Who was Galka Scheyer?

That is the question Norton Simon Museum curator Gloria Williams Sander attempts to answer with the museum’s current show, “Maven of Modernism: Galka Scheyer in California,” which runs through Sept. 25.

No biographies of Galka Scheyer exist, so Sander did some art sleuthing. When Scheyer died in 1945, her art collection and archives were donated to the Norton Simon Museum (then the Pasadena Institute of Art), so the curator had access to some 500 works of art and 800 archival documents to aid her investigation.

A portion of those artworks and documents make up this small but impactful show. Each piece on display acts as a clue, illuminating some aspect of Galka’s personality, relationships, aesthetic and life.

“Galka was an outlier,” says Sander, who became smitten by Scheyer’s story as she uncovered it. “She’s a woman. She’s Jewish. And she introduced German modernism to California. I think in some ways she conditioned museums in California to understand that they actually had a role in embracing modernism and presenting it to their publics.”

Scheyer was ahead of her time in many ways. She successfully invented a niche career for herself, navigating a sort of self-made gig economy out of necessity. A single, ambitious career woman, she built a life as an art dealer, curator, lecturer and educator in the 1920s and ’30s. She did this despite a sometimes abysmal economy and the fact that her status as an unmarried, childless woman made her an anomaly.

Scheyer moved to the United States on her own in 1924. She was in her mid-30s when she arrived in New York with a letter from a friend she was staying with, a small stipend from her family back in Germany (they owned a canning company) and some paintings.

Those paintings were her passion, her mission and her lifeline. In Europe, Scheyer had become enthralled with the work of four expressionist artists: Alexei Jawlensky, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. She gave them a name as a group –– “The Blue Four” –– and convinced them to let her represent them in the United States.

Heavy Circles, 1927, Vasily Kandinsky; Credit: © Norton Simon Museum

Heavy Circles, 1927, Vasily Kandinsky; Credit: © Norton Simon Museum

But for a single, female art dealer, the New York art world was tough to navigate. The press there didn’t know what to make of her. “‘Do we call her Miss? Do we call her Madame?’ Those sorts of questions came up,” Sander explains.

Recognizing that things weren’t working out the way she’d hoped, Scheyer went to the New York Public Library and pulled out the phone book for every state. She looked up addresses and wrote hundreds of letters to universities, art galleries and museums, offering to introduce them to the work of the Blue Four artists, give lectures or organize exhibits.

“California responded,” Sander says. So Scheyer and a friend took a road trip out West via car and train (they even stopped at the Grand Canyon), and in 1925 she moved to the Bay Area. She later moved to Los Angeles, where she lived in a modernist Hollywood hills home perched high above Sunset Boulevard until her death in 1945.

The predominant feeling that emanates from the works on display in “Maven of Modernism” is love: Scheyer’s love for the art she was dealing, the mutual love between her and the artists she represented, and a curator’s love for her subject. (Sander’s attention to detail is impressive. Even the light gray-blue gallery wall color is significant, a nod to the interior wall color of Scheyer’s Hollywood home.)

The exhibit focuses heavily on paintings by the Blue Four, but works Scheyer owned by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Emil Nolde and Pablo Picasso are also on display.

Observing the selected works, you get the sense that Scheyer must have been an extremely charismatic and endearing soul. The Blue Four artists’ letters, drawings and paintings are peppered with charming pet names for her, “dear little friend” and “little tornado” among them. Galka itself is a nickname that was coined by Jawlensky (Scheyer’s given name was Emilie Esther), meaning “little crow.”

“Crows are gregarious,” Sander explains. “Evidently this particular kind of Russian crow was very sharp and communicative.”

Many of the treasures in this exhibit are small in size, like Jawlensky’s tiny sketches of galka crows or his small, deeply saturated “Hunchback” portrait, a gift to Scheyer that was a miniature version of one of his paintings she particularly loved. 

Hunchback, 1917, Alexei Jawlensky; Credit: © Norton Simon Museum

Hunchback, 1917, Alexei Jawlensky; Credit: © Norton Simon Museum

To spend time with this exhibit is to get to know a gutsy, extraordinary woman who was passionate about sharing the art she adored. Sander says that Scheyer’s unbridled enthusiasm for the art she represented sometimes got in the way of financial success. For example, when the young composer John Cage had a particularly strong reaction to a Jawlensky painting, she figured out a way to get him the painting, despite his limited funds, by offering it to him on layaway.

It is clear from stories like these that what drove all of Scheyer’s endeavors was a desire for other people to have the sort of strong emotional connections with art that she did. As you explore her life through this exhibit, take time to absorb the emotional impact of the art she collected. You can’t purchase a Klee or a Kandinsky on a layaway plan from her today, but you can know that she would have wanted you to have that piece that moves you. And if you’d met her at a gallery show in Hollywood in the 1930s, she just might’ve worked out a monthly payment plan for you so you could take it home.

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