An Interview with Hildegard Bachert, Co-Director of Galerie St. Etienne, NYC — On February 2 , 2011 by Diane Thodos — Part 1
Hildegard Bachert is co-director with Jane Kallir of the Galerie St. Etienne in New York City. It is the oldest gallery in the United States specializing in Expressionism and Self-Taught Art. Its predecessor, the Neue Galerie, was founded in Vienna in 1923 by the late Otto Kallir and was a principal exponent of German and Austrian modernism during the period between the two world wars. The list of prominent artists the gallery has championed includes Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin, and Richard Gerstl among others.
Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who resides in the Chicago area and was a student of art critic Donald Kuspit at the School of Visual Arts in New York City from 1987 to 1992. She also studied with printmaker Stanley William Hayter and abstractionist Sam Gilliam. She received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2002 and has exhibited most recently at the Kouros Gallery in New York City and the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago and is also represented by the Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, The Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City, and the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago. Throughout her art and writing career she has held a special interest in Expressionism and its history.
Diane Thodos: To begin with can you give me some background on Otto Kallir, the establishment of Galerie St. Etienne and how you became his partner in the gallery?
Hildegard Bachert: Otto Kallier founded the Neue Galerie in Vienna in 1923 and his first show was an Egon Schiele exhibition. He has specialized in Schiele ever since. He wrote the catalogue raisonné of Schiele’s oil paintings in 1930. He became a Ph.D on the side in something unrelated because he wanted to prove that he was not only good in his field but also had a very good general knowledge of art. At that time he championed the avant-garde artists Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, and Alfred Kubin – the latter became a good friend of his. He staged some other major shows too. He brought a Van Gogh exhibition to Vienna from Holland and a Lovis Corinth show from Germany, among others.
DT: What other artists did he know?
HB: Max Beckmann. He knew Beckmann quite well. He was also a publisher of books. He published books by Beckmann and Oskar Kokoschka. In 1938 the Nazis came to power and Kallir had to leave quickly because he had tried to do some political anti-Nazi work before. There was a warrant out for him. The Nazis took over in March 1938. When they entered Austria they were received with open arms by the Austrians. He left with his family I believe in May or June of that year.
DT: How soon was it after the Nazi’s entered Austria that they left?
HB: The Nazis entered Austria on March 11, 1938, so it was about two months later.
DT: So he had to flee right away. But backing up a little I’m very curious to know any recollections you have regarding his relationships with the artists he knew. He had published prints with Max Beckmann and had intimately known several of the artists that he exhibited. Do you have any stories that describe what their personalities were like?
HB: He had a very close relationship with Alfred Kubin and had invited him to come to the gallery’s exhibitions. Kubin was a loner. He always had to be convinced to come to Vienna. He lived in a small town in a little house close to the German border near Passau. It was a little castle-type place that Kubin called Zwicklet. He was a very imaginative and decent kind of person, but also very difficult although Kallir got along very well with him. In fact at the beginning their relationship when they didn’t know each other well Kallir wanted to convince the artist that he could produce perfect reproductions of his art. Kubin claimed it was not possible so Kallir allowed himself to prove it. He published two facsimile reproductions of watercolors which he had printed by the renown firm of Arthur Jaffe. They used a Heliochrome process that involved making reproductions without using a screen. The watercolors he reproduced looked almost the same as the originals. That’s how he convinced Kubin that he was a serious dealer and cared about quality. Kallir was not a printer himself but he only worked with master printers.
DT: What was it in Otto Kallir’s background that made him seek out such extraordinary artists who had such profound expressionist and imaginative abilities? This was quite prescient on his part as an art dealer, similar to the way the French dealer Ambroise Vollard foresaw the significance of Picasso’s work. What were the aspects of Kallir’s character that drove him towards Expressionist art?
HB: That’s kind of a long story. Even as a boy he was a passionate collector. To sum it up Kallir became a dealer to feed his habit as a collector.
DT: A collector of Expressionism?
HB: A collector of everything that was of historical importance. He was a “Renaissance” man. When he was young he was terribly interested in technical things like aeronautics. He wrote to the Wright brothers in 1903 when he was only 9 years old. It was at the time they had their first flight at Kitty Hawk. He knew all about human flight and wrote a book about it that was published when he was about 19 years old, so his background was not in art. His father was a lawyer. He grew up in a well-to-do bourgeois family.
DT: In Vienna?
HB: Yes. He was originally oriented towards becoming an engineer. After serving four years as an officer during WWI he went to engineering school in Vienna where, being Jewish, he encountered so much anti-Semitism that he gave up the profession.
DT: This prejudice existed in the medical professions and the sciences, and so on.
HB: Everywhere. This was not only in Austria but in Germany as well.
DT: So his career became diverted because of anti-Semitism?
HB: Exactly. From having previously published a book he developed into a bibliophile and apprenticed at the bookstore of Thomas Heller who was also a young man. It was there that he started to meet artists. He said art is also of historical importance and the first works that he bought and collected were a batch of Gustav Klimt drawings.
DT: It ‘s amazing that he had already had an instinct for the top art in Vienna.
HB: He saw art, he saw culture, and he saw history. He knew what was important and over time he developed a fantastic eye for art, but he didn’t stop collecting aeronautical material as well. He collected manuscripts of great historical importance in literature, music, science, and history. Not mere autographs, that didn’t interest him. It had to be a document of importance.
DT: A manuscript of some kind or a letter – something from the hand of the person.
HB: Right. He was very interested in Austrian history so he had many important manuscripts such as those by Kaiser Franz Josef and Archduke Rudolf, the son of Franz Josef who committed suicide. He also had musical manuscripts of importance by Mozart, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and many people he knew personally.
DT: Which musicians did he know personally?
HB: He knew Arnold Schoenburg, Richard Strauss and Hugo Von Hofmannsthal. The latter was the librettist for Strauss. He knew him very well in fact – they were very close friends. So what became his passion? As a young man he published several books on art and literature and then apprenticed at the Galerie Würthle in Vienna where he soon became a kind of partner to the woman who was running the gallery.
DT: How old was he at that time?
HB: I think he started there around 1920. He was born in 1894 so by then he was 26.
DT: It’s remarkable that he was already very developed by that age. He had already become a partner in a gallery that was at the center of the avant-garde art scene in Austria.
HB: At the same time he became the director of the art department at the Ricola Verlag Publishing House in Vienna and published more books, mostly on art. The art books are what really survived and are very important today. The most important publication he produced with the help of the Ricola Verlag (he didn’t have enough money to do it on his own) was a portfolio called Das Graphische Werk on Egon Schiele that contained etchings and lithographs which were posthumously published. Egon Schiele died in 1918 and the portfolio was published in 1921. At that time it was popular and had been beautifully bound, presented and numbered. That’s when, with cooperation of course, Kallir started to become acquainted with the whole art establishment. The forward of the portfolio was written byArthur Roessler, one of the major supporters of Schiele whom Kallir knew very well.
DT: So Kallir never got to know Schiele personally but came to know about his work through contact with the galleries and art scene?
HB: Exactly. So that launched his career. In 1923 he left the Galerie Würthle and founded his own gallery, the Neue Galerie, which is now the name of the museum here in New York.
DT: So the museum was named after Kallir’s first gallery?
DT: As an homage.
HB: It’s an homage and it’s an amazing continuation of the spade work Kallir did all his life. He knew many Austrian artists personally – some who are not well known in this country like Otto Rudolf Scatz anGerhart Frankl. Oskar Laske has a certain reputation in the United States. The Busch-Reisinger Museum has two beautiful works by him but they are not famous. To put an artist on the “map” takes a lot of time and you can only do that with top artists.
DT: It seems that the art world had only so much space at the top.
HB: It seems that way unfortunately.
DT: Or else it’s possible that you’re not recognized within your time.
DT: For some art careers recognition comes much later. For example the Feminist Movement of the 1970’s brought more attention to the work of Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, and Camille Claudel creating a new historical appraisal of their work and careers. There can be a delay of recognition based on what the culture is, what the society is, and what critical consciousness is recognized at the time. You mentioned Kallir knew Max Beckmann personally and had worked with him to produce prints. How did they come into contact?
HB: He came to Vienna and was friends with relatives of Otto Kallir. Through them Beckmann met Quappi, his second wife, so there are many connections. Our previous exhibition was of Marie-Louise Motesiczky who was a student of Beckmann. Quappi was a friend of Motesiczky so you can see how certain relationships came together around Kallir.