Art of the modern era

The development of the art of the modern era moves between gesture and geometry. On the one hand, powerful expression, and on the other, constructive arrangement shape the avant-garde, from the expressionists to the constructivists, through to Informalism and Concrete art of the post-war era. All of these currents are represented at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, with, in part, seminal works.


Classical Modernism: From Kirchner to Klee

As the most outstanding personality of the artists’ group “Die Brücke,” Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) participated in the start of Expressionism in Germany. After hectic metropolitan Expressionism, came a phase of work defined by his encounter with the world of the mountains. Kirchner had become extremely ill during the war, and moved back to Davos for convalescence, where, influenced by the surroundings, he created his late work. Der Alpaufzug (1918/19) is one of this period’s most impressive works. In a dynamic composition, the Alpine scenery is expressively enhanced in luminous colors with a fierce brush stroke: a massive summary of unspoiled nature and primordial experiencing of the mountains. Station in Davos (1925) completed years later is decisively calmer and shows the incursion of technology in the unspoiled mountainside—with towering hotel complexes and electric locomotives. 

Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889–1943) was among the founders of the Dada movement in Zürich in 1916 as was her future husband, Hans Arp (1887-1966), who is represented in the collection with a bronze sculpture. They were also members of the Abstraction-Création group, which united the Parisian avant-garde. Taeuber-Arp’s own works, primarily finely balanced paintings and colored reliefs, are shaped by the tension between the elements’ free relationships and a strict overall composition. In the wonderfully radiant painting Gelbe Form (1935), a gift from Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach, geometric and organic forms connect to an overall structure, which thanks to the soft color contrasts, also sounds out the positive-negative principle. Even her more rigid compositions appear informal and playful in comparison to the calculated pictorial arrangement of the younger concrete artists from Zürich likewise present in the collection—Max Bill (1908–1994) and Camille Graeser (1892–1980).

Paul Klee (1879-1940) unites the geometry and arrangement of Constructivism with coincidental, fantastical, even chaotic elements. He finds a balance between autonomous form and representational function. In the pictorial composition, he refers to an internal reality rather than an external one. It is possible to examine these complex references in a concentrated work group, thanks to Erna and Curt Burgauer’s gift to the Kunstmuseum St.Gallen. The fragile Tänzerpaar (Dancing couple) created during Klee’s teaching activities at Bauhaus in 1923 forms a climax. The picture square is arranged through finely layered color fields from which two puppet-like figures reminiscent of clefs arise, thereby subtly hinting at the image’s musical theme.

Coloristic antithesis

Ferdinand Gehr (1896–1996) became well known mainly as a painter of sacral pictorial themes. His oeuvre runs throughout the entire twentieth century: it begins in the 1920s with a reduced formal language reminiscent of Matisse, moves through the post-war years to the monumental visual programs for contemporary sacral spaces, and reaches its peak in the late works. The Kunstmuseum houses a work group in which rare paintings and frescoes from the early years can be seen, such as Roter Kopf (1926) and Menschwerdung II (1936), in addition to the late works. Above all, it is the fresco that captivates us with its brilliant colorfulness, betraying the colorist; and the formal language oriented on the modern era, which is nonetheless also always to be understood as a symbol of a fundamental, spiritual message. 

One of the oft-cited quotes of the famous American Pop artist Andy Warhol (1928–1987) states, «If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface.» Nowadays, Warhol is a symbol of the modern artist: he created the icons of his era by examining the everyday world of commodities for their pictorial merit—for example, the famous Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup, 1962. Later, with his portraits of famous film stars and depictions of catastrophes, he lent artistic expression to the image of the modern media world. In all of this, what often slips from attention is that as a painter, Warhol was a major colorist who was capable of realizing a given subject, whether a can of soup or a flower motif, in radiant, pop-color versions. Until today, artists judge themselves on the basis of the art of the 1960s, whether the commodity world of Pop Art or the radicalness of the same decade’s Minimal Art. 

Post-war modern art

There are certain magical sites where unusual things happen that go down in history as outstanding cultural achievements. One of these places is the Erker Galerie in St.Gallen. It was a point of gravitation for post-war modern art in Switzerland. The Erker Galerie, founded in 1958 by Franz Larese and Jürg Janett, represented top level international contemporary art: Hans Arp (1887–1966), Max Bill (1908–1994), Eduardo Chillida (1924–2002), Günther Förg (1952–2013), Hans Hartung (1904–1994), Asger Jorn (1914–1973), Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), Serge Poliakoff (1900–1969), Antoni Tàpies (1923–2012), and Günther Uecker (*1930). But the mediation of the art, too, was pioneering in that artists met with art connoisseurs and literary figures, such as Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Eugène Ionesco, at regular meetings for intense exchanges of ideas. Also belonging to the «Erker cosmos» was the famous Erker Presse, and a publishing house.  

The Kunstmuseum St.Gallen houses a first-class selection of more than 1,000 prints from the extensive archives of the Erker Presse; an endowment from the Stiftung Franz Larese and Jürg Janett. This gift of unimaginable wealth and the highest artistic quality, comprises portfolio works, bibliophile books, individual sheets, and entire print runs from seminal artists of the modern era, such as Hans Arp, Fritz Wotruba (1907–1975), Max Bill, Hans Hartung, Eduardo Chillida, Antoni Tàpies, Günther Uecker, and Günther Förg. They are supplemented with a selection of top-rank original works from the private collection of Franz Larese and Jürg Janett. As a whole, they form a magnificent focal point for the St.Gallen collection; and in the Kunstmuseum, substantiate an important collection accent on post-war modern art.