Gabriel von Max
The Frye Art Museum has mounted a series of exhibitions in recent years meant to encourage fresh examinations of the painting collection assembled by its founders, Charles and Emma Frye. The current exhibition, The Munich Secession and America, is by far the most ambitious attempt to date to place the Fyre’s own works in a larger historical perspective. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin joins us with to share his observations on this show.
Small, private art museums are specialized, occasionally eccentric institutions, reflecting as they do the taste of a particular collector and a particular time. The Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, following the strict dictates of its long-dead founder Alfred Barnes, is notorious for displaying landmark paintings by modern masters on burlap-covered walls alongside a wild assortment of unusual companions like folk art, African masks, and antique barn hinges.
The Frye Art Museum in Seattle likewise bears the imprint of strong-willed, opinionated founders, Charles Frye and his wife Emma, and it still operates in the light of their directives. As it happens, meat packer Frye and pharmacist Barnes assembled their collections at almost exactly the same time – the first third of the 20th century – with trusted artist/advisors helping them do the selecting. But while Barnes famously acquired hundreds (literally) of works by artists like Cezanne, Renoir, and Matisse (with Titian, Picasso, and Van Gogh thrown in for good measure), the Fryes collected in depth among artists of the Munich School - painters active in the later half of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th.
The Munich School?
History has not been kind to the painters of this particular grouping. While Munich School artists like Franz von Defregger, Ludwig Knaus, and Joseph Wenglien undoubtedly enjoyed professional success and honors during their lifetimes, their reputations in the years since have fallen into near-total obscurity. Even those few of their Munich colleagues in the Frye collection whose names can still be found in standard reference books, like Franz von Stuck or Wilhelm von Kaulbach, today enjoy little of the widespread respect or renown now afforded their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe or America. The comment in the Oxford Dictionary of Art that von Kaulbach (represented by three paintings in the current Frye show) favored “the kind of bombastic and didactic historical scenes that have found little favor in the 20th Century” is typical of modern sentiment.
Thus entrusted as they are with a trove of seriously unfashionable artworks from a forgotten period in a country (Germany) burdened by its subsequent misdeeds on the world stage, the Frye has in recent years made a strenuous effort to treat their Founding Collection (which they are legally required to display) as an asset rather than a burden. The ongoing series of exhibitions in which these long-familiar works have been mixed and matched and even removed (asking the viewer to recall the absent works) has now culminated in the most ambitious attempt at historical revisionism to date, the museum-wide Munich Secession and America exhibit currently on view.
Curated by scholar and period expert Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, the show is the first concerted attempt to put the Frye’s own works, supported by dozens of European loans, in the context of the larger Munich School and its history. The exhibition includes paintings by artists of the mainstream MKG association, whose huge annual salons were the chief display venue in late 19th-Century Munich, and works from a breakaway group dubbed the Secession, who began mounting much more selective, rival shows in the early 1890s. The works in the Secession half of the show are grouped thematically, with rooms devoted to landscape, Art Noveau (called Jugendstil in its German form), and narrative art. There are adjoining displays of foreign artists who were included in the Secession shows, and American artists who spent time in Germany.
Having applied such serious curatorial firepower to the issue, what does this exhibition tell us about the old warhorses of the Frye Collection that we didn’t know otherwise?
The answer is: Not Much.
While other late 19th Century art movements in Europe had distinctive stylistic traits in common, like the Pre-Raphaelites in England or the Itinerants in Russia, the Munich painters drew on multiple traditions and trends, and favored individualistic diversity over a common artistic program. Seeing them together, it is apparent how all over the place the Munich School was in terms of style, subject matter, and taste, not to mention artistic quality. The current exhibition includes several minor (borrowed) masterpieces, like Eugen Spiro’s Best-in-Show "Dancer," and Franz Von Stuck’s late, Munch-like "Evening Star." But the really good stuff has to share wall space with out-and-out cheesecake (like Gabriel von Max’s "Bacchante"), kitsch religiosity and sentimentality (Max’s "Christian Martyr," "Adolph Hengeler’s "Springtime"), and plenty of paintings that merely echo work done better elsewhere. This includes many of the Secessionist landscapes, like Wilhelm Trubner’s vaguely Impressionist "Fir Trees at Castle Hemsbach," executed nearly twenty years after the last Impressionist show and a half-hearted version at that.
The exhibition has other problems, as well. The show is set up to contrast the old guard – the MKG group – against the rebellious Secession. Two rooms of earlier works – portraits, genre paintings, and landscapes – start off the exhibition, featuring familiar, wholly unremarkable canvases from the Frye typical of academic painting of the time. There are several “naughty” pictures of writhing exotic dancers, Charles Frye having a decided taste for the well-endowed Temptress (Stuck’s "Sin" is around the corner).
When we emerge into the Secession section of the exhibit, the presentation itself changes dramatically. Dark green walls give way to white walls surmounted by a decorative golden frieze, painted especially for the occasion, and the pictures are hung with enormous spaces (8-10 feet) between them. Extensive wall text introduces us to the history of the Secession movement (the show is extremely label-heavy). It’s all meant to recall the way the Secession group did their own presentations, but it doesn’t work – the amount of space around each work might make sense for the Mona Lisa, but here so many of the pieces are ho-hum that the sparse hanging only serves to make the galleries seem depopulated of art.
Furthermore, the Secession/MKG conflict isn’t particularly interesting or enlightening. If one troubles to read the wall text or catalog, the conflict between the two groups doesn’t break down along familiar conservative/Avant-garde lines, and their real differences are murky at best. Like their predecessors, the Secession group did landscapes, portraits, and genre paintings, and like their predecessors, they avoided stylistic coherence. We sense Modernism tugging at these younger artists – in their time Van Gogh was becoming a legend, Cezanne was in his late prime, and Picasso was gearing up for cubism – but they are far more conventional than their French-speaking counterparts. In short order the Secession group – quickly seen as old-fashioned - was to be rejected by yet another splinter group, and by 1911, Munich’s Blue Rider movement (Kandinsky, Marc, and Klee) stole the art historical spotlight for once and all.
Even if the art was better, it would always be shadowed by subsequent events. Several of the landscape paintings portray an idyllic landscape outside of the then-picturesque German town of Dachau. Neither the catalog, nor the wall text comments on the irony of these pastoral images now forever associated with a place of so much murder and horror, and in that curatorial dilemma – damned if you do, damned if you don’t – we sense the complications of any serious attempt to revive the reputation of this forgotten period.