German Art World

“In the Network of Modernism”: The Art Critic Will Grohmann

Blick in die Ausstellung; © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/Fotograf: Herbert BoswankExhibition view; © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/Fotograf: Herbert Boswank

He was known as the “godfather of modernism”. Will Grohmann (1887-1968), one of the leading art critics of the twentieth century, was a force to be reckoned with throughout his life – strongly interpretive, influential and controversial. An exhibition staged by the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (27 September 2012 until 6 January 2013) is bringing him back into the public eye to mark the 125th anniversary of his birth – while at the same time allowing a historical excursus into the role of art criticism.

In 1924, the art writer and critic Will Grohmann penned one of the very first texts about Paul Klee, writing for the magazine Cicerone. Henceforth Klee and Grohmann were good friends, and the critic composed 40 further texts about the artist. Even today, they are valid and well worth reading.

Edmund Kesting: Porträt Will Grohmann (1947); © Foto: Herbert Boswank / VG Bild-Kunst 2012However, while Klee rose to fame and nowadays more than ever is a star of the exhibition industry, Grohmann dropped out of the public eye, despite the fact that he was once regarded as the “doyen of modernism” and the “leading art authority”. After all, he brought renown not only to Klee, but also to many other leading modernist artists, such as Kirchner, Kandinsky, Schmidt-Rottluff, Baumeister and Moore.

Demand for the critic’s verdict

In total, Grohmann published over 500 essays on more than 150 artists – including the big names of the twentieth century: Munch, Barlach, Braque, Matisse, Picasso, Miró. During the five decades of his career, he wrote 1,300 newspaper articles, overviews of twentieth century German and European art, countless catalogue forewords and critical reports. He started out by contributing articles to the Dresden Secession Group in 1919 and, at the ripe old age of nearly 80, was once again one of the first to write about Gerhard Richter, Horst Antes and Konrad Klapheck.

In the nineteen fifties and sixties, he was also one of the most influential German art critics to appear on radio and television. He died in 1968, a historically charged year. Did he slip into oblivion because a critic’s verdict no longer counted for much in view of the stylistic pluralism that was already emerging at the time and is still predominant today? Or because the only proof of quality necessary now is a work’s monetary value, which is driven upwards by the market, aided and abetted by mass media that are always hungry for a good story?

Exhibition view; © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/Fotograf: Herbert Boswank

A successful network

What was the situation like when Will Grohmann began writing about modernist art after the First World War? How could he become so influential? Above all, this was thanks to the extensive network that the critic established. He corresponded with numerous artists, visited them in their studios, was friends with publishers and gallery owners, and arranged for works to be provided to museums and collectors. He was highly committed to his work, and always willing to engage.

The basis for the exhibition of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden at the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau is several years of research, which included work on documents left by Grohmann and held in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Some of his texts are available to read in a single volume – a real treasure. The exhibition uses works by artists whom the critic championed to illustrate various stages of his biography. It features all the big names that today make up the canon of modern art which Grohmann was involved in creating with sensitivity and ambition.

Will Grohmann: In the Network of Modernism (exhibition report, in German)

Not unproblematic

The spectrum ranges from the Die Brücke group of artists via the Bauhaus and Art Informel to Baselitz and Bacon, and also includes works from Grohmann’s private collection. This is nice to look at, but unexpectedly harmonious and not unproblematic. Not because not only masterpieces are on show – that is in fact rather informative – but above all because it is not made sufficiently clear how someone who wanted to write about art and make a living doing so was able to deal with the upheavals and shocking episodes of the century, and what stance he adopted in various political systems – the Weimar Republic, National Socialism and the divided Germany.

To mark the 125th anniversary of his birth, it was decided in Grohmann’s home city of Dresden that tribute should be paid to the critic rather than asking critical questions about him – no doubt partly because this vehement defender of abstract art had been declared an “enemy of the people” in the GDR. Positions became even more entrenched as a result of the public dispute in 1954 between him and the artist Karl Hofer over abstract versus representational art. It was only later, mainly thanks to paintings by Francis Bacon and the intervention of his gallerist, that Grohmann also acknowledged the qualities of representational painting.

Grohmann lived in Dresden until he was 60. Born in Bautzen, he read German studies, history and philosophy in Leipzig and Paris, worked as a grammar school teacher from 1914 until his dismissal in 1933, and survived the period of Nazi rule by writing adapted journalistic articles about literature and history. After 1945 he immediately took up cultural positions and became the rector of a newly established art academy, the Hochschule für Werkkunst. In 1948 Grohmann moved to West Berlin to teach at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste (i.e. University of Fine Arts) there. In addition, he co-organized the documenta I, II and III exhibitions, as well as the biennales in Venice, Sao Paulo and Paris.

Exhibition view; © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/Fotograf: Herbert Boswank

Stories behind the pictures

The exhibition uses media stations to reveal – in a relatively inconspicuous manner – the history and the stories behind the pictures: visitors can leaf through a virtual photo album, read articles by Grohmann, take a look at his researched private collection or listen to radio contributions.

One extremely informative element is a 3D reconstruction of the 1946 General German Art Exhibition in Dresden. This exhibition, which was the first and only general German exhibition in the divided Germany, had been co-initiated and co-organized by Grohmann: not least in a bid to rehabilitate many of “his” artists about whom he had not been able to write during the Nazi period, their work having been ostracized as “degenerate art”.

Exhibition view; © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/Fotograf: Herbert Boswank

Sigrun Hellmich
works as an art scholar, journalist and author in Leipzig.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
November 2012

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