Review – Art: German Love of Van Gogh at Städel

© Sammlung Emil Bührle

The story of the tormented artist who shot himself in the very same cornfields that he painted so memorably was too good not be told. By the time the German art critic and novelist Julius Meier-Graefe cemented the legend of the tragic genius in his bestselling (and largely fictitious) biography about Vincent van Gogh in 1918, the dead Dutch painter was already considered one of the most influential figures in Modern art. ” Making Van Gogh. A German Love Story ” at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum explores the marketing and mythologization of van Gogh at the hands of the German art world – namely through critics such as Meier-Graefe, as well as the slew of German collectors, artists, and dealers who venerated him. As early as 1914, there were 150 van Gogh works in collections in Germany. The vast exhibition at Städel accentuates the critical role played by these agents of van Gogh’s posthumous success, at times with surprising details. After f ive years of planning, the German museum has united 50 key works by van Gogh from around the world, bolstered by 70 works by the German artists he influenced, among them Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Occupying the 32,000-square-feet underground extension of the institution, which normally houses its postwar and contemporary art collections, the show has a rather austere setting that puts the spotlight squarely on the intensity of van Gogh’s paintings. “Vincent van Gogh is the godfather of German modernism,” said Städel’s director Philipp Demandt at the press opening last week, adding that the exhibition, which is on view until February 16, 2020, is probably the most elaborate in the museum’s history. “In the course of our research, we found out where the painting is a few months ago. We tried to reach out to the owner but didn’t get any reply,” Städel’s Alexander Eiling, who curated the show with Felix Krämer of Düsseldorf’s Kunstpalast, told artnet News. After being seized by the Nazis (the museum tried, in vain, to protect it by putting it in a hidden room a few years before it was taken), the work was sold on the international art market at the behest of Herrmann Göring and, ironically, ended up in the collection of German Jewish émigré Siegfried Kamarsky under unknown circumstances. The empty golden frame from 1911 is a stark reminder of the losses incurred during wartime. It has also become a selfie magnet for visitors. (Van Gogh, incidentally, reportedly preferred a frame of simple white wood.) A Darling of the German-Jewish Art World Some of these works, and the stories of early champions of the artist, form the most fascinating components of the Städel show. There is the 1888 Portrait of Armand Roulin , the first painting to be bought by a German museum, the Museum Folkwang in Essen, in 1903. The first acquisitions by the Städel are also included, like Farmhouse in Nuenen and the drawing Peasant Woman Planting Potatoes , both from 1885. Demandt acknowledges the importance Germany played in salvaging the artist from relative obscurity: “It was especially gallery owners, artists, collectors, and museum directors in Germany, many of them of Jewish origin, who became interested in Van Gogh’s painting and ultimately defended it against nationalist tendencies and political instrumentalization.”