An Interview with Hildegard Bachert, Co-Director of Galerie St. Etienne, NYC — On February 2 , 2011 by Diane Thodos — Part 3
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.
Hildegard Bachert: Kallir did his first Schiele exhibition in 1941. The little bit he was able to sell was to somewhat richer Austrian refugees who already had knowledge about Schiele’s art. No American would be caught dead with a Schiele at that time.
Diane Thodos: Was that because the public considered the nature of his subjects to be prurient?
HB: Kallier avoided the “prurient” pieces – you couldn’t even show those – not until the 1960’s. There were some Schieles we wouldn’t show.
DT: Because they were considered pornographic or erotic?
HB: They were not pornographic. Schiele delved very deeply into the psychological aspect of his subject. He had no interest in prurient things as such although they appeared prurient to some viewers. Sexuality was a problem for him.
DT: A great conflict for him, both terrifying and cathartic.
HB: You have to realize that when Schiele did his mature works, starting in 1910, he was only 20 years old. He was a kid.
DT: Adolescence is certainly a time of raging hormones.
HB: He was a mature artist but not a mature person.
DT: Added to this his father died from Syphilis when Schiele was a boy, degenerating into a fit of madness during his final days.
HB: The whole attitude towards sex was very problematic. It was painful and he did not have really healthy relationships until 1912 when he met Wally and when he got married in 1915. By that time he was 25.
DT: Very interesting. I once gave a lecture about Schiele’s work, and noticed that at the times he was not involved with Wally – or his wife Edith who he met later on – he tended to depict his women subjects as foreboding sexual dolls…
HB: There was this period in 1914 known as the “doll” period.
DT: I noticed that when Wally was with him his art changed. She becomes a person that I recognize. There is this emotion and engagement.
HB: The 1912 Wally pictures were fantastic. Very great and very human.
DT: Meeting her opened up his feelings.
HB: Absolutely. That’s when he became more human and more engaged with the person. But even in 1910 when he did portraits of pregnant women in the clinic of Dr. Erwin Von Graff he somehow identified with them. That’s why they are not beautiful.
DT: There is an undeniable suffering in his work. It is different when you look at Klimt though there is a certain mystery in faces of his portraiture.
HB: In the late Klimt.
DT: Yes, I mean in the late work. Klimt’s drawings also become more loose and free. Klimt’s early work seems more academic and dominated by decoration. By contrast I sense that Schiele, who had been had been influenced by him, invented a fantastic transformation of decorative composition into expressive space.
HB: There is nothing decorative about Schiele, even in his Klimt influenced works.
DT: No he is not decorative. Even his depiction of a scarf or dress are an extension of feeling from the way that color, shape and pattern are used. A red stocking is not a red stocking but a cipher of feeling. I tend to see the deliberately decorative elements that Klimt used to fill up his spaces – the Jugendstil influence – become expressively transformed by Schiele in the way an arm or leg is cinched or contorted against the bodies of his figures. He activates space with a rhythmic efficiency that makes his subjects come alive – not interested, for example, in the niceties of pattern that you would find on a bourgeois sofa. Instead he used what he absorbed from Klimt to push feeling into the darker territories of human experience. Maybe that is why American audiences felt trepidation about his work, which brings up an important point. Why does the Expressionist art movement seem to have had a hard time entering the consciousness of the American culture? Have you found it to be this way?
HB: Absolutely. This was not only because it was “strange” and French art was “in” and German art was “out. “ It was also because of the war going on in the 1940’s. There was great antagonism to German art. The only German artist who was able to make it, even during the war, was Käthe Kollwitz. I grew up with Kollwitz. Even in Germany I knew her work, and lots of Kollwitz’s work was saved from Europe when it came over with the refugees who brought them. We began to launch Kollwitz exhibitions and specialize in that field too.
DT: Around what year?
HB: The first one was in the early 1940’s. I don’t know how many Kollwitz shows we had – 50, 60, 70?
DT: She was a very seminal artist.
HB: Seminal, because Kollwitz was always such a social engaged artist. She was not valued by the very rich collectors of French art but by doctors, lawyers and teachers.
DT: People who were concerned about social justice?
HB: Absolutely. There had been early publications about Kollwitz in this country, and we did very well, selling her work at very low prices. We became experts on her work. So Kollwitz was one of our mainstays.
DT: Did you ever get to know her personally?
HB: No. I could have but she was in Germany and I was here. I know all her living grandchildren very well, and Kallir knew her son. I did not but Kallir did when he made a trip to Berlin and visited him.
DT: You must have quite an insight into her work and life.
HB: I do. Now other German artists like Emil Nolde, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Max Pechstein had a terrible time here. There were a few other dealers who specialized in German art, like Curt Valentin of the Buchholz Gallery, and the Kleemann Gallery, which is totally forgotten today. Kleemann had some German artists like Nolde and Pechstein. We concentrated more on Kollwitz and Modersohn-Becker.
DT: And the Viennese avant-garde.
HB: Right. So we had Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, and a few Gerstls that Kallir had managed to bring to this country. Then the problem was how do you get these artists on the “map?” Kallir knew some people from Europe like Gordon Washburn who was a curator at the Carnegie Institute. He helped Kallir by getting some of his artists into the Carnegie. Then he became the director at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and bought a very important London Landscape by Kokoschka from Kallir. But apart from this instance the American and French directors of museums did not know Kallir, so the first years in the US were very difficult for him.
DT: Did they know about his artists?
HB: They might have known them but they did not think much of them. Slowly Kallir met some other museum people who were knowledgeable, like Richard Davis who was curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He had been in Germany and Austria and had helped Kallir acquire a major Schiele painting, The Portrait of Paris von Gütersloh, for a major collector in Minneapolis. Kallir sold the painting to him for a song. The collector ended up donating it to the Minneapolis Institute.
DT: Gradually placement of works in museums raised his artist’s esteem in the public eye.
HB: Exactly. Kallir also met the director of the Fogg Museum at Harvard, who was American but knew about Gustav Klimt’s work. Kallir said that he would be willing to donate a major Klimt painting to the Fogg without charging them a penny.
DT: Very generous.
HB: He gifted works by these artists to museums in order to have the public see them because, unlike a museum, the Galerie Saint Etienne was limited as a public space. He gave the Fogg The Pear Tree, a painting which measures 39 by 39 inches. It is a fantastic pointillistic landscape that is now worth about 10 million dollars.
DT: Which brings up an interesting subject regarding today’s art world– the problem of the commoditization of art. I know this is an extensive subject but I would like to discuss the matter with you briefly. It seems that the commercialization and monetization of art has completely detracted from art’s reason for existing.
HB: It has destroyed it!
DT: Indeed. Money has destroyed its spirit. As a graduate art student attending School of Visual Arts in New in the late 1980’s I was deeply puzzled by the inner workings of the art world. Hype and commoditization came to dominate much of the art that was being shown. Inflated money value drove a decisive wedge between the art object and its meaning.
HB: Not only in this country but all over the world.
DT: Now it is promoted through the use of shock and “sensation” oriented events – spectacles.
HB: Yes of course. You know art is valuable. In order to collect anything you have to have a little money. But you must not forget that it is important for life. After the three essentials – food, clothing and shelter – comes art. That’s why I’m still in this business.
DT: To feed the soul.
HB: Exactly. Not only visual art but literature and music and so on. That’s what we need in order to remain human.
DT: I consider the Galerie St. Eteinne to be one of the last bastions to embrace this belief in the art.
HB: Jane Kallir (Otto Kallir’s granddaughter and co-director of the gallery) and I carry on in the spirit of Kallir. Jane got it right away when we started many years ago. This is our principle: even though we have million-dollar art we still wish it were accessible to everyone. Kallir who died in 1978 was appalled by the prices of art even at that time. The year he died was the first time a Schiele watercolor had sold for $100,000 at auction. He would have been horrified. Now of course top Schiele watercolors sell for several millions. We had to either get out of the kitchen or stay in it and do what we needed to do and still champion this wonderful art.
DT: The difference is that Galerie St. Etienne had authentic purpose from its very beginning.
HB: All the way through. So to continue with my story in 1957 we did another Schiele show. I’m concentrating on one example like Schiele because his work was a real success story. Not all the exhibitions were successes. There was a Schiele show in 1941, another one in 1948, and one again in 1957. That one took off. By this time Americans had traveled to Europe and Abstract Expressionism had happened here. Globalization had begun, which was a good thing at that time.
DT: By then America had a modern art movement of its own that it could have confidence in.
HB: There were the Klimts and the Schieles in the Belvedere and Albertina Museums in Vienna. By then American directors had acquainted themselves with a European art background which had been harder to gain during the years of WWII.
DT: The War had ruptured everything.
HB: Right. The people who had traveled to Europe in the 1920’s and early 1930’s went mostly to Paris and Italy although some had been to Germany and Austria. They recollected what they saw there like the Berlin scene of the 1920’s. When they returned they revived Kurt Weil in the music field, and also the playwright Bertolt Brecht and so on. Also European musicians came to America and made their mark. So many refugees influenced American culture and the country benefited greatly from all who came, including Kallir. During our successful 1957 Schiele exhibit the Museum of Modern Art bought some watercolors for $250. We sold some drawings for $100 and thought to sell for that price was very good. We did very well. It is important to remember that at that time money was worth much more. That’s when things began to look up.
DT: It was really your early efforts that established Schiele’s reputation in this country.
HB: We were alone on the scene. Kallir contacted museums constantly. Thomas Messer, who was a refugee from Prague and spoke perfect German (as did many from Prague in those days), was the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. He visited our show in 1957. Kallir became friends with him and convinced Messer to hold the first museum Schiele exhibition in America. Messer admonished Kallier to not put anything that was too risky in the show.
DT: Too sexual?
HB: Because at that time Boston was extremely conservative to say the least. The Boston show was very successful, after which it traveled to Galerie St. Etienne. Then it went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts because of the curator Richard Davis and on to Louisville Kentucky. Then in 1964 Thomas Messer became the director of the Guggenheim Museum. Kallir called Messer early in the morning as soon as he had read about the appointment. He said “You have become the director of the Guggenheim Museum, right? You like Egon Schiele, right? Do a Schiele show!”
DT: Did he?
HB: In 1965 he presented an Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt exhibition.
For the first time there were loans of paintings from Europe and even Jerusalem because before 1960 nobody could afford to have pictures sent from abroad. Previous exhibits were primarily composed of works in American collections.
DT: Kallir must have been thrilled.
HB: It was a huge success and that’s when things really started. Then other dealers got into the fray, and that was fine. Competition is a good thing. In 1985 several museums in Vienna staged a huge exhibition with Wiener Werkstätte art, Klimt, Schiele and many many other Austrian artists. It took on different incarnations when the theme was taken up by museums in Paris in 1986 and by the Museum of Modern Art in New York that same year. They called it Vienna 1900.
DT: So finally it got to the MOMA.
HB: I should also mention that in the 1960’s we did a Wiener Werkstätte exhibition.
DT: A very interesting design movement.
HB: It was totally unknown in this country.
DT: So your exhibition was a first?
HB: Totally a first. It took until 1959 to mount the very first Gustav Klimt exhibition at our gallery – the first Klimt show anywhere in America! Kallir sold the Klimt Landscape – The Park – to the Museum of Modern Art for practically nothing.
DT: He truly loved the meaning of the art. It reminds me of two friends of mine who are German Expressionist collectors. It is not about money for them – it is about serving the art in the spirit of the work. They are the keepers and the catalysts, but the power of the art speaks for itself. For them giving is not attached to ego, status or money. I am so glad to hear Kallir was a person of such selfless motives and deep intuition in the establishment of Galerie St. Etienne.