An Interview with Hildegard Bachert, Co-Director of Galerie St. Etienne, NYC — On February 2 , 2011 by Diane Thodos — Part 2
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: They [the artists in Vienna] had an interesting praxis of artists and intellects back then. Were there other artists who Kallir dealt with?
Hildegard Bachert: There was Oskar Kokoschka.
DT: This was after he had been wounded during WWI?
HB: Right. This was in the 1920’s. Kokoschka left Austria after the war and went to Dresden in Germany where he spent a lot of time. He was very shell-shocked and needed psychiatric help.
DT: Yes. We would call that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD – today.
HB: Right. When he had sufficiently recovered he started traveling. He went back to Vienna for a time, then to Paris and London where he painted his famous London landscapes. He would often visit his family in Vienna. Kallir staged Kokoschka exhibitions and purchased some of his art. But Kokoschka was complicated. He had many connections and he did not like Kallir’s engagement with Schiele’s art. During his lifetime Kokoschka did his best to discredit Schiele.
HB: No, not peculiar. Kokoschka insisted that he was the innovator of everything. Kallir also knew the artist Max Oppenhiemer. Are you familiar with Max Oppenheimer’s work? He was an Expressionist and a colleague and friend of Schiele.
DT: I recollect the name.
HB: He was generally called Mopp. He often signed his name like that. I came to know him personally much later. After his emigration to this country as a much older man Mopp was very innovative but Kokoschka kept saying “They all copied me!” He believed that Mopp and Schiele copied him, and the truth be told it was probably Mopp who was first. He was a friend of Schiele’s and he also became friendly with Kokoschka. Eventually they had a big fight with him. Kokoschka was very contentious and tried to influence some of the art historians to sweep Schiele under the rug.
DT: So that he would be perceived as the most important.
HB: Now, Kokoschka was a very good artist. However his best art was the early work. He did in fact do some good work later on but when he got happy – when he met Olda who later became his wife in Prague –- the tension of the older period left him.
DT: That’s an interesting point. I feel the same thing happened to Beckmann’s work when he came to the United States – a lessening of tension in the work. In his previous art the devastations of WWI and its catastrophic aftermath explode with angular tension.
HB: This not only happened to Beckmann, who was the least affected. The quality of his oils, particularly the ones from Holland, were good.
DT: That’s true. I was referring to the time he came to the U.S. That was when the change in his work became most apparent.
HB: Very true, but the works Kokoschka did in America were really not good at all.
DT: George Grosz had this problem too.
HB: George Grosz, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Pechstein all had problems with their late work. Basically their spirit was killed by the Nazis.
DT: And Otto Dix.
HB: Dix – he disintegrated.
DT: I was told he was very troubled. In a previous interview I had with Donald Kuspit he related to me how he met Dix when he was a student of Theodore Adorno in Frankfurt during the late1950’s. According to him Dix was emotionally destroyed by the Nazis. Today it’s very hard to imagine what it was like, but your generation’s history is very important because you experienced the whole thing.
HB: Getting back to Vienna I need to mention one artist of fantastic talent and genius. His name was Richard Gerstl. One day in 1930 a man named Alois Gerstl visited Kallir’s gallery and said “My brother painted and his pictures are in a warehouse here in Vienna. I brought a few samples and I would like your advice: should we keep them or destroy them?” Kallir saw what Alois brought and said “These are fantastic! Take me to the warehouse- I want to see the rest.”
DT: To think that his brother had thought of destroying them.
HB: Gerstl was completely buried in oblivion. Kallir went to the warehouse where most of his pictures were rolled up. Some were not in great condition. Kallir had the pictures restored, stretched and put on exhibition in his gallery. He discovered him. It was a sensation beyond belief. We have press clippings from that time. In 1931 Kallir compiled a catalog of all the works, numbered each one, put a stamp on each one so they would be authenticated, and signed each stamp. Each Gerstl has a stamp on the back with Otto Kallir’s signature.
DT: He took tremendous pains to resurrect his art.
HB: He rescued it from oblivion. That’s what Kallir did. He was a trailblazer.
DT: He was in the tradition of those dealers who could see ahead, like Vollard and Kahnweiler. Of course the French art world circumstances were a different. I have a particular fascination with dealers andintellects who spearheaded Expressionist art in German and Viennese culture. The Decadent Art Show of 1937 – Entartete Kunst – was Hitler’s attempt to destroy everything it stood for.
HB: Not only that. When Kallir came to this country he found that German and Austrian art was unknown or else it wasn’t liked because French art was in and everything else was out.
DT: Interesting point. Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York encouraged the collectors on his board to buy mostly French art for donation to the museum. There were some German Expressionist pieces collected but nothing like the amount of French avant-garde art. What was the art world in America like when Otto Kallir arrived in here?
HB: He came in 1939, but I want to relate some events that date from before this time. He sent a traveling exhibition of Gerstl’s work to Germany and other places in Austria. The pictures returned to the Neue Galerie where they were kept over the period of the Second World War. Kallir had purchased many of them from Alois Gerstl before he left Vienna. He brought a few Gerstls to this country. First he emigrated with his family to Switzerland where they had friends. He was able to establish his home in Lucerene but didn’t get permission to work there. With his family safe in Switzerland Kallir went to Paris to open a gallery that he called Galerie St. Etienne in memory of Saint Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna. He didn’t keep the gallery open for even one year because he wanted to be reunited with his family. Then he managed to get sponsorship to emigrate to America. Kallir was always interested in America because of the country’s engineering achievements. He also loved Jazz. In August 1939 the four Kallirs – he, his wife and two children – arrived in this country. By October he had opened the Galerie St. Etienne in New York at 46 West 57th Street, just up the street from our current location. He thought that he was establishing a branch of the Galerie St. Etienne in Paris at that time, but then the war broke out. He corresponded with his secretary there and told her to put everything in storage and close the gallery. That was the end of Paris. Then Kallir struggled like crazy to establish his artists in this country.
DT: A heroic feat considering there was a complete lack of knowledge about his Viennese artists here.
HB: He also brought to America some amazing works of art that a Czech collector had placed in his hands on consignment. Of course Kallir knew that his artists weren’t known in this country so he had to come with something that could financially sustain him. But it was the time of the Great Depression and he was able to sell only one of those major paintings, a Cézanne. However he was able to exhibit them, paintings like L’Arlesienne by Van Gogh. Top works of art. He had a fantastic Cezanne portrait Man with the Crossed Arms which now hangs in a famous private collection in New York. He was always in the service of the artists. From the beginning he tried to support the art that he really knew and that he believed needed to be exposed. One of his very first exhibitions was a show that he called Saved From Europe with works by artists like Schiele, Klimt, and Kokoschka – all totally unknown here.
DT: By then the Germans had already staged the Degenerate Art show. They ridiculed Expressionist art. I understand the Nazis destroyed a lot of this art, didn’t they?
HB: They certainly did.
DT: They must have felt very threatened by the work to take such pains to destroy it.
HB: They felt that it was “Jewish” art. They caricatured people like George Grosz and Otto Dix. Of course as you know this Degenerate Art exhibition had one of the largest number of visitors of any art exhibition in the world.
DT: That is true. Of all the Expressionists who were Jewish that I can recall, only Ludwig Miedner comes to mind.
HB: Well, they hated that art you see. They wanted this “true blue” German housewife-type art that was exhibited in a parallel exhibition. That exhibition hall was empty of an audience.
DT: It was kitsch. The Greek god as a German Übermensch. Donald Kuspit has written about the Degenerate Art Show explaining how Expressionism told the harsh truth about the German culture of that time- the darkness and rottenness that lay at its core.
DT: The Expressionists were showing the whole world upside down. I imagine Kallir must have had a critical sense of what was right and decent.
HB: He was a pioneer and he was certainly aware of what was decent and good. He was very upset with graft and cheating and the like.
DT: And of course anti-Semitism. It must have been terrible for him to experience that.
HB: Prejudice, yes. And he was also very interested in works by women. The very first Paula Modersohn-Becker and Grandma Moses exhibitions took place in this very gallery. Grandma Moses was not classified among the artists of the Women’s Rights movement. Why? I don’t know. She was such an amazing self–made person. She wasn’t a militant Feminist, not at all, but she knew very well what she wanted to do. She was the matriarch of her family – the person in control in her very quiet laid-back way. Of course one of Kallir’s amazing discoveries was finding Grandma Moses with the help of a man who was an engineer employed by the city of New York who loved folk art and traveled around New England. He brought a collection of Moses’ paintings to the New York galleries. One after another the galleries rejected the work, saying “who wants to deal with this old woman?” In 1940 she was 80 years old. Who cared?
DT: Didn’t she have a mature group of works at that time?
HB: No, not at all. It was the beginning. She painted only small pictures. She had wanted to paint all her life but being a busy farmer’s wife couldn’t find the time. Only in her 70’s did she start to paint because it was the time of the Depression. Where she lived it was terribly depressed.
DT: Where did she live?
HB: Eagle Bridge New York near Hoosick Falls, the place where John Deere equipment and trucks were made. The area fell apart. All these mill towns were shut down.
DT: Devastated I am sure. My father lived through the dark times of the Great Depression in Chicago and had many stories to tell. The deprivation is hard to imagine today and the hardship can leave a black spot on your soul.
HB: It did. Economically we are getting a little bit of that right now. There is a difference today but it hits the poor people the same way. Grandma Moses’ pictures were just 8 “x 10” or 14” and some of them were embroidered. Kallir saw a few of the best and said “This is fantastic, I’m going to give this woman a show”
DT: He had the insight to see the value in her work early on.
HB: Just like what happened with Richard Gerstl. By October 1940 the Galerie St. Etienne had been open in New York for one year. Kallir was something of a greenhorn. He didn’t know English very well though his French was perfect and he spoke it beautifully. However he had a good ear and learned English very quickly. He launched Moses and the exhibition was a success. He represented her from that day on until her death. We had a contract with her. She would send us all her pictures and we would buy them. After she died we continued to represent her estate up to this day. I knew her intimately for 20 years. Getting back to the 1940’s, it was a struggle beyond belief because the most expensive Moses picture cost $250.
DT: There are many stories about important art that is inexpensive in the beginning when the artists are unknown.