PRINT July 1962

Paul Klee & Madame Scheyer

BACK IN THE EARLY ’TWENTIES architects at the University of California campus in Berkeley were busy converting an old red brick power house into a gallery for art exhibitions. About the same time a young woman from Braunschweig, Germany, arrived in New York with a contract from four German Expressionist artists, determined to “promulgate their artistic ideas in foreign parts” and to tell about European modern art to the “youth of America,” where “feeling is free and brains are not yet tired.”

Last month Galka Emmy Scheyer did succeed posthumously in promulgating the ideas of one of that group of four to the youth of the University of California as well as the general public, when her collection of Paul Klees was exhibited at the old power house, known now as the University Art Gallery.

For many years since its conversion in the ’twenties, the old brick building housed anthropology and decorative art displays. Then, less than two years ago, it was remodeled specifically for the exhibition of fine arts by Assistant Professor in Architecture, Richard C. Peters. The Klee exhibition, which ran for three and a half weeks during May, was possibly the most interesting and certainly the most interest-provoking of these exhibitions held to date.

Aside from the almost magical power of Klee’s name to draw viewers, the attraction for the Northern California public was the rare opportunity to see at once a whole group of Klees. There were examples from every period, beginning with the 1904 etching Charme through the watercolor, Weathered Mosaic of 1933. Some of Klee’s best-known works were included, such as Possibilities at Sea, The Holy One (Female Saint), Idol for House Cats, Tunis, and the favorite House-Tree. Green-Red Aquarium, Black Bell in Forest, New Houses, Memory of a Bird, and Arabian Bride were a few of the others which particularly attracted attention. One of the most important pieces of the Scheyer collection, Refuge, was missing. It is at the Seattle World’s Fair. Others are too fragile to leave their permanent home at the Pasadena Art Museum. Nevertheless, the 42 Klee oils, watercolors, collages, etchings, lithographs, and drawings constitute a most significant part of the renowned “Blue Four” Scheyer Collection.

One of the West Coast’s greatest collections, the “Blue Four” are, first of all, Klee, with some 60 pieces in the group; Lyonel Feininger, with 46 watercolors and prints; Wassily Kandinsky, represented by 20 oils, prints, and watercolors; and 120 works in all media by the Russian-born Alexi von Jawlensky. As a group these four friends exhibited together in America as early as 1925 at the Daniel Gallery in New York, and as late as 1944 at the Bucholz Gallery there. During this entire time Galka Scheyer was the agent for their joint exhibitions, and she took as her commission paintings rather than payment. She died in 1945 and the estate was finally settled on the Pasadena Art Museum in 1953. Two years later the whole group of the “Blue Four” was shown at the Museum on the occasion of its installation. At that time Henry J. Seldis in Arts Digest noted that the similarities between the four artists were limited to “predominant stress on linear approach, indefatigable inventiveness, and personal friendship.” It was indeed the personal friendship of these men which led to the formation of the “Blue Four,” but the idea for their association, the history of the collection, and its subsequent acquisition as a West Coast collection are essentially the story of Mme. Galka Emmy Scheyer.

Emmy Scheyer was born in Germany in 1889, but left home at 16 to study painting in various European centers, finally, in 1916 arriving in Switzerland. That strange moment when inner knowledge, sudden awareness and final decision are arrived at so spontaneously that they become the “turning point” of an individual’s life occurred to Emmy Scheyer one day in 1916 while standing in a gallery in Lausanne. Mrs. L. Valeska of Los Angeles, Emmy’s friend since childhood, is organizing the Blue Four archives of the Pasadena Art Museum as an act of devotion to her late friend, and she relates the happening as follows: “We both lived in Brussels at that (1916) time. (Emmy) was a painter and declared suddenly . . . : ‘my teacher is not enthusiastic enough, I don’t learn anything, I am leaving for Switzerland where so many great artists have taken refuge during the war.’ So she packed her paintbox and off she went to Switzerland, roaming Museums and Galleries and came also to Lausanne. There she discovered in a gallery (the name of the gallery is not known to me) a painting, The Hunchback (Der Buckel), by a painter unknown to her, Alexi von Jawlensky—she wanted to see more of his work and travelled to the little village of St. Prex, where Jawlensky lived with his family. Overwhelmed by his work, she decided there and then to give up her own painting and dedicate her life to the propagation of Jawlensky’s work.”

And she did just that. She set about arranging exhibitions for Jawlensky immediately after World War I. He befriended her, and gave her the nickname “Galka” after a bird he had seen in a dream, a name she went by for the rest of her life He introduced her to his good friends, Klee, Kandinsky, and Feininger, as well as others of the Blue Rider group of the German Expressionists. She began to feel herself a prophetess of the new art these men were creating, and her horizons widened with exposure to the work of each of the artists. For instance, she was invited by Klee’s family to visit at the Weimar Bauhaus, and seeing his work, felt, that he was quite free from outside influences. She wrote: “Klee is an extraordinary man—gracious, poised, harmonious, and charming—a unique person. I go daily to his studio to see what he is painting and to examine intently everything he has created.”

It is difficult to say why a young artist would give up her own career to further that of another, and later a number of other artists. Perhaps she was aware that her talent would not have led to great heights of expression. Then, a woman artist in Europe at that time was something of a social anachronism. One could conjecture that the German women of the ’twenties, despite the “freedom” of her dress and behavior, were more than any others in Europe, inwardly restrained by the stress of their pre-war upbringing on the tradition of home, family, and subordination to their men. Mme. Scheyer herself, when interviewed in 1926 in Oakland, said that women had not shown much creative ability. “To woman much has been given that man has not. Yet the true artist has the sensibilities of the woman with the man’s strength to give the feeling utterance.”

At any rate, Galka Scheyer devoted herself to promoting the art of others, and when Europe began to seem stale and tired to this energetic woman, she decided to go to America. In 1923 she wrote to Jawlensky that she had a “marvelous idea” to exhibit the four painters in America as an associated group, and that she needed some name or slogan to describe the group. Jawlensky answered that he liked this idea “very much, if only the great ones (Klee, Kandinsky, and Feininger) would not be offended that I am among these four.” Feininger was altogether enthusiastic and commented that “From my own experience I know that such a group as “The 4” would have a great suggestive power over (Americans) . . . A group of 4 would be characteristic enough and in no way arrogant . . .” Kandinsky replied that “We, Feininger, Klee, and myself discussed the matter of the ‘small group bound together by friendship’ and have proposed the name ‘The Four’, that is to say, ‘four friends,’ or ‘Four who struggle together against something . . . All four (of us) are very different, which seems to me very propitious . . .” In 1924 Klee added, “I am in agreement with Kandinsky that there should not be considered an official association” . . . but it is . . . “good to name with a collective word the relationship of the works to be selected. Nothing can be said against it and it could have its place abroad as it would have a place here, if from the new country a group of unknown artists would send works, that then this group would have a characteristic name. About the name itself we are not quite clear. In no case may it end with isms or ists, but it shall, concerning the names Jawlensky, Feininger, Kandinsky, and Klee, account at the most for the character of the spiritual leadership of the founders, or what is most beautiful, of their friendship.”

When Galka Scheyer settled on the name “Blue Four,” she explained that “A group of four would be significant though not arrogant, and the color blue was added, because of the association with the early group of artists in Munich that founded the “Blue Rider” . . . and also because blue is a spiritual color.”

Galka Scheyer’s mission in America was a pioneer one. She had first to educate a public for the new art before she could hope to see it, and so in her contract with the “Blue Four” she agreed to represent the artists “with respect to promulgation of their artistic ideas in foreign parts, especially through reports and lectures.” Not successful in New York, she moved West and her first enthusiastic response came in San Francisco. Slide illustrated lectures and exhibitions up and down the Coast followed. Mme. Scheyer’s West Coast ties were bound more closely when in 1926 she became European representative for the Oakland Art Gallery. During the period of the ’20s the work of Klee and the others was better known here than in New York. But it was many years before the work of the Blue Four achieved any real popularity, even in the West. Mrs. Charlotte Mack of San Francisco, one of the first in the city to purchase Klee paintings, relates that when she arranged to buy a Klee from Galka Scheyer, her friends said she would take it down from her walls “in a month.” As late as the ’forties the Klees could be purchased for as little as $100.

During the long period in which she struggled to gain recognition for the beloved “Four Blue Kings” she represented as agent, Galka Scheyer gladly turned to another activity for self-support, the teaching of art to children. Perhaps her pedagogical work was inspired by her admiration for Klee, whose art she considered not childish, but possessing the fresh original approach of a child. She most certainly realized that teaching children was yet another way of bringing an understanding of art to the “youth of America.” She thoroughly appreciated the psychological usefulness to children of painting as a means of expressing feelings, and she called her approach, “free, imaginative, and creative.” She served as art director at the Anna Head School in Berkeley for 5 years. Her pupils’ works were so outstanding that they were exhibited at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, at other museums throughout America, and were sent to Prague for the 6th International Congress for Art Education in 1928. Later she moved to Los Angeles and continued to teach both children and adults, and to show and sell her Blue Four.

While achieving recognition and supporting herself in this fashion, Galka Scheyer continually chose Blue Four paintings in lieu of cash commissions. These were added steadily to the private collection she had started in 1916. Many other works were dedicated to her by the Blue Four painters in acknowledgement of her pioneering in America, and she never parted with the pictures to which she herself had dedicated her life.

If Galka Scheyer had lived, she would have enjoyed seeing the hundreds of University students crowding the University Art Gallery, jotting down notes for term reports on her treasured Klees. She would have appreciated watching the thousands of visitors of all ages walking up to study her pictures. Galka Scheyer would then have realized how thoroughly she had succeeded in “promulgating the artistic ideas” of one of her beloved Blue Four to the “youth of America.”

Claire Isaacs