In 1989, at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, an exhibition of paintings by Salvador Dalí was so eagerly anticipated that art lovers queued five times around the block. Its 51-year-old curator — tall, serious, with large glasses and slightly unruly hair — seemed supremely unperturbed by the excitement. This was not the first show she had organised that had attracted such enthusiasm.
Dr. Karin von Maur has played an unparalleled part in shaping the history of art in her native Germany. While deputy director of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, the fiercely intelligent academic challenged public perceptions of classical Modern art, offering unexpected and insightful readings of a period people thought they knew well.
Notable retrospectives included that of the Surrealist painter Max Ernst, presented with the easy assurance of one with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Northern European Romanticism and a firm handle on the concept of nuclear cosmology.
In 1985 she staged an exhibition on synaesthesia and art, featuring more than 550 artworks and setting a precedent for similarly ambitious thematic shows.
This month Christie’s is selling artworks from von Maur’s private collection — works that reveal a lifetime of artistic appreciation and scholarly activity.
Born in 1938, von Maur graduated from the University of Tübingen in 1966 before embarking on a career as a curator. By the 1970s she was at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, working with artists such as Joseph Beuys and overseeing exhibitions of paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann and Yves Tanguy.
It was in Stuttgart in 1995 that Dirk Boll, Christie’s President of Europe, Middle East and Asia, met von Maur. ‘She was the undisputed doyenne of classic Modern art, far beyond the borders of Baden-Württemberg,’ he says. ‘She had such a depth of cultural and historical understanding.’
According to Boll, it was von Maur’s strong sense of history that enabled her to spot a renewed interest in pre-war German avant-garde in the 1970s, bringing to light the Bauhaus pioneer Oskar Schlemmer.
A charismatic artist and teacher who had run the mural and sculpture programmes at the Bauhaus school and designed its logo, Schlemmer had been denounced as a ‘degenerate’ artist by the Nazis in 1937 and died in Baden-Baden in 1943.
Von Maur published several volumes on Schlemmer, including Oskar Schlemmer and the Stuttgart Avant-Garde in 1919 (published in 1975) and his catalogue raisonné in 1979. Later she became the head of his archives.
In her book on the artist’s sculptural practice, she proposed the idea that Schlemmer’s concern with sculpture dated back to his experiences on the Western Front during the First World War, suggesting that sculpture ‘offered Schelmmer a dialogue with reality, both of form and materials’.
While Schlemmer remained at the heart of her preoccupations, she was also drawn to other artists, particularly those known for the rigour of their work. In her large house in Stuttgart, paintings by Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys, Hannah Höch and Daniel Richter hung side by side with works by international artists such as Alighiero Boetti, Alexander Calder and Bridget Riley.
Her collection spans the movements of 20th-century art, from early German avant-garde paintings to 1960s Minimalism to works by contemporary artists such as Daniel Richter. It also includes a large collection of collages by the Affichistes group of the 1950s and 1960s, who reworked torn billboard posters and pamphlets into collages that reflected the disruptive and shifting textures of modern life.
‘Her broad interests manifested themselves in a subtle, interesting and at the same time very private collection,’ says Boll.
Christie’s senior specialist Nina Kretzschmar describes von Maur’s house as ‘a paradise for a young historian. It is filled from floor to ceiling with art catalogues and paintings. You can see that she lives and breathes art.’
Considering her long career, Kretzschmar says, ‘there is huge tenacity there: she didn’t just put on exhibitions, she went out and searched for long-forgotten artworks, uncovering them in the most remote places. People were amazed at what she found.’
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Boll has found von Maur’s insight invaluable: ‘It has been a regular pleasure to hear her point of view — usually formulated in two or three sentences. In order to be both concise and precise, one has to know a great deal.’