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Two restituted masterworks from the Alfred Flechtheim Collection to be offered at Sotheby's
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Das Soldatenbad (Artillerymen). Painted in 1915. Estimate: $15/20 million. Courtesy Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- Sotheby’s announced that two Modern masterworks recently restituted to the heirs of art-world luminary Alfred Flechtheim will highlight their Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York on 12 November 2018.

Among the finest examples by their respective artists ever to appear at auction, Oskar Kokoschka’s portrait of Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac from 1910 (estimate $15/20 million) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s compelling Das Soldatenbad (Artillerymen) from 1915 (estimate $15/20 million) both encapsulate the seismic shifts occurring in visual arts during the period leading up to and including the onset of World War I. They also serve as testaments to Flechtheim’s passion for collecting exceptional Expressionist works.

In addition to their inherent art historical significance, both paintings are distinguished by their illustrious provenance and remarkable stories of restitution to Flechtheim’s heirs. Prior to its restitution earlier this year, Kirchner’s Das Soldatenbad had resided in the distinguished collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York for three decades, and in The Museum of Modern Art prior to that. Like the Kirchner, Kokoschka’s Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac was voluntarily returned to Flechtheim’s heirs in 2018 by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. As in the past, the Flechtheim heirs are expecting to use some of the proceeds for charitable causes, and for Holocaust remembrance and education purposes.

Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac and Das Soldatenbad will be on view in Sotheby’s New York headquarters beginning 2 November, as part of the full sale exhibitions of Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary Art.

Lucian Simmons, Sotheby’s Worldwide Head of Restitution and Senior Specialist in the Impressionist & Modern Art Department, commented: “It is an honor to present these two recently restituted masterworks by Oskar Kokoschka and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at auction this November. While markedly different in subject matter, both works are striking embodiments of the momentous changes developing in visual art throughout Europe at the time, and, as we can see with the Kirchner in particular, a tremendously palpable sense of angst during the beginning of World War I. Painted just after he returned from the war, Das Soldatenbad instills the viewer with the same dehumanizing sentiments that Kirchner experienced during his enlistment and the frightening anonymity of life as a soldier. In this ferocious anti-war painting, the artist embraces the avant-garde through various techniques: the spatial arrangement of the figures; his unmediated depictions of the body that are divorced from the rigorous constraints of academic painting. In contrast, Kokoschka’s entrancing “soul painting” of Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac is an intensive study of personality and expression, one wherein he sought to bring the invisible inside of a person to the surface. These two introspective pictures are united not only by their respective restitutions, but also by the pioneering foresight of Alfred Flechtheim, an innovative figure in his own right and trailblazer in the field of collecting. It is with this rich history that we are delighted to offer this pair of avant-garde canvases in our Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale.”

Alfred Flechtheim was a collector, art dealer, publisher, patron and bon vivant. Born in Germany in 1878, his father Emil Flechtheim brought him in to the family’s grain business at the age of 24. While learning about the commodities trade in Paris in 1906, he fell in with the colony of German artists who frequented the Café du Dôme in Montparnasse. With income from the family business, Flechtheim rapidly built up an exceptional collection of Cubist paintings – including a large number of works by Pablo Picasso, who he met in 1907.

On his return to Düsseldorf in 1909, Flechtheim became closely involved in the local art scene. By this time he was widely rumored to be gay, and it is perhaps for this reason that in 1910 his parents encouraged his marriage to Betty Goldschmidt, the heiress of a wealthy Dortmund merchant. The newlyweds took their honeymoon in Paris, where it is said that Flechtheim invested Betty's dowry in Cubist art, to the alarm of his in-laws. Regarding the works by Picasso, Braque and Derain, he wrote his father-in-law “don’t worry, they’ll double in value”.

When he abandoned his family’s commodities business in 1913, Flechtheim opened his eponymous ‘Gallery for Older and Modern Art’ in Düsseldorf, with an elegant catalogue for the opening show listing works by many of the artists whom he would continue to promote throughout his career, including Braque, Cézanne , van Gogh, Kokoschka, Matisse, Picasso and Schiele. However, due to World War I, Flechtheim was forced to auction both his collection and his business stock in 1917. The auction of his trading stock in Berlin included some 250 works of art, marking both the first auction of contemporary art in Germany and the only display of French Modernism during the war.

In 1919, Flechtheim reopened his gallery and in short order established branches and representative offices in Berlin (1921), Frankfurt (1921), Cologne (1922) and Vienna (1922). In 1921, he moved his center of operations to Berlin, where his gallery parties became legendary, attended by sportsmen, artists, collectors, the literati, publishers, bankers and socialites. At the same time, Flechtheim founded one of the most important illustrated magazines of the 1920s and 1930s: Der Querschnitt (‘The Cross Section’). The magazine started as a publicity vehicle for the gallery, but under the editorship of Hermann von Wedderkop grew into a massively inventive and influential journal, with contributors including Ernest Hemingway, André Gide, Jean Cocteau and Max Schmeling.

But Flechtheim’s success in Germany would not last. The Frankfurt and Cologne branches of the gallery closed in 1925 and, after the crash on the New York stock exchange in October 1929, sales declined. His Jewish faith, his flamboyant reputation and his ardent support of the avant-garde exposed him to persecution. In March 1933, a Nazi-mob stormed and dismantled an auction jointly organized by Flechtheim and two colleagues in Munich. The following month, a Düsseldorf newspaper published an incendiary article attacking ‘Der Kunstjude’ (the ‘Art Jew’), Flechtheim and the avant-garde artists whom he supported. Alfred Flechtheim fled Nazi Germany via Switzerland to Paris. Eventually in December 1933, he went into involuntary exile in London, where he worked with the Mayor Gallery, and tragically died there just four years later at the age of 58.

Even after his death Alfred Flechtheim was a magnet for Nazi hate. In 1937, the Propaganda Ministry organized a touring exhibition of so called ‘degenerate art’, art by titans of the 20th Century that had been deaccessioned from Federal Museums for failing to chime with Nazi aesthetics. The posters and catalogues for these exhibits used Alfred’s distinctive features as visual shorthand for all that the Nazis criticized in high culture in Weimar Germany.

Painted in 1915, immediately following Kirchner’s release from military service, Das Soldatenbad is an arresting representation of the psychological realities of war. Executed in Kirchner’s fully developed Expressionist pictorial style, the monumental work daringly explores the anxieties brought on by modernization in the early-20th century, while continuing to develop the artist’s preoccupation with the human body that he held since his earliest days as a member of Die Brücke. While Kirchner joined that avant-garde moment after moving to Berlin from Dresden in 1911, the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 imparted a greater sense of personal urgency, and with it brought the brutal dislocation of everyday life in Germany. In the spring of 1915, to avoid conscription into the infantry, Kirchner enlisted in the Germany army as an artillery driver. However, he was discharged in November of that year, unable to bear the mental and physical strength necessary to continue and serve at the front.

The lasting horrors of the war would prove to be both the source of inspiration for the present masterwork as well as the catalyst for Kirchner’s untimely demise. Das Soldatenbad depicts a group of young military recruits herded together in a shower hall, confined within a small space under the oppressive gaze of a uniformed superior. Literally and figuratively exposed, the men are devoid of individualistic qualities: the identical yellow pallor of their skin, short cropped hair and dark eyes are all executed in a highly-stylized manner that removes any distinctive characteristics and contributes to the overwhelming sense of loss of identity. No gesture or eye contact is exchanged between the recruits, further isolating them from one another.

When Alfred Flechtheim fled Germany in 1933, the present work was in the custody of his niece, Rosi Hulisch, who remained in Nazi Germany until her death in 1942 on the eve of her deportation for a concentration camp. In 1938, the work was acquired by a member of the Nazi party, Kurt Feldhäusser, who died shortly thereafter, in 1945. Feldhäusser’s art collection was left to his mother, who consigned it to the Weyhe Gallery in New York in 1949. In 1952, it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Morton D. May of St. Louis, who then gifted the work to The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1956. In 1988, the painting was transferred by The Museum of Modern Art to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in exchange for other works. The Guggenheim relied on Donald E. Gordon’s catalogue raisonné of Kirchner’s work, which incorrectly stated that before Das Soldatenbad had entered Feldhäusser’s collection, the painting had been owned by German collector Hermann Lange. Recent research undertaken by the prestigious institution shows that the painting was owned at that time by Flechtheim and not Lange.

The painting was voluntarily restituted to the heirs of Alfred Flechtheim by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation in 2018 after an extensive examination of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the painting, and in keeping with the 1998 Washington Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and the guidelines of the American Association of Museum Directors.

A masterpiece from the pinnacle of Oskar Kokoschka’s early portraiture, Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac is a harbinger of Expressionism and a token of the seismic shift that was occurring in the visual arts at this time, which would only be shaken by the complete destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I.

The present work was painted in 1910, during Kokoschka’s visit with his patron, Adolf Loos, to the Mont Blanc sanatorium in Leysin in the Swiss Alps, to visit Loos’ girlfriend. The subject, Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac, was a patient at Mont Blanc, who would go on to become the Duke of Fezensac in 1913. Kokoschka’s portraiture at this time broke convention in almost every aspect, with his primary aim to bring the invisible inside of a person – what he would come to call his “soul paintings” – to the surface. The artist’s treatment of medium in Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac is one of the most refined and unusual of his oeuvre. He used the end of his brush, his hands, his fingernails, the tips of his fingers, small bits of cloth to wipe away paint – virtually any object that would allow him the most immediate contact with the oil and the canvas.

Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac is known to have been with Alfred Flechtheim by 1927. It was sold by Alex Vömel – a member of the Nazi party who took over Flechtheim’s Düsseldorf Gallery – to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1934. In the 1950s, the work was transferred to the Moderna Museet, where it remained until it was returned to Flechtheim’s heirs earlier this year.

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