A German Museum Restages the Seminal 1912 Exhibition That Made Modernism Cool

Van Gogh, "Self-Portrait," 1887 (detail)
(The Art Institute of Chicago / © Wallraf-Richartz-Museum )

With “1912 – Mission Moderne,” on view through December 30, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum has given itself an ambitious mission: to recreate the “Sonderbund” exhibition of 1912 that brought together the biggest names in European modernism, from van Gogh to Picasso. It’s a very exciting idea, though the result is somewhat disappointing, since many of the works shown in 1912 could not be borrowed or have simply disappeared. But “Mission Moderne” is nevertheless an unprecedented art historical adventure and a journey which, to paraphrase the writer Paul Theroux, counts just as much as the destination.

The Sonderbund exhibition of 1912 had an incredible concentration of works by modern artists, including 125 van Goghs, 25 Gauguins, 26 Cézannes, and 16 Picassos, all nicely lined up on the walls of a temporary building set up near the Aix-la-Chapelle gate in Cologne. Thirty-two Edvard Munch paintings were also on view, along with works from the German avant-garde movements Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter. The exhibition/fair (artworks were also sold) was organized by the director of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Alfred Hagelstange, and collectors and patrons such as Karl Ernst Osthaus, founder of the Folkwang collection in Essen, and it had an explosive effect on the still very conservative cultural landscape of imperial Germany. Just one year before, in 1911, the Cologne Kunsthalle’s purchase of a van Gogh painting had sparked an angry reaction by German artists. So it’s easy to imagine why the Sonderbund exhibition met with a bloodthirsty critical reception, a response that is still on record in the city’s newspaper archives.


Alongside works by masters of European modern art, the 25 exhibition rooms also displayed more “classical” artists, such as the Post-Impressionists Henri Edmond Cross and Paul Signac, whose innovations had already been assimilated by the artistic orthodoxy. In the center of the space, a chapel decorated with a tapestry by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and stained glass windows by Jan Thorn Prikker for the Three Kings Church in Neuss connected modern art and religion, and became a main target of critics. The paintings were accompanied by sculptures and decorative art objects in keeping with the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which was inherited from German Romanticism. The Sonderbund exhibition was an organized chaos mixing Norwegian, Swiss, and German artists and giving pride of place to French art, whose influence on German art was palpable. van Gogh, who had five rooms to himself, was celebrated as the champion of modern art, the origin of all major formal experimentation.

Now, a century later, of 650 works originally shown, 120 are on view in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and seeing them is a moving experience, even if the gaps are obvious. None of the Matisse works shown in 1912 are here. Munch’s masterpiece “Madonna” had to remain in Hamburg’s Kunsthalle due to conservation concerns. van Gogh’s sunflowers and irises stayed home, at London’s National Gallery and Amsterdam’s van Gogh Museum, respectively. As for Picasso, only two paintings from 1903 and 1905 are shown in the last room, although 1912 was the apogee of his analytic cubism, which is totally absent here.

However, we can rejoice at the presence of van Gogh’s “Arlésienne,” on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, a small Gauguin from his Tahitian period, dug up almost miraculously from a private collection, a portrait of “Woman and Child” by Egon Schiele from 1912, and an impressive “Annunciation” by Oskar Kokoschka, which reveals a dark yet airy expressionism. Wandering through the exhibition creates a chiaroscuro of impressions, between presence and absence, surprises and disappointments, with vivid signs of the exchanges that molded European modernism from a German vantage point. The 1912 room of Norwegian artists is reproduced exactly, and is particularly representative of the influences and porous relations that characterize the early 20th century, and of the astonishing syncretism that these influences produced.

The real accomplishment of “Mission Moderne” is that it exists at all, given its utopian character and colossal research requirements. Curator Barbara Schaefer has produced a 646-page catalogue that reproduces all 650 works shown in 1912, with notes on each. This exhibition goes against the current trend for the spectacular and puts art historical interest first. 

To see images from  “1912 — Mission Moderne," click on the slide show.