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April 1997

A Pioneer's fight for Modern Art: Honoring the man who brought French Impressionists to Berlin and Munich

The exhibit of Hugo von Tschusi's collection of artwork

He was a man who knew outstanding art when he saw it. He was also a man who was willing to stake everything - his job, his reputation, even the benevolence of the German Emperor - to acquire and make great art accessible to the public. Hugo von Tschudi was probably the German museum world's most astute and uncompromising connoisseur of modern art. He recognized the beauty and importance of French Impressionist art long before the rest of the world did and, often facing enormous resistance, he acquired works that are worth millions today at relatively moderate prices. The exhibition Hugo von Tschudi and the Fight for Modern Art at the Neue Pinakothek until May 11 honors the man's extraordinary contributions in a show overflowing with masterworks by Renoir, Monet, Rodin, Cézanne, van Gogh and other big-name moderns. Tschudi was born into old Swiss aristocracy. With a broad but self-taught background in the arts, he became an assistant at the Berliner Gemäldegalerie in 1884. Twelve years later, to the surprise of many, he became director of Berlin's Nationalgalerie. When he took over, the museum was a shrine to 19th-century German art. During the next 11 years, his efforts to build an important collection of French Impressionist art there turned into a political and cultural battlefield. Tschudi, accompanied by friend and painter Max Liebermann, often travelled to Paris, where he once went on an unprecedented art shopping spree that made him the first to acquire Manet and Cézanne paintings for a museum collection. He also bought up works by artists now considered the cream of Impressionism - Degas, Courbet, Rodin, Pissarro and Monet. In Berlin, resistance against modern art - especially when it came from arch enemy France - was huge. German Emperor Wilhelm II, a painting hobbyist and self-declared art connoisseur, had only contempt for Impressionists, calling them "violet pigs" and their work "gutter art." Unfortunately, what Tschudi possessed in artistic sense, he lacked in diplomacy. Over the years, his acquisitions and disparaging remarks about the public's poor taste irritated the people of Berlin and the German Emperor. In 1907, years of mutual hostility culminated in the "Tschudi affair," when he bought four French paintings despite a drained budget and no stamp of approval from the Emperor (which had come to be required for all acquisitions and donations). After a forced year-long leave of absence, Tschudi accepted an appointment as director of the Staatliche Galerien in Munich. He brought with him an astounding collection of Impressionist art, which could be taken over by the Neue Pinakothek only after his death. Munich, in fierce competition with Berlin for the reputation of Germany's culture capital, was initially proud to have won a reputable art-world mogul such as Tschudi. But, as in Berlin, the controversial new director was not diplomatic in his dealings with either the local art scene or the Prinzregent, and the city's initial generosity of spirit soon faded. His plan for a comprehensive collection of French art was scrapped, and before he could rally support for the cause, Tschudi died in 1911. Although in Munich for only two years, he accomplished more for modern art here than most museum directors are able to in a lifetime of work. The exhibition, previously on display at the Nationalgalerie Berlin, presents the Tschudi collection as he had envisioned it. For the first time, all the modern French artworks that he acquired for Berlin and Munich are brought together under one roof. The show's highlight is van Gogh's famous self-portrait (dedicated to his friend Gauguin), which Tschudi brought with him to Munich. The Nazis confiscated the painting as "degenerate art" and auctioned it off. Today it is owned by the Fogg Art Museum, in Cambridge, England. One year after Tschudi's death, German Expressionist Franz Marc recognized both Tschudi's dilemmas and contributions. In the foreword to the first catalog of Blue Rider artists he wrote: "Nobody learned harder than Tschudi how difficult it is to give your country a spiritual present. But it will be even more difficult for people to get rid of the spirits Tschudi called up."

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