“Making Van Gogh” – Frankfurt’s exhibition of the year, 2019

With five years in the making, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, has finally opened the doors to the public and revealed their probably most prized exhibition for some time. “Making Van Gogh – Geschichte einer deutschen Liebe” (English: “A German love story”) highlights Van Gogh’s importance towards German modernism, their love for him and how he became celebrated for his art after his timely death in 1890.

On show are 120 artworks, by not only the great master Van Gogh himself (50 artworks by him), but also by German artists who found creative inspiration within his legacy. The Jewish editor and art dealer Paul Cassirer, who was based in Berlin, was one of the first to exhibit Van Gogh’s works posthum in 1901 and thus, set an important stepping stone for Germanys love affair with the artist. This culminated by 1914 with the outbreak of World War I, when around 120 paintings and 36 drawings found their way into German collections of not only museums, but also many artists collections, like that of Max Liebermann. Hence, within 24 years after his passing in 1890, the relatively unknown artists, rose to unprecedented importance within the German modernist movement and beyond.

The exhibition at the Städel thus highlights exactly this tight weaving between gallerists, curators, collectors and artists that gave Van Gogh a permanent residence within the vaults of art history’s greatest. The Städel also comes to terms with its own Van Gogh history, by adressing their brave acquisition of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet in 1911, as the first public institution to purchase a work by the artist, and their political loss of the same shortly after. With the rise of the Nazi regime, the painting was deemed “degenerate art” and seized in 1937, which led to it changing owners numerous times, before it was publicly auctioned off by Christies in 1990 for an incredible sum of $82.5 million ($158.2 million in today’s value). Once proud owners of this famous portrait, all the Städel is left with, until today, is its original frame. It is exhibited, along with the full provenance biography in a solo room, thus acting as testament to the Städel’s vein, but strong ambition of rescuing the painting to its former home. Its whereabouts remained a mystery for a long time, until the Städel decided to investigate the matter further in the events leading up to the exhibition. Despite locating the current owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, thus leaving the public in a blind-spot, the frame remains empty – thus, the show must go on. The entire undertaking of relocating the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, has been documented in their podcast series “Finding Van Gogh” and is definitely worth a listen!

Within the entire exhibition the notion of “making” takes centre stage. The exhibition is as much about Van Gogh, as who he is not, or who he was deemed to be. By concentrating on those actors, through the art works of Van Gogh and beyond, the Städel is able to manifest a strong narrative that allows the viewer, to comprehend this Dutch artist to be one of strong ambiguity, ingenuity and maker of an artistic generation to come, that altered the visual course of how art was perceived.

The exhibition is on show until February 16, 2020. The Städel has released an app, which guides one through the exhibition and is in equal measure insightful as it is informative. The podcast is also well worth a listen before the museum visit.
Tip: Book your tickets in advance online in order to avoid queues.

“Making Van Gogh – Geschichte einer deutschen Liebe” – Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main Germany, 23.20.2019 – 16.02.2020.