“The most beautiful museum in the world” was how Paul J. Sachs, American art historian and co-founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, described the Museum Folkwang during a visit to Essen in 1932. Founded by Karl Ernst Osthaus in Hagen in 1902 and very quickly developing into one of the most important museums for modern and contemporary art, the major part of the collection moved to Essen in 1922, merging with the municipal art museum headed by Ernst Gosebruch. The new Museum Folkwang moved into a newly constructed building, designed by Edmund Körner, at today’s site in 1929. It was here that it could display its incomparable range: apart from masterpieces by Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh, the museum also showed important works of Expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit and early Abstract Painting. These were juxtaposed with valuable examples of old and non-European art. Already in Hagen, the Museum Folkwang had presented modern and contemporary works next to pieces from Africa, Papua New Guinea, China, India, Japan, Egypt, the Greco-Roman Antiquity and the European Middle Ages. Gosebruch continued this universalistic approach in Essen.
The productive work of the museum came to a sad end when the National Socialists took power. Gosebruch was forced to resign in 1933. His successor Klaus Graf von Baudissin quickly fell in line with National Socialism. Under his direction, the museum lost 1400 works, including a major part of its painting collection confiscated as “degenerated art” in 1937. Only after 1960 was the Folkwang able to take up its great tradition and develop once again into one of Germany’s leading museums. From the original Folkwang collection, only a few works found their way back to Essen. Fortunately, however, most of those works which had been seized were not destroyed, but legally purchased by public and private collections. Wherever they are today, in Europe or the USA, they are often among the undisputed masterpieces, increasing the fame and international aura of the respective institution.
The exhibition “The Most Beautiful Museum in the World” aims at reconstructing, for the first time, the Museum Folkwang’s original collection. The works were often acquired unusually early and are thus very significant both for the artist as well as for museum history. By 1912, Karl Ernst Osthaus had, for example, acquired paintings and sculptures by Renoir, Cézanne, van Gogh, Signac and Rodin, but also the most recent works of Matisse, Kandinsky, Marc, Nolde, Munch, Kokoschka and Lehmbruck. He was therefore, as collector, one of the most decisive pioneers of modern art. No other museum had at its disposition such important works so early on. Ernst Gosebruch extended this collection and sought – this, too, the exhibition will elucidate – close cooperation with artists. Oskar Schlemmer and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, for example, created significant plans for the design of rooms in the Museum Folkwang. Their realization came to an end in 1933. However, the idea of achieving a renewal of the museum through direct cooperation with important contemporary artists remains decisive until today.
Included in the exhibition are also those masterpieces which remained in the museum such as Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges by van Gogh, the Barbarian Tales by Gauguin – and those that were seized by the National Socialists, but which could be re-acquired after 1945, such as Cézanne’s The Quarry at Bibémus.
Thanks to Karl Ernst Osthaus’s wide ranging collecting interests, the Museum Folkwang still possesses an extensive collection of objects from ancient and non-European cultures. Apart from a number of Egyptian and Eastern Roman objects, especially Japanese theater masks, Javanese shadow puppets and Oceanic sculptures are among the highlights of the collection. In the exhibition, the universalistic idea of the early years will be contrasted to today’s treatment of world cultures, without being limited to traditional questions of influence and reception. Using the masterpieces from the Museum Folkwang, the exhibition will provide a view into the early institutionalization of the Modern while at the same time testing future possibilities for this “most beautiful museum in the world” in the interweaving of European avant-garde and world cultures.
The exhibition is curated by Uwe M. Schneede, Director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle from 1991–2006. It includes almost 400 objects: Modernist paintings and sculptures, selected works on paper as well as antique and non-European art.
It is being presented in long-standing partnership with E.ON Ruhrgas AG.
This exhibition is under the patronage of Federal President.