Published  31/07/2002

Masters of Colour: Derain to Kandinsky

Masters of Colour: Derain to Kandinsky

Only 30 years ago, Gabrielle and Werner Merzbacher began to form a collection of early 20th century art that has become one of the finest yet least known private collections of modern art in the world

Vasily Kandinsky. Angel of the Last Judgement, 1911. Oil on cardboard, 64 x 50 cm. Mr and Mrs Merzbacher, the Merzbacher Foundation and Carafe Investment Company.

Masterpieces from the Merzbacher Collection
Sackler Galleries, Royal Academy of the Arts, London
27 July—17 November 2002.


The collection was formed around a small number of fine paintings inherited by Gabrielle Merzbacher from her paternal grandfather, Bernard Mayer. These included Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alexej von Jawlensky, Henri Matisse and Vincent Van Gogh. Given that by the 1970s when Merzbacher began to seriously collect, most of the key works from this period were already in major museums, he has managed to locate and acquire a collection that is greater than one might expect.

The exhibition on show at the Royal Academy is, in fact, a remarkable collection of vivid and powerful works chosen primarily out of personal response to a work than the employment of scholarly or intellectual criteria. And yet it includes works from an amazing range of modern movements. The exhibition opens with the Impressionists and Post-impressionists (normally on permanent loan to international museums), seminal works by Picasso and Matisse, Fauve paintings, Expressionists, Cubists, Futurists and the Russian avant-garde. Among the highlights of the Royal Academy show are: Cézanne, Still-Life, Skull and Candlestick, 1866-7, Derain, Boats in the Port of Collioure. 1905, Van Gogh, Garden with Weeping Willow, 1888, Renoir, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1901, Picasso, The Couple (The Miserable), 1904, Matisse, Interior at Collioure, 1905, Braque, L’Estaque, 1906. There are several works each by Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirckner, Emil Nolde, Jawlensky, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff. Certain works in the context of this exhibition create an unexpectedly forceful presence, for example, the marvellous portrait by Jawlensky, Lady in a Yellow Hat, c.1910, a determined vital work, and Max Beckmann’s Woman with a Red Rooster, 1941, a painting with implied drama and tension and strong formal preoccupations.

The exhibition is characterised by the vivid colours used by artists with a wide range of preoccupations and intent; the collection itself is the product of a personal quest and passion. The result is an exhibition where different aspects of the modern movement interact in dramatic and uplifting ways. Until this exhibition — the first European showing of the Merzbacher Collection — only curators and art professionals have been aware of the remarkable holdings of this unique and relatively new collection. The core of the collection dates back to Gabrielle Merzbacher’s grandfather who provided a supportive milieu for the collection of art and the exchange of ideas. A prosperous merchant, whose business included branches in Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Zurich, he was also interested in literature, political and social issues. His summerhouse in Ascona, Switzerland attracted a wide circle of artists and visitors including Alexej von Jawlensky, Arthur Segal, Marianne von Werefkin and Christian Rohlfs. Soon after settling in Switzerland, Mayer began to buy modern paintings. He took the core of this collection to America during the war and then returned with them to Switzerland after the war. Among the collection were works by Van Gogh, Cézanne, James Ensor, Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Matisse, Renoir and Arthur Segal. After his death in 1946 Mayer’s collection of some 12 key works (some had been lost in the moving around) was divided between his son Ernst and his daughter Lily. Gabrielle Merzbacher (née Mayer) had enjoyed a close relationship with her grandfather and shared his interest in art, literature, and the Jewish cause.

Werner Merzbacher was born in 1928 in Southern Germany where his father was a highly respected doctor. The full scale of the Nazi threat was realised too late by them; as a result his parents sent him and his brother to Switzerland but they themselves never followed, and later perished in Auschwitz. Werner’s brother Rudolph became mentally ill and died at a young age in a Swiss institution. Werner himself stayed in Switzerland for some ten years where he was educated with scholarships. Penniless and orphaned he went to America in 1949; where two years later he married Gabrielle Mayer. In 1953 he entered the New York fur market as partner in the firm Mayer and Hofman and Max Pick, Inc. In 1964 the Merzbachers returned to Switzerland with their three children. He continued in the fur trade there; in 1989 he became owner of Mayer and Cie AG. He became increasingly active in the field of international finance. A tireless and enthusiastic individual, Merzbacher’s personality is reflected in his choice of works to purchase. ‘I really believe that an honest collection, made over a lifetime, should reflect the personality of the collector… After all, one needn’t have everything. The best collections come from within you.’1

Although the Merzbacher collection and the man himself are flamboyant, until now he has always bought anonymously and made loans to exhibitions as ‘Private Collection’. The Royal Academy exhibition is the first opportunity for the public to see their fabulous collection and for the Merzbachers to assume a major public role. Colour is the unifying element of the works on show; so too are the formal dynamics of the pictures. ‘What interests me are the many similarities, as well as important differences, in the handling of colour across Europe. I like to see the expression of different countries in their handling of colour — the playfulness of the French soul, the harshness of the German — but also the relationship between them… A thread runs through (the collection). The paintings have to live together, I hope visitors will appreciate this thread and see how each work talks to each other’.2

Merzbacher first encountered Fauve, German Expressionist and Russian avant-garde works in exhibitions in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. A Fauve exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York left a particularly strong impression. At the Leonard Hutton Galleries in New York during the same period he encountered the passionate, dramatic and romantic spirits of Kandinsky, Kirchner and Franz Marc. Financially their work was out of his league at this stage, but he had effectively fallen in love with it and vowed to acquire such pieces one day. Ingrid Hutton recalls that Merzbacher often visited their gallery in the seventies, and displayed interest in the work of the German Expressionists.

It was the energy and the colour in a painting that attracted him. In the beginning my husband guided him. Sometimes he would see a work and tell us he couldn’t sleep, he just kept thinking about it. Even today he still tries to buy some of the works he saw in the beginning. They have haunted him until now … he is very attached to his art. He absolutely loves it. His reaction to a painting is not intellectual — it is from the heart … His is an immediate love affair with the painting.3

There are numerous links to be made between various aspects of the modern movement in Europe in the early 20th century. It is no coincidence that one can feel equal enthusiasm for artists as different in most respects as Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Natalie Goncharova, between Jawlensky and Klee, between Kandinsky and Derain. These artists all inspire great passion partly because they existed geographically apart yet they were preoccupied with variations on a theme. The Delaunays influenced Paul Klee and Franz Marc greatly in Germany and the Italian Futurists, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini. The Futurists in turn influenced the Russian avant-garde. The Russians who painted sets for Diagalev influenced the French artists when the Ballet Russes visited Paris in 1905. Further, Robert Delaunay exhibited with Blaue Reiter artists and corresponded with Kandinsky. Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, addressed the meaning and effect of colour; it was widely read by artists and theorists in the early part of the twentieth century. Kandinsky also exhibited in Paris in 1911 and 1912 at the Salon des Indépendents.

Another strikingly direct connection, this time between artistic generations, involves one of the Merzbacher’s Kandinskys. In August 1914, Kandinsky, a Russian citizen, was forced to flee Germany, leaving everything behind. His Angel of the Last Judgement (1911) was one of the works entrusted to Hans Hofman for safekeeping. Hofman opened a school in Munich and taught there until 1932, when he emigrated to the United States, apparently taking the Angel with him.4

Hofman became one of the most influential artists and teachers in America in the development of Abstract Expressionism. ‘Basic to his theory of painting was the concept of the ‘push and pull’ of colour, for which he was indebted to ideas developed by Kandinsky’.5 As well as concentrating on several favourites such as Kandinsky who is represented by seven paintings, the Merzbacher collection also includes key works by numerous great names of the modern movement. The most outstanding works in my experience of the show are Derain’s, Boats in the Port of Collioure, Matisse’s, Interior at Collioure, Picasso’s The Couple, a superb example of his blue period, and the Kandinskys.

The Guardian’s reviewer Adrian Searle appears to be the only critic so far who has not enjoyed the unexpected nature of the show, describing it as ‘chaotic, excessive and at war with itself’. Although he concedes that there are some flashes of inspiration, he writes:

One must remember that this is a private collection, not a coherent display, and that the emphasis on colour in the awful title is just a peg. The sculptures of Julio Gonzalez, Henri Laurens and Jacques Lipchitz have nothing to do with colour, unless it is brown. As for the painters, colour is put to the service of so many divergent aims — optical effect, musicality, emotional tenor, topographic description, spiritual aspiration, symbolism, atmosphere and so on — that it becomes almost impossible to think about…There is too much paint, too much painting, too much colour and too much description in Vlaminck’s work, too much ostentatious brushwork. Early Derains, like Matisse’s early paintings, breathe, while Vlaminck’s feel clogged-up and stifling. Many of the painters here seem to have a lot in common now than they did in their own times. There are a lot of bright, brushy paintings in the Merzbacher collection, all intent on asserting themselves. Hung close, all those post-impressionists, fauves, Die Brücke, Blaue Reiter and expressionist paintings tend to cancel each other out. The viewer must work to get beyond all that frank and sometimes blundering brushwork, all the red everywhere. The collection makes for a claustrophobic experience.6

Searle goes on to state that he would hate to live with the Merzbacher collection. The Guardian review reads alarmingly like the extreme and vitriolic reviews of the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1910 at the Grafton Galleries. Organised by Roger Fry, it caused a public outrage and the press went crazy. In 1910 Roger Fry’s reputation was destroyed and the works on show described as ‘the works of madmen’. Fry himself was declared to be a ‘subverter of morals and art and a blatant self-advertiser’.7 Searle’s obsessive criticism here is focussed on the collector, ‘I would hate to live with this stuff all the time, as Werner and Gabrielle Merzbacher apparently do. I would end up having Die Brücke domestics, Blaue Reiter rows and expressionist tantrums’. He describes the Renoir as hideous, the Modigliani as awful and the Kokoschka as dreary. But he is by his own admission prone to irrational outbursts. Fortunately for Searle, he found a calming Malevich before suffering total aperplexy.

Colour Theory and Colour Practice in Early Twentieth Century Art by John Gage8 describes the fascination by numerous artists and theorists during the period covered by the exhibition. Any student of this period will have read Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and theories pertaining to the role of colour in the painting of the post-impressionists. The role of individuals and of subjective experience in the art of the early 20th century was of paramount importance. Prior to and between the two World Wars, artists responded in passionate and dramatic terms. The exciting characteristic of so many works in the Merzbacher collection is the continued struggle and determination to make life better. There is indeed a kind of chaos inherent in the Merzbacher collection but it is the chaos that comes from acknowledging the complexity and disappointments in individual experience, in modern life, in politics and in the prospect of an uncertain future. It remains so, that by acknowledging the enemy — be it psychological or political — it is possible to focus on the sublime, on moments of perfection. Matisse’s art has perhaps been devalued because he himself described it as being like a good armchair. The comforting or pleasing quality of many of his compositions do not denote a soft option for there was prior to the creative act itself an inner struggle. His calm was not necessarily easily won.

The idea of the power of pigment is something I feel an affinity for. The Royal Academy exhibition has an uplifting effect. It is psychologically energising and feels truly good for the soul. That such a collection was created by an individual whose life began with such tragedy and loss is inspiring. His life and the collection that he and his wife have created are inextricably linked. In Stephanie Rachum’s catalogue essay, ‘The Joy of Colour: the Merzbacher’s and their Collection’, she concludes that passion is the single distinguishing feature of the Merzbacher Collection.9 John Gage evaluates the period covered by the exhibition:

Colour among most of the artists represented in the Merzbacher collection reflects the emergence of painters from the positivist climate of the nineteenth-century into a culture so laden with conflicting theories that the only course open to them was subjectivism. But it was a subjectivism entirely in tune with the psychological temper of the first quarter of the twentieth century.10

The present exhibition strikes a chord with the psychological temper of the present time — uncertainty, personal loss, drama, but also a tenacious hope.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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