Art dealer of the Avantgarde

Praise and Controversy before 1933

Having worked as an art dealer since 1913, the ingenious and indefatigable Alfred Flechtheim, who always enjoyed being in the limelight, reached the peak of his career in 1928 on his 50th birthday. In the limited special edition of his gallery publication entitled Querschnitt durch Alfred Flechtheim his contemporaries praised him for the service he had done in many fields: for his commitment to contemporary art and his mediation, for his genius as a publisher, for his straightforwardness and for social highlights in general. Of course, only praise is to be found in this homage from 1928, some of which is very witty and caricaturing.

For Alfred Flechtheim, financial success was probably of secondary importance. According to contemporaries, his talent was not to be found on the business side – so strong was his love of art and artists. It was, however, in the economically difficult 1920s and especially after the Great Depression in 1929, anything but easy to make a living from contemporary art. Flechtheim’s attempts to open up galleries abroad and to explore new paths within his gallery agenda at the beginning of the 1930s failed. In the meantime strong competition had appeared in Berlin in the form of the art dealers Cassirer and Thannhauser with their successful approach and established customer base.

The collector Thea Sternheim first met Flechtheim in 1906 when he was still working in the grain business. Together with Paul Cassirer she persuaded Flechtheim to become an art dealer rather than just a collector. The first controversies appeared around 1910 after he and other gallery owners and museum directors came under attack from German artists, especially Carl Vinnen, for the support shown for French modern art. This protest by German artists came to a head at the so-called ‘Bremen Art Dispute’ of 1911 – triggered by the purchase of a painting by van Gogh for the Bremer Kunsthalle.

In 1923 Flechtheim reflected upon his first ten years as an art dealer and listed five points that lead to success. He provided a clear picture of the outset with the French Impressionists and the new start he made after World War I with the Brücke and Sturm groups of artists, the Expressionists and modern art from the Rhineland district – French art could not be sold immediately after the war. The passion that he later developed for the French took him to Berlin as an art dealer.

Flechtheim’s importance for the Paris art world too was underlined in a discussion with the art critic, collector and publisher Christian Zervos (1889–1970) in 1927. The portrait highlighted the supreme position he had attained at the peak of his career and described him as being “fébrile, vif, joyeux, désespéré, sensuel, calculateur, injuste, enthousiaste, Flechtheim est tout cela à la fois” (frenetic, lively, joyous, disparing, calculating, injust, enthusiastic, Flechtheim is all these at the same time).

Flechtheim was ‘Alfred, l’International’; contemporaries such as Alex Vömel called him the ‘power house of modern art’; all and sundry knew ‘Flechtheim’; his name was a buzzword. Anyone who has so much praise heaped upon him, anyone who is so well known and follows such a clear line is also going to be open to criticism. In 1921 the members of the ‘Junges Rheinland’ artists’ association wrote an open letter to Flechtheim that began with the phrase ‘O flechtheim – sch’lamassel’ [= mess] and was signed ‘Alfred nebbich’ [= Jiddish for ‘what a pity’]. This quite obviously had to do with Alfred Flechtheim as a Jewish art dealer. In response he threatened to take private action. Flechtheim was, after all, vain as well, and wrote: “The only misfortune is that there are not a lot of other art dealers like me in Germany and that in up-market Bellevue, Viktoria and Tiergarten Strasse only Old Masters, French Impressionists, Chinese tomb sculptures and signed chests of drawers are sold.”

Flechtheim polarised – not only with regard to art but also his behaviour towards artists. George Grosz, whose correspondence represents one of the principle historical sources of reference on Flechtheim, along with Thea Sternheim’s diaries, attributed him with a ‘loud mouth’ and an uncouth manner that he very much missed when Flechtheim emigrated. Shortly before Flechtheim’s death he characterised him as “a character, even if a very ambiguous one, he was indeed.” In actual fact Flechtheim’s friendships with artists lasted for years, even for decades.