St. Louis Art Museum builds on legacy of German art

Sunday, October 19, 2003

— To prepare for the "German Art Now" exhibit, workers at the St. Louis Art Museum photographed and numbered hundreds of shards of glass, wires and three shelves filled with sheets of lead.

The items, part of Anselm Kiefer's "Breaking of the Vessels" sculpture, were moved into a new home, a 40-foot-high alcove in the museum's front Sculpture Hall. The sculpture was painstakingly put back together.

"I was saying, 'Be careful, be careful,' and they were looking at me funny because it (already has) all these pieces of broken glass," recalls Jeanette Fausz, who oversees the museum's collections. The physical move of the seven-ton sculpture took almost two weeks.

The sculpture's relocation is just one indication of the museum's commitment to 20th-century German art, a collection that has benefited from a mix of chance, circumstance and careful planning.

The new "German Art Now" show, running from Oct. 18 to Jan. 11, attempts to examine the international impact of German art in the second half of the 20th century. The museum is showing 40 pieces from the museum's collection, including 16 newly acquired works and five on long-term loan.

"I think in America, this is unique," says the show's curator Cornelia Homburg. "There is not a museum here with the breadth and depth of this collection."

Through the years, the St. Louis museum amassed an unexpectedly rich modern German art collection with the help of German painter Max Beckmann and collector Morton D. May.

Beckmann, one of the leading artists in 20th-century modernism, moved to St. Louis in 1947. His work had been confiscated as "degenerate" art in Nazi Germany, and he had been living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, for a decade before he moved to the United States.

"St. Louis. Finally a park. Finally trees, my feet finally on the ground ... It is likely that here it will be possible to live once again," he wrote in his diary, as noted in the book "German Art From Beckmann to Richter."

May, the CEO and grandson of the founder of May Department Stores Co., was already acquiring German art by the time Beckmann arrived in St. Louis. However, says Homburg, May was very much inspired by the painter. "Beckmann even gave him painting lessons for a while," she said.