Picasso and the Dealers: The Making of his First Museum Exhibition in Zurich, 1932, by Johannes Nathan



Museum exhibitions of contemporary art are frequently mounted in joint efforts with artists and the art trade. This practice, usually discussed only behind closed doors today, seems to have been handled with relative openness until WWII, when exhibitions of contemporary art in public institutions were in fact often selling exhibitions. A case in point is Picasso’s first museum exhibition shown by the Kunsthaus Zurich in 1932. It was organized with the support of the art dealer Paul Rosenberg and the commercial Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. Moreover, it is clear that Picasso himself significantly shaped the concept of this project – for what was originally conceived as a group exhibition suddenly became a one man show at the last moment.1


The Idea

The idea for an exhibition with works by Braque, Léger and Picasso in Zurich came from the banker and collector Emil Friedrich of Winterthur.2 Friedrich’s proposal was convincing because he was able to indicate ways of realizing a project which, though highly desirable, could not easily be turned into practice. By 1930, Braque, Léger and Picasso were fully established in the art world, a fact reflected in the prices paid for their work and in the international distribution of their output. Whoever wanted to exhibit these artists in a representative manner had to reckon with high costs for transport and insurance and also required a well-oiled machinery of contacts. Friedrich proposed to entrust the networking to the Paris art dealer Paul Rosenberg3 who was to be won over by Carl Montag, a painter and art agent from Winterthur with whom Friedrich had visited Rosenberg in November 1931.

Although Rosenberg’s gallery would eventually not be the main port of call for the organizers, the dealer and his colleagues at Georges Petit remained the most important contacts for the Zurich exhibition – apart from the artist himself. Indeed, the plans of the Galerie Georges Petit4 to mount a comprehensive Picasso exhibition in the summer of 1932 proved particularly convenient in this context: Although these plans required a postponement of the Zurich Braque-Léger-Picasso exhibition, originally scheduled for the summer, they opened the prospect that Zurich could take over a large number of the exhibits from Georges Petit. A similar mechanism had already been tested successfully in 1931 when the Museum of Modern Art in New York took over a substantial Matisse exhibition from the same gallery.5

Such cooperations between the trade and public institutions, widespread – though rarely discussed – even today, were not uncommon for contemporary art at the time.6 A look at the exhibition program of the Kunsthaus indicates, however, that the shows in Zurich were usually realized in direct collaboration with the artists. The unusually ambitious “Braque-Léger-Picasso” project apparently required additional backing by the trade, however. In view of this, it seems appropriate to look at the balance of interests of the different parties involved.

The Kunsthaus’s obvious desire was to present an impressive show with three of the most coveted contemporary artists, thus thwarting the intentions of other institutions such as the Kunsthalle Basel and the Museum of Modern Art in New York which had both been working on similar plans.7 The access to the Parisian art trade provided by Friedrich and Montag additionally opened the prospect of cost reduction by easing the loan operations. On the other hand, the director of the Kunsthaus, Wilhelm Wartmann, obviously felt the necessity to underline the distinctions between his project and the commercial exhibition. In June 1932 he wrote to Charles Montag: “In all events […] the Zurich exhibition must be even more beautiful and serious than the Paris exhibition, both in structure and overall impression; only this will constitute its singular justifiability.”8 The preface to the catalogue of the Zurich exhibition also stresses that Picasso had signalled support for this show precisely when confirming his commitment to the exhibition at Georges Petit in Paris (“with his agreement to the exhibition at Georges Petit in Paris, [Picasso] also agreed to the plan of an exhibition in Zurich.”).9 This underlines the equality of both projects and also suggests that the Paris show had no priority over the Zurich exhibition – an assertion clearly refuted by other sources, however. The quotation is reminiscent of a statement of December 1931 by Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Barr considered it a “matter of prestige” not to take over a planned Picasso exhibition from another institution, let alone from a commercial gallery.10

The possibility to save expenses undoubtedly played a similarly important role in the considerations of the directors of the Galeries Georges Petit. One condition for passing on their Picasso exhibition to Zurich was that the Kunsthaus would cover the costs for the return of all loans to the US.11 In addition, the transfer of one of the gallery’s exhibition to a well-known foreign institution was probably seen as a certain gain in prestige by the Georges Petit gallery. However, the fact that exhibitions at the Kunsthaus were selling exhibitions might have been perceived as somewhat problematic as sales in Zurich had to be rewarded with a commission, something which might have resulted in a – potentially significant – loss of income for the Paris Gallery. The fact that Georges Petit nevertheless agreed to the exhibition in Zurich is probably best explained by the world economic crisis which dimmed the prospect of significant sales altogether.


From “Braque-Léger-Picasso” to “Picasso”

The project ‘Braque – Léger – Picasso’ was carried forward during Wilhelm Wartmann’s stay in Paris on March 1st and 2nd 1932. Together with Charles Montag he visited Etienne Bignou, managing director of the Galeries Georges Petit, as well as Fernand Léger, Paul Rosenberg and the collector Josef Müller from Solothurn who lived in Paris. On 2 March Wartmann told Montag “that with the utmost care we can consider [the following] selection: Picasso 100 works; Braque and Léger: 50 works each.”12 Wartmann’s memo apparently provides the first sign that Picasso was to be preferred over Braque and Léger. As his note was made after a conversation in the Galeries Georges Petit, it is likely that Picasso’s preferment was initially dictated by practical considerations: With the planned show at Georges Petit, his works would be much easier to obtain than those of Braque and Léger.13 By mid-June, however, Wartmann’s actual viewing of the newly opened Picasso exhibition at Georges Petit seems to have led to new considerations. After examining this important retrospective with 225 exhibits he apparently hoped to surpass the Paris exhibition – especially in terms of volume. Not only were the exhibits at Georges Petit to be taken over “almost completely”, the Zurich exhibition would additionally show “the other important works which are not shown at Georges Petit”, as well as significant groups of works by Braque and Léger.14

An early indication that the Zurich exhibition would ultimately be dedicated exclusively to Picasso surfaces at the end of June. The German art dealer Alfred Flechtheim who had been in contact with the Kunsthaus about loans from Germany was apparently one of the first to get wind of this. In a postcard of 28 June he wrote to Wartmann: „I have just heard from my Mr. Valentin that you will be exhibiting Picasso alone.”15 However, it seems unlikely that the dice had already been cast. About four weeks later, on 23 July, Wartmann still talks about an exhibition of three in a letter to Braque. Unsurprisingly, the sources reveal only meagre details about the change of concept. Nevertheless, there are some significant clues – and they point exclusively to Picasso.

In the director’s final report to the exhibition commission, Wartmann spoke of “the different circumstances that led to the abandonment of the original project Picasso – Braque – Léger and, following the artist’s wish, to dedicate the show entirely to Picasso.”16 When and in what form Picasso expressed this “wish” cannot be inferred from this statement, but a message from Wartmann to the administration of the Kunsthaus provides a hint. On 27 July he wrote from Paris, where he had travelled in order to make the final arrangements for the exhibition: “Something has happened in the last few days – Montag and I have not yet been able to detect on what side – that has led again to reticence on Picasso’s part. However, we are in the process of recovering ground.”17 Wartmann’s words suggest that Picasso had deliberately exerted pressure at a very late stage. The actual direction of this pressure cannot be inferred from Wartmann’s lines, but the correspondence sent out by the Kunsthaus a few days later provides the first confirmation that the exhibition would only show Picasso.18 Particularly telling is a pacifying letter from Wartmann to Braque of 5 August, however, where he confirms the change of plans and envisages a monographic Braque exhibition for November:

“In the meantime I thank you […] for the goodwill that you showed as we got to the bottom of these unforeseen and almost bizarre difficulties which stood in the way of our simple and beautiful original exhibition project. – Rest assured that we will concentrate all our efforts on a new programming which will come to a similar result; let me also assure you that the bad game of coincidence and rather unaltruistic intentions will ultimately serve a more saitsfying end.”19

Since the letter was meant to have a calming effect it is understandable that Wartmann does not mention any names when speaking of the “bizarre difficulties” and the “rather unaltruistic intentions”. Braque’s indignation, which apparently had first been conveyed orally, was given free rein in a letter of 3 August which crossed Wartmann’s lines quoted here and which cannot be located anylonger.20 However, the correspondence with Braque clearly points to a last minute intervention by Picasso.

Poster “Pablo Picasso” for the 1932 exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zürich / Kunsthaus Zürich, Prints and Drawings Collection

With the change of plans, the dependence of the Kunsthaus on the Picasso exhibition at the Galeries Georges Petit increased abruptly. As only very little time was left – the opening of the exhibition was to be set to 11 September – the Kunsthaus was now largely tied to a takeover of the Paris show. For obvious reasons, however, some vigorous attempts were made to give the Zurich exhibition additional dimensions. Apart from the section with paintings and unlike the show at Georges Petit, the Zurich exhibition also featured sections with drawings and watercolors (121 numbers) as well as prints (86 numbers) – but these were presented on the museum’s ground floor and became accessible only four days after the opening of the main exhibition.21

As for the paintings, additional loan requests were sent out in August.22 Unsurprinsingly, however, the yield was sparse. While the catalog of Georges Petit records 225 paintings, the catalog of the Kunsthaus lists 224. Of the latter, only forty-three – less than a fifth – did not come from the Paris exhibition. Ten of them were from Picasso’s private collection, suggesting that the artist had warmed to the project.23 The additional loans had to be collected under time pressure and in painstakingly detailed work: seven came from Swiss collections,24 five from Paris,25 another five from Germany,26 one from Czechoslovakia.27 Another fifteen were listed in the catalog without an indication of ownership because they were for sale. Some of these were provided by Alfred Flechtheim who also lent three paintings that were not for sale.28 Wartmann wrote to Flechtheim ten days before the hanging, on 27 August, imploring him to secure additional loans: “The exhibition will open on the 10th [i.e. September; it actually opened on the 11th], the pictures must arrive at the latest on the 5th in Zurich. That should still be possible from Germany and also from England”, adding in the PS: “All gentlemen from Germany who still agree to lend pictures will be included in the honorary committee.”29 Significantly, the organizers seem to have lost the overview of the honorary committee as its members are not distinguishable from the other lenders in the catalog’s listing.

It now remained to define the hanging and the catalog. With thirty-two full-page illustrations as well as a comparatively extensive text and entries the catalog was lavishly conceived for its time – yet it was not ready for the opening. The hanging was entrusted to the Swiss painter Sigismund Righini who decided to follow the chronological sequence of the works much more carefully than the presentation at Georges Petit where the hanging had largely been arranged by Picasso himself.30 Fortunately, the Kunsthaus could provide more space than the Galeries Georges Petit, and even though several works did not arrive in time for the opening, Picasso voiced his approval.31

The only real mishap occurred in the designation of the artist. Shortly after the opening, Wartmann received a hint from an insider. Referring to the hand list – which had been printed in time – the informant remarked:

“The preliminary edition of your catalog bears the title ‘Pablo Picasso’. Perhaps you will decide to correct this in the illustrated catalog if I tell you that the artist does not like to show the first name Pablo in such contexts. His legally binding signature as a civilian is Pablo Ruiz-Picasso, but as an artist he exclusively signs with ‘Picasso’ and he would like to be known thus as an artist. I had the opportunity to speak with him about this point […]”.32

The correction was of course taken into account before the printing of the catalog. However, the poster was already out and could not be changed any more. Still Picasso’s hosts did all they could to satisfy the artist. In addition to the opening at the Kunsthaus, a reception in his honor was given at the Belvoir Park in Zurich. The press dutifully published many detailed reviews of the exhibition as Picasso was given the status of a celebrity. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung, for example, reported a benevolent comment by Picasso on an exhibition of late 18th and early 19th century landscape painters – so-called “Kleinmeister” – in the Landolthaus and it also printed a long report on a cruise with the artist on Lake Zurich;33 the illustrated magazine Sie und Er pictured Picasso’s trip to Zurich as a family idyll with text and photos.34


Visitor numbers, Sales, Reception

The opening night and the exhibition were well attended. When the show closed on 13 November (after an extension of two weeks) it had attracted 34.000 visitors35 – “a record enterprise” as Oskar Schlemmer laconically remarked.36 From this point of view, the Kunsthaus had every reason to be satisfied with the “sensational Picasso exhibition which beat all expectations”, as the 1933 annual report of the Kunsthaus stated.37

The project was less successful in financial terms, however. As early as October, the Kunsthaus had to turn to the city for financial support at around 15.000 to 20.000 Swiss francs, of which only 10.000 were granted.38 Despite high visitor numbers, revenue from ticket sales also fell short of expectations and the sale of works of art turned out to be similarly disappointing: Although almost half of the paintings, all the sculptures and the bulk of the works on paper were available for purchase, virtually nothing was sold. The Kunsthaus’s annual report makes no mention of this but information on this matter can be gleaned from the correspondence. It mentions a watercolor, ‘Spanish Farmer Women” of 1925 (No. 328 of the exhibition catalog) for instance, jointly owned by Alfred Flechtheim and Gustav Kahnweiler, the brother of the well-known art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and offered at 2,000 Swiss francs.39 Flechtheim addressed the issue in a letter to the Kunsthaus of 4 November, shortly before the closing of the exhibition:

“Just so that I can make a deal with you in the Picasso exhibition, I accept your bid of 1.000 Swiss francs (gross) for the watercolor ‘Spanish Farmer Women’. Considering the effort and hard work that I put into your exhibition and in view of the very substantial price reduction, I hope that the Zurich Kunstgesellschaft will content itself here with 10% commission.”40

In addition, several letters testify to only lukewarm commercial interest and failed sales.41 In early November the Kunsthaus took up negotiations on a purchase for its own collection, focusing on two paintings, one owned by Picasso, the other by Wildenstein, offered at 200.000 and 250.000 French francs respectively (nos. 91 and 92 of the exhibition catalog, Zervos nos. 536 and 540).42 Wildenstein offered a price reduction of 50% (125,000 French francs) but Picasso was even prepared to accept the 75.000 French francs that had been reserved in Zurich for the purchase of a picture. Unsurprisingly, the Kunsthaus decided in favour of Picasso’s picture.43

Judging from the numerous press articles, the exhibition was talked about but did not elicit the discussions which some might have expected: “If one considers how, twenty years ago, the disturbing novelty of cubist pictures caused outrage even in Paris, today’s widespread eagerness to ‘understand’ is truly astonishing.”44  Apparently, the reception of modernism had long since transcended critical stages, the conversations on the subject now held by the intelligentsia were no longer discussions, let alone disputes. What reigned instead was a “gentle terror of enthusiasm”.45

The great flurry which the Kunsthaus had been able to create with this exhibition undoubtedly confirmed the effectiveness of the simple formula: well-known artist + comprehensive monographic exhibition = great magnetism – a formula that determines the planning of exhibitions until today. As such the Zurich Picasso show of 1932 provides fascinating insights into the functioning of monographic exhibitions. Indeed, on the day after the closing of the show, Wartmann was to receive an unusual confirmation of the project’s success. In a short letter Giorgio de Chirico wrote: “Monsieur, I desire to mount a personal exhibition of my work at the Kunsthaus.”46