Art dealer of the Avantgarde

The Sonderbund

The ‘Internationale Kunstausstellung des Sonderbunds Westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler’ that opened on 25 May, 1912 in Cologne, is to be seen as the pioneering art exhibition of the early 20th century from a present-day perspective, as it presented all avant-garde groups of artists and art movements in Europe (Expressionism, The Brücke, The Blauer Reiter, Fauvism, Cubism) together for the first time, while being a sales exhibition at the same time. The so-called ‘Fathers of Modernism’ – Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh – whose works were also on show, formed a counterbalance. The new style of presenting the works in simple frames and hung in a single row on white walls was revolutionary and instrumental to the development of the art market.

The exhibition was preceded by the foundation of an association of artists, museum directors, collectors and dealers in 1909 in Düsseldorf who joined forces with the specific intention of presenting avant-garde art to a wider public. Karl Ernst Osthaus, the founder of the Folkwang Museum, was chairman; members of the association’s board included Alfred Hegelstange, director of the Wallraf-Richarz-Museum, Walter Cohen, assistant director of the Provinzialmuseum Bonn and Fritz Wichert, director of the Städtische Kunsthalle Mannheim. The art historian Wilhelm Niemeyer was the secretary and Alfred Flechtheim the treasurer. The art dealers Paul Cassirer and Felix Fénéon were on the exhibition’s steering committee, of which Flechtheim was chairman, and Max Liebermann one of the honorary members. Art dealers such as Wilhelm Abels, J. Bernheim-Jeune and Fritz Bismeyer were also members. During the year of its foundation in Düsseldorf they held the first Sonderbund exhibition for which Flechtheim provided a number of graphic works. Annual exhibitions followed, for which he also loaned works.

In 1911, the Kunsthalle Bremen’s acquisition of van Gogh’s Field with Poppies led to a public discussioin about the supposed preference shown by German museums for French art and French art dealers. This came to a head with the ‘Protest Deutscher Künstler’, initiated by the Worpswede painter Carl Vinnen, to which members of the Sonderbund replied with their ‘Im Kampf um die Moderne, Antwort auf den Protest deutscher Künstler’ (In the fight for Modernism, in answer to the protest by German artists) which included Alfred Flechtheim’s  commentary in which he pointed out the increase in the value of van Gogh’s works.
The Sonderbund was dissolved in 1915.