On September 30, 101 years ago, Walt Kuhn was wandering through a dazzling exhibition that would help shape the future of American art. He had come to the International Art Exhibition of the Federation of West German Art-Lovers [Patrons] and Artists, better known as the Sonderbund exhibition, in Cologne, Germany on the advice of Arthur B. Davies, President of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors that organized the Armory Show. Davies saw a copy of the exhibition catalogue and sent it to Kuhn, writing, “I wish we could have as good a show as the Cologne Sonderbund.”
Kuhn said that after receiving the catalogue, “In a flash I was decided.” He arrived in Cologne on the evening of September 29, and saw the very last day of the exhibition. He couldn’t get much attention from the people there because they were busy taking down the show, but he was allowed to walk through while they were dismantling it. He wrote that afterward, “I was so happy I felt like throwing my hat in the air.”
According to the catalogue that Davies saw, the Sonderbund Exhibition was an international overview of recent movements in European painting, with an emphasis on simplification and increased expression through rhythm and color. It included paintings and sculpture from Austria-Hungary, France, Holland, Hungary, Norway, Russia, and Switzerland. Many of the works were by artists that Davies and Kuhn might have heard about, but only seen in reproductions in art journals, or in the form of drawings and watercolors at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery in New York, such as Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, and Pablo Picasso. It also included a strong representation of paintings by artists that the organizers considered the fathers of modernism: Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh (more on them in an upcoming post). Even though only a handful of works that Kuhn saw in Cologne appeared at the Armory Show, it included many of the artists that were represented in the Sonderbund exhibition. Kuhn called it “the model of what we did in New York.”
Kimberly Orcutt, Henry Luce Foundation Curator of American Art
The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution is on view October 11, 2013 through February 23, 2013 at the New-York Historical Society.