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Ronald Lauder’s Trophy Kirchner Gets MoMA Showcase

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Glenn Lowry and Deborah Wye at Tuesday’s Kirchner preview

Why has the Museum of Modern Art decided to give Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a middling German Expressionist, the “first New York museum show devoted entirely to his work” (as decribed by the show’s curator, Deborah Wye)?

The chief focus of Kirchner and the Berlin Street, which opens to the public on Sunday, is an eye-popping lineup of seven of the 11 paintings from Kirchner’s series of Berlin street scene paintings of 1913-15. Director Glenn Lowry touted the show as also providing an opportunity to see the
museum’s particularly rich trove of the artist’s works on paper, arrayed on either side of the rogues gallery of streetwalking prostitutes and potential clientele.

Wye, MoMA’s chief curator of prints and drawings, observed at Tuesday’s press preview that
“Kirchner is not so well known in the United States as he should be.”

Maybe so. But two years ago he became a whole lot better known…as a lot: His “Berlin Street Scene,” 1913, was offered at Christie’s historic Impressionist/modern sale of Nov. 8, 2006, better known as the Night of the Soaring Klimts. While four restituted Bloch-Bauer Klimts were making the evening’s big headlines, Ronald Lauder, who had already privately purchased Klimt’s golden portrait of “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” for an estimated $135 million, astonished even Kirchner’s greatest admirers by paying some $38.1 million, trouncing that artist’s previous record, for a work offered at Christie’s that had just been restituted to the heirs of a Nazi victim.

The auction house said at the time that the painting had been acquired by the Neue Galerie. But its label for MoMA’s show now describes its ownership as “Neue Galerie New York and Private Collection” (Lauder’s).

In any event, its composition, size and subject matter make it so similar to a Kirchner street scene acquired by MoMA in 1939 that they could almost be regarded as pendants—a fact certainly not lost on Lauder, who is MoMA’s honorary chairman:


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Left: “Berlin Street Scene,” 1913, Neue Galerie, New York, and private collection [Ronald Lauder]
Right: “Street, Berlin,” 1913, Museum of Modern Art

MoMA’s painting is included on museum’s Provenance Research Project website, which lists works in its collection “that were or could have been in Continental Europe during the Nazi era.” Its complete provenance is here.

The exhibition label for Lauder’s painting suggests (largely on the strength of the jutting cigarette) that one of the men fraternizing the streetwalkers could be the artist’s self-portrait. If true, that would certainly enhance the picture’s allure. But that’s a claim that not even the auction house’s sales-pitched catalogue entry tried to make.

Until the Christie’s sale, I had never realized that the elegant subjects of Kirchner’s signature street scenes were prostitutes. So I was relieved to read this excerpt from Wye’s catalogue essay:

I was among those confused about the motif in MoMA’s “Street, Berlin,” thinking it only a scene of elegantly dressed figures on the way to the opera or some such fancy event. But closer inspecton gives many clues to the contrary. For example, would it be common in this period for women to be out at night, unaccompanied, and all dressed up?

It makes for a diverting focus exhibition for the slow-news days of summer. But it’s surely no match for John Elderfield‘s profound Manet and the Execution of Maximilian exhibition (which I cited for its timely pertinence here), to which Lowry compared the new show (because of their concentration on specific series), which is installed in the same space.

Speaking of Elderfield, I caught sight of him near the end of the press preview, quickly cruising through the Kirchners, paying them scant attention. He told me he was looking forward to shucking his administrative shackles as the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, so he can dedicate himself to the Matisse and de Kooning shows that he’s organizing for MoMA. Caught in the museum’s “65-and-out” mandatory retirement policy, he declined MoMA’s offer of future office space, saying that when the late William Rubin had kept a post-retirement perch at the museum, he got sucked into mundane matters that sapped attention from more rewarding pursuits.

Today is, in fact, Elderfield’s first day as a civilian. No replacement for this irreplaceable scholar/curator has yet been announced.

But at least they’ve got Wye, whom Lowry called (in the presence of less effusively extolled MoMA curators), “one of the most talented, remarkable and, I think, most insightful curators working anywhere today.”

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