist works, as well as Jugendstil art in its infancy. In fact, we can see the beginnings of Modernism as it would develop in Germany in the twentieth century.

Why this exhibition at the Frye?

In the mid 1990s, soon after I became director of the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich, the former director of the Frye, Richard West, contacted me regarding a number of artists in the Frye Founding Collection. Over the years I saw or examined many of the works in the Frye Founding Collection but it was not until the present director of the Frye, Midge Bowman, invited me to undertake a systematic and in-depth study of the entire Frye Founding Collection, that I identified that it was not just a collection of “German” art with a strong emphasis on Munich-based artists but in fact an exemplary collection of the art of the Munich Secession and of the artists’ association from which it had seceded, the Munich Künstlergenossenschaft.

In 2007 my successor at the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich, Michael Buhrs, began organizing the first major exhibition on the Munich Secession in Germany in over thirty years which was to take place in the summer of 2008 on the 850th anniversary of the founding of the City of Munich. It was obvious that it would be ideal if such an exhibition on the Munich Secession could also take place at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. However, with so many major Secessionist works in the Frye Founding Collection it didn’t make sense for the Frye to simply take over the Munich show. I felt it was necessary to create a new exhibition, one that looked at not only the Munich Secession but also at the history of the Frye Collection and – if possible – at the ties between the Munich Secession and America.

It was a pretty ambitious plan and I was very uncertain as to whether it could be realized. Early last year, however, Michael Buhrs asked me to contribute an article for the catalogue of the Munich Secession exhibition in Germany. I decided to write on The Munich Secession and America. By using material I located in the archives of various museums and newspapers in America, I started on a voyage of discovery that hasn’t finished even today. I found fascinating information about the impact of the Munich Secession on a handful of patrons and museum directors in America at the turn-of-the-last century. They sought to make the innovations and accomplishments of the Munich Secession known to the American public and organized a number of shows of German art between 1906 and 1909 which were very well received. Unfortunately, with the First World War and then the Second World War, the efforts of these patrons – including Charles and Emma Frye – were not always looked upon favorably and the Munich Secession was largely forgotten in America.

The present exhibition at the Frye Art Museum, The Munich Secession and America, is multi-layered and tells several stories at the same time. It highlights, of course, the extraordinary accomplishments of the Munich Secession. It also reveals the fascinating history of key works in the Frye Founding Collection, and the fine differences between the Munich Secession and the Munich Künstlergenossenschaft. What, however, makes the exhibition particularly interesting to me is seeing the Munich Secession through the eyes of American intellectuals, critics and patrons at the turn-of-the-last-century.

What will visitors experience when they come to the Frye to see this exhibition?

Visitors to the Frye will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see highlights, for example, from the very first exhibition of the Munich Secession which took place in 1893 including the astonishing Wrestling School (Die Ringerschule), 1893, by Max Slevogt, Evening Sky (Abendhimmel), 1893, by Richard Riemerschmid and the Frye’s own Sin (Die Sünde) by Franz von Stuck. These works, and indeed most of the loans to the Frye exhibition, are extremely fragile works that the lending museums would usually not allow to travel.

Because of the tremendous efforts of the Frye staff, visitors will also be able to have a sense of the physical impact of the early Secession exhibitions with their sparse hangings, light colored walls and Franz von Stuck’s golden frieze. In 1906 the American-born Director of the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, Charles M. Kurtz, described the impact of seeing an exhibition of the Munich Secession on him. He wrote that the “general effect of the Secession galleries this year surpasses anything of the kind which the writer hitherto has seen.” Today we take this kind of “modern hanging” for granted but I hope that we can recapture the freshness and fascination that the exhibitions of the Munich Secession generated over one hundred years ago.

As well this is an exhibition constructed on story-telling. Visitors can choose to just look at the wonderful paintings and enjoy them. If, however, they want to learn more about the paintings, and about the artists, and the complex debates in which they were engaged, there are labels next to each and every work which tell fascinating stories. After a while the exhibition starts to feel like a rich novel filled with quite extraordinary, and contradictory, characters.

These stories continue with another exhibition in the Frye which I co-curated with Jayme Yahr, Frye curatorial intern. Titled Transatlantic: American Artists in Germany, this exhibition runs parallel to the Munich Secession exhibition. It presents the work of some of America’s most esteemed artists, including William Merritt Chase, Albert Bierstadt, and John White Alexander, who studied or lived in Germany during the late-nineteenth century. Chase, Childe Hassam, Gari Melchers, Mary Cassatt and James Abbott McNeil Whistler were all invited to join the Munich, Berlin, and Vienna Secessions, or to participate in their exhibitions. Being able to compare their works with those of the Munich Secessionists promises to be very illuminating. I am looking forward to having this opportunity myself!

Can you give us an example of new research on the Founding Collection you have uncovered as a result of working on this exhibition?

The key discovery is, of course, that the Frye Founding Collection is indeed a collection of the art of the Munich Secession and of the artists’ association from which it had seceded, the Munich Künstlergenossenschaft. Interestingly, the Collection even contains works by some of the key European artists who were invited to participate in Munich Secession exhibitions as Guests. They too are included in the present exhibition.

The other key discovery is that the Frye Founding Collection has strong ties to other important American collections of German art from the turn-of-the-last-century – especially that of Josef Strànský (1872–1936), who was conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1911 to 1923, and Hugo Reisinger who, together with his father-in-law, Adolphus, was a key figure in the history of the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University. Some key works in the Frye Collection were actually in the possession of Reisinger and Stránský at one time.

However, there are important differences between the Frye Collection and those of Reisinger and Stránský both of whom had considerable collections of French art as well. Reisinger also collected the work of American and Dutch artists as well as that of German artists not associated with the Munich Secession. In this sense the new research shows not only the ties of the Frye Founding Collection to other collections in America at this time, but also the strong differences between these collections. It certainly confirms the unique character of the Frye Collection.

One of the most important, long-term impacts of the research will be that a number of works in the Frye Founding Collection have now been given back their original titles and have been correctly dated. Particularly with the portraits we have been able to identify many of the subjects who were themselves fascinating and important personalities of their time.

The research into the reception of the Munich Secession in America, and the opportunity to be able to see the Secession through the eyes of American curators and critics at that time, offers a very important and fresh perspective on the accomplishments of the Munich Secession.

Now, instead of looking at the masterpieces of the Frye Founding Collection as isolated works of art, as paintings of sheep or as rather plain landscapes, we are able to see them in a new context, as important experiments pointing the way, for example, towards abstraction and expressionism.

Perhaps the most important discovery is that the Secessionists’ enormous freedom to experiment enabled artists with very different concerns to “co-exist” under one conceptual roof, and to influence one another. It also meant that artists were not compelled to always work in one style. This created extraordinarily creative conditions for innovation. We can finally see the Frye Founding Collection not as some rather out-of-date collection of “genre” painting but as a cauldron of ideas seething with possibilities and impossibilities, and pointing the way to the future.

Tell us about some of the important loans that are coming from Europe.

Some stunning loans from the Munich exhibition and key works from Italy and from the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle were able to be borrowed for the Seattle exhibition. These very important works complement the masterpieces in the Frye Founding Collection and demonstrate the excellence and the “co-existence” of styles and artistic innovation that the Munich Secession celebrated.

For example, one of the most important figures in the exhibition is a co-founder of the Munich Secession, Fritz von Uhde, who experimented with very different styles and artistic concerns throughout his career. Through the very generous support of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, Neue Pinakothek, we are able to show a study for one of the most controversial works he painted, The Ascension of Christ (Himmelfahrt Christi), 1897, which was strongly criticized because the suspended figure of Christ was, according to its critics, too naturalistic and failed to convey the transcendence of the event.

By exhibiting this work with paintings by Uhde in the Frye Founding Collection we are able to see for the first time the extent of the experimentation in which he was engaged and the importance of his role within the Munich Secession.

Similarly we are able to better understand the accomplishments of Hugo von Habermann by showing his stunning Reclining Model Nude (Liegender Modellakt), 1907, with another work from the Frye, again through the generosity of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, Neue Pinakothek.

External loans play an especially important role in the section of the exhibition devoted to Jugendstil art. Charles and Emma Frye did not acquire works by key Jugendstil artists although they were an important part of the Munich Secession. It was therefore essential to borrow masterpieces by these artists such as the wonderful The Dancer (Tänzerin) Baladine Klossowska, 1901 by Eugen Spiro from Berlinische Galerie—Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Fotografie und Architektur. The importance of artists like Richard Riemershmid cannot be overstated. There are no works by Riemerschmid in the Frye. The Municipal Gallery in the Lenbachhaus in Munich, one of the leading German museums, lent six works to the Seattle exhibition in an act of extraordinary generousity. Two of these very important paintings are by Riemerschmid: Evening Sky from 1893 and The Great Outdoors (In freier Natur), 1895.

The Frye is rich in landscape painting but through the generosity of the Kunstmuseum Krefeld we are able to show two marvelous works that allow us to see the extraordinary accomplishments of German landscape painting at this time: Hans Thoma’s Calm before the Storm (Stille vor dem Sturm), 1906, and Ludwig Dill’s Yellow Marshland (Das gelbe Moor), 1912.

The Frye is also rich in works by Franz von Stuck, especially the Sin which is one of the great iconic works of the late nineteenth century. But the paintings by Stuck in the Frye tend to be mainly later works. Through the generosity of the Museum Villa Stuck we are able to show the posters which Stuck designed for the Munich Secession exhibitions and above all two of my favorite works, Evening Star (Der Abendstern), before 1912 and Temptation (Versuchung), 1918. These paintings allow us to see Stuck’s extraordinary abilities and understand better why he played such an influential role in the Munich Secession although he was only 29 when it was founded.

Of course, one of the highlights of the exhibition is Oskar Zwintscher’s The Dead Man by the Sea (Der Tote am Meer), 1913, which was most generously loaned by the Städtische Galerie Dresden, Museen der Stadt Dresden.

And finally it was the generosity of private collectors that enabled us to bring two very important Secessionists to Seattle whose work is also not in the Frye: Ludwig von Hoffmann and Leo Putz. We are delighted that one of the most important works by Putz, On the Shore (Am Ufer), 1909 which was first shown in the States in 1913 is able to return to America.

Why is the catalogue such an important publication for US audiences?

This book brings together the very latest research of some of the leading German scholars for the first time. Above all, it proposes a way of looking at the Munich Secession according to categories such as Symbolism, Impressionism, and Jugendstil.

In the Seattle exhibition these general categories have been broken down again. Especially in the areas of landscape painting and portraiture I have looked at the way in which impressionism, realism and an increasing tendency towards abstraction were combined, sometimes within a single art work. Similarly Symbolist works will be presented in Seattle together with religious painting, spiritism, and mythology. The debates about how to look at this complex subject are really just beginning again.

What impact does the Munich Secession have on contemporary German artists?

Much of the impact on contemporary German art is indirect or not even acknowledged. Especially after the Second World War many intellectuals and artists in Germany turned away from Secessionist art, indeed away from all German art prior to 1910 and often looked towards America. Those German artists in the West who did try to revitalize these earlier debates about figuration and abstraction within a single art work, such as the Gruppe SPUR, were woefully neglected and have only been reexamined recently. This is why the exhibitions organized by the Museum Villa Stuck on the Munich Secession (and on the Gruppe SPUR) were so important in Germany. The present exhibition at the Frye provides yet another perspective – this time from America one hundred years ago – and opens many very exciting doors for re-thinking Modernism.

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, Frye Foundation scholar and curator of The Munich Secession and America, will give a gallery talk on Saturday, April 4 at 2 pm.