It started with a painting of a hunchback. There was something about the image of a misshapen woman in a bright red blouse whose greenish yellow face sank into her chest. Emilie Ester Scheyer, a young German artist, first laid eyes on the painting at a 1916 exhibition in Lausanne, Switzerland, and couldn’t get it out of her mind. It made her track down the painter and give up her own artistic career.
“Why should I go on painting when I know I can’t produce such good art as you?” she asked Alexei Jawlensky, when she found him living in Switzerland. “It’s better to dedicate myself to your art and explain it to others.”
The rest is art history, and the improbable tale of Scheyer -- Galka, as she is widely known -- an impassioned advocate of modern art who spent her last 20 years in California and assembled a highly revered collection that landed at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.
Examples of her collection, which focuses on Jawlensky, Lyonel Feininger, Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee -- whom she promoted as the Blue Four and fondly referred to as “my four blue kings” -- are nearly always on view at the Simon. But the entire holding of about 500 artworks and 800 related documents is about to make its biggest public splash to date.
“The Blue Four at the Norton Simon Museum,” a 496-page catalog of the collection written by art historian Vivian Endicott Barnett, is just out from Yale University Press in association with the Norton Simon Art Foundation. To celebrate the long-awaited event, the museum has organized two exhibitions.
The first, “My Four Kings: Galka Scheyer and the Blue Four,” will present about 250 artworks and 50 photographs and documents, from Friday to April 14. While that exhibition will probe the depth of the museum’s Blue Four holding and explore Scheyer’s relationship with her favorite artists, the second show, “From Europe to California: Galka Scheyer and the Avant-Garde,” will reveal the breadth of her interest in modern art. Paintings, drawings, prints and photographs by about 45 artists, ranging from German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters to American photographer Edward Weston and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, will be on view from May 16 to Sept. 18.
The collection offers insight into the life of a remarkable woman “who set out on her own and invented a role for herself in the art world,” Barnett said. More a promoter than a dealer, Scheyer never had a gallery and wasn’t very good at selling the artwork she loved. But “she had a way of getting to know people and attracting attention,” Barnett said. Calling herself the Minister of the Exterior for her artists, she talked loudly, had a strong accent and made a big impression.
Ceramicist Beatrice Wood, who promoted herself as the art world’s grande dame of colorful characters, remembered Scheyer as a formidable force. “Her voice was so strident and her manner so intense it was abrasive,” Wood recalled in her autobiography. “Yet, she was so alive in a room, and scintillating, that no one else counted.”
Scheyer’s lifelong friend, Lette Valeska, wrote in her memoir: “She frequently met rejection and disappointment, but her personal philosophy and determination were so strong, and her commitment to her task so great, that she refused to be downed by any adversity.”
Working as an artist in Europe
Scheyer was born in 1889 in Braunschweig, Germany, the youngest of three children, and the only one in her middle-class Jewish family who didn’t end up working in the family business (a canning factory). Emilie was a rebel, Barnett said; she stuck to her plans to be an artist.
With financial support from home, Scheyer studied art and English in London, took painting lessons from Braunschweig artist Gustav Lehmann, traveled to Italy with him and spent a couple of years in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1916, when she encountered Jawlensky’s work, she was working as a painter in Brussels.
Scheyer and Jawlensky began exchanging letters and visits. She bought landscape abstractions from his “Variations” series. He introduced her to other artists and began a series of “Mystical Heads,” some of which portray Scheyer in a stylized form. In late 1917, he gave her a small version of “The Hunchback” painting that had so impressed her and dedicated it to “the all-seeing soul.” Three years later, Jawlensky gave her a nickname, Galka, the Russian word for jackdaw, after a bird that appeared to him in a dream. It stuck.
As Scheyer began to style herself as an artist’s agent and ambassador for modern art, Jawlensky authorized her to organize exhibitions and write about his work. She also traveled throughout Germany, giving lectures, making contacts with museum directors, curators, dealers and artists.
Taking a 45% commission on pictures sold and drawing on family funds, Scheyer organized a Jawlensky exhibition for a gallery in Berlin that traveled to several other venues in 1920. The following year, she presented a show of his work at the New Museum in Wiesbaden that won critical acclaim and resulted in the sale of 20 paintings.
“A great first success,” Scheyer wrote to Jawlensky.
While working on his behalf, she was expanding the circle of artists whom she would promote and represent. An international group of artists had gravitated to Germany. Jawlensky, Kandinsky and Klee all studied in Munich; Feininger in Hamburg and Berlin. The Bauhaus, the design powerhouse, was also a magnet for the international avant-garde before the Nazis closed it in 1939. Scheyer became a frequent visitor at the school, where Feininger, Kandinsky and Klee were longtime members of the faculty.
But the economic situation became increasingly difficult. In 1923, accepting the invitation of a friend who had emigrated to the United States and following the lead of more experienced dealers who left Europe and opened galleries in New York, Scheyer decided to go to America. At first she intended to represent a variety of European Modernists. But by the time she left, in 1924, her focus had narrowed to four artists.
A disparate group, Jawlensky and Kandinsky were Russian, Feininger was American, and Klee was Swiss. Feininger is best known for airy compositions that combine crisp lines with ethereal color. Jawlensky was an intense colorist whose signature works are abstract human heads. Kandinsky was a pioneering abstractionist. Klee had a whimsical, poetic sensibility. Banding together was more a matter of economics than aesthetics, and the key to their union was Scheyer.
“These four artists stand so close to me in their art; it makes it possible for me to pursue this venture with a faithful spirit,” she wrote to Feininger as she prepared to go to America.
The artists suggested that she call them “The Four.” But they became the Blue Four, probably in reference to Kandinsky’s and Klee’s participation in another artists group, the Blue Rider, named -- in part -- for an abstract blue and black woodcut of a mounted horseman by Kandinsky.
Scheyer set sail from Hamburg on May 8, 1924, and arrived in New York 10 days later. The first Blue Four exhibition opened at the Daniel Gallery in New York on Feb. 25, 1925. The reviews were favorable, but nothing sold.
“The exhibition is well attended and one meets many interested people, even buyers, as Daniel says, if the prices were not so high,” she wrote to the artists. “I find the prices not too high if one does not necessarily want to sell. If one has the time to wait.”
In search of a new market, Scheyer traveled to Los Angeles, making all the right Modernist connections. In L.A., for instance, she got to know architects Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra. She had begun a 20-year California adventure and, as she wrote to the artists in Germany, had “found her footing in America.”
Scheyer initially settled in the Bay Area, where she gave lectures and presented exhibitions, including a particularly successful show at Stanford University. She had deals going with galleries and museums. But by 1930 she decided to move to Los Angeles, where, she told the artists, “the prospects are better” and “there is more life.” She based that decision on sales to Walter and Louise Arensberg, major collectors of modern art who had moved from New York to Los Angeles, and on hopes of selling to Hollywood collectors. Scheyer finally made the move in 1933, buying land in the Hollywood Hills and commissioning Neutra to build a house for her -- on a winding street, off Sunset Plaza, which she named Blue Heights Drive. She moved into the concrete and glass house in 1934, hoping to use it as a dwelling and a gallery, but it had little exhibition space and was hard for her clients to find.
That was far from the biggest problem facing Scheyer and her artists. Nazi Germany was intensely hostile to modern art. The Blue Four, some in ill health, couldn’t sell their work at home. In America, the Depression sharply curtailed budgets of museums and collectors. Scheyer quarreled with the artists and other dealers over fees and contractual obligations. In 1936, she wrote to Kandinsky that she felt “like a maid” and lamented that she no longer got financial support from her family. To keep up with expenses, she taught art classes.
The Blue Four would soon disappear. Klee died in 1940, Jawlensky in 1941, Kandinsky in 1944. Feininger, who lived until 1956, withdrew many of his works from Scheyer in 1937, when he returned to the United States, but maintained a warm relationship with her. Scheyer died in 1945, at 56. She had drafted her will two months earlier, in consultation with the Arensbergs, who were negotiating with UCLA to provide a home for their collection. Scheyer -- who had amassed a large holding of art through gifts and purchases -- bequeathed her collection to the university on the condition that it be displayed “in suitable proportions and for reasonable periods, in the museum building to be constructed for the Arensberg Collection.” If the university did not build a suitable building by Oct. 1, 1950, the will stipulated, a committee she had appointed would decide whether the collection would go to UCLA “or become the property of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, or any other institution interested.” That left the field wide open, but she told the committee members she wanted the collection to remain in California.
The building never materialized at UCLA. The Arensbergs eventually gave their collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Scheyer’s committee entrusted her collection to the Pasadena Art Institute, which became the Pasadena Art Museum in 1954, and later was bailed out of bankruptcy by industrialist/art collector Norton Simon.
Scheyer’s will required that the institution receiving her collection “publish an illustrated catalogue of the Collection with as many color and photographic reproductions of the pictures as possible, and a minimum of written descriptive matter.” Simon fulfilled that obligation in 1976, confirming the museum’s ownership of the collection. But Simon, who had little interest in commissioning complete, scholarly studies of his holdings, never followed up with a full catalog of the Scheyer collection.
The museum’s Blue Four collection is well known as one of the world’s largest holdings of the group’s work, but the new catalog -- six years in the works -- provides detailed descriptions of each work. At the same time, it tells the story of a woman who was “way ahead of her time in terms of her taste and how she saw her role as the artists’ agent or promoter,” Barnett said. “It’s a very modern concept, which she was able to carry out in California in a way that she couldn’t on the East Coast or Europe.”
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Her blue heaven
The artists that Galka Scheyer dubbed the Blue Four were like-minded modernists who searched for new modes of expression, but they had no interest in developing a uniform style. Each worked as an individual, according to his own aesthetic sensibility.
Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), whose style merged sharp angles and linear precision with planes of soft color, was born in New York, studied in Germany and taught at the Bauhaus. “Full-Rigged Ship” was a gift to Scheyer.
Alexei Jawlensky (1864-1941), known for emotionally charged, intensely colored images, was born in Russia and lived in Germany and Switzerland. “The Hunchback,” is a version of an earlier image that led Scheyer to give up her own career.
Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940), known for his playful imagination, studied in Munich and taught at the Bauhaus. “Maid of Saxony” was shown in New York, Oakland and L.A., and bought by Scheyer in 1929.
Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944), a leading avant-gardist and abstractionist, was born in Russia, studied in Munich and taught at the Bauhaus. Scheyer purchased “Pressure From Above” for her collection.
‘My Four Kings: Galka Scheyer and the Blue Four’
When: Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays, noon to 6 p.m.; Fridays, noon to 9 p.m.
Where: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
When: Dec. 13 through April 14
Price: Adults, $6; seniors, $3; students and children younger than 18, free
Contact: (626) 449-6940