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A queen to four kings

Galka Scheyer championed artists known as the Blue Four and carved a unique niche in the process.

December 08, 2002|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

It started with a painting of a hunchback. There was something about the image of a misshapen woman in a bright red blouse whose greenish yellow face sank into her chest. Emilie Ester Scheyer, a young German artist, first laid eyes on the painting at a 1916 exhibition in Lausanne, Switzerland, and couldn't get it out of her mind. It made her track down the painter and give up her own artistic career.

"Why should I go on painting when I know I can't produce such good art as you?" she asked Alexei Jawlensky, when she found him living in Switzerland. "It's better to dedicate myself to your art and explain it to others."

The rest is art history, and the improbable tale of Scheyer -- Galka, as she is widely known -- an impassioned advocate of modern art who spent her last 20 years in California and assembled a highly revered collection that landed at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

Examples of her collection, which focuses on Jawlensky, Lyonel Feininger, Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee -- whom she promoted as the Blue Four and fondly referred to as "my four blue kings" -- are nearly always on view at the Simon. But the entire holding of about 500 artworks and 800 related documents is about to make its biggest public splash to date.

"The Blue Four at the Norton Simon Museum," a 496-page catalog of the collection written by art historian Vivian Endicott Barnett, is just out from Yale University Press in association with the Norton Simon Art Foundation. To celebrate the long-awaited event, the museum has organized two exhibitions.

The first, "My Four Kings: Galka Scheyer and the Blue Four," will present about 250 artworks and 50 photographs and documents, from Friday to April 14. While that exhibition will probe the depth of the museum's Blue Four holding and explore Scheyer's relationship with her favorite artists, the second show, "From Europe to California: Galka Scheyer and the Avant-Garde," will reveal the breadth of her interest in modern art. Paintings, drawings, prints and photographs by about 45 artists, ranging from German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters to American photographer Edward Weston and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, will be on view from May 16 to Sept. 18.

The collection offers insight into the life of a remarkable woman "who set out on her own and invented a role for herself in the art world," Barnett said. More a promoter than a dealer, Scheyer never had a gallery and wasn't very good at selling the artwork she loved. But "she had a way of getting to know people and attracting attention," Barnett said. Calling herself the Minister of the Exterior for her artists, she talked loudly, had a strong accent and made a big impression.

Ceramicist Beatrice Wood, who promoted herself as the art world's grande dame of colorful characters, remembered Scheyer as a formidable force. "Her voice was so strident and her manner so intense it was abrasive," Wood recalled in her autobiography. "Yet, she was so alive in a room, and scintillating, that no one else counted."

Scheyer's lifelong friend, Lette Valeska, wrote in her memoir: "She frequently met rejection and disappointment, but her personal philosophy and determination were so strong, and her commitment to her task so great, that she refused to be downed by any adversity."

Working as an artist in Europe

Scheyer was born in 1889 in Braunschweig, Germany, the youngest of three children, and the only one in her middle-class Jewish family who didn't end up working in the family business (a canning factory). Emilie was a rebel, Barnett said; she stuck to her plans to be an artist.

With financial support from home, Scheyer studied art and English in London, took painting lessons from Braunschweig artist Gustav Lehmann, traveled to Italy with him and spent a couple of years in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1916, when she encountered Jawlensky's work, she was working as a painter in Brussels.

Scheyer and Jawlensky began exchanging letters and visits. She bought landscape abstractions from his "Variations" series. He introduced her to other artists and began a series of "Mystical Heads," some of which portray Scheyer in a stylized form. In late 1917, he gave her a small version of "The Hunchback" painting that had so impressed her and dedicated it to "the all-seeing soul." Three years later, Jawlensky gave her a nickname, Galka, the Russian word for jackdaw, after a bird that appeared to him in a dream. It stuck.

As Scheyer began to style herself as an artist's agent and ambassador for modern art, Jawlensky authorized her to organize exhibitions and write about his work. She also traveled throughout Germany, giving lectures, making contacts with museum directors, curators, dealers and artists.

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