Kunstsammlung NRW
Klee in Emden, Installationsansicht der Kunsthalle Emden, Foto: Karlheinz Krämer

Collecting, Donating, Purchasing – Henri Nannen and George David Thompson

The Kunsthalle of the town of Emden is currently hosting circa 75 works by Paul Klee from the collection of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Well-loved paintings like Camel (In Rhythm: Landscape with Trees) (1920), Polyphonic Currents (1929), and Heroic Roses (1938) will be delighting viewers in Eastern Friesland until mid-July of this year, 2015.

Why has this a large proportion of the Düsseldorf Klee collection, comprising 100 works, made the journey from the Rhine to the Ems River? When we consider the histories of the two collections, we discover an astonishing affinity: both museums are products of private passions.

During World War II, the once proud and prosperous town of Emden, with its wealth of Renaissance architecture, was almost entirely destroyed. After liberation, the town’s revival and rebuilding was largely due to the presence of the Volkswagen works, a dominant force in the region. A celebrated son of the town is Henri Nannen, a man who – after establishing the magazine Stern in Hamburg as a major publication – devoted himself entirely to his private art collection. His exceptional devotion to Emden, with its 50,000 inhabitants, impelled him to establish the Kunsthalle. For a number of years, its impressive inventory of works embodying the Expressionist and “Neue Sachlichkeit” tendencies, originating from the Nannen collection, has been complemented by the collection of Otto van den Loo, featuring masterworks of Informel art, including artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Emil Schumacher.

George David Thompson’s art collecting activity too was driven by passion. Beginning in the 1920s, the US-American assembled a major collection of classical modern art in Pittsburgh, including many works by Paul Klee. But while Henri Nannen donated his treasures to his hometown of Emden and built a museum to house his paintings by Beckmann, Marc, and Grosz, Thompson – who was active in the steel industry – decided to sell off his paintings, sculptures, and drawings. His native city of Pittsburgh declined his request to establish a museum as a quid pro quo for the gift of his collection. In the end, Pittsburgh’s refusal was a stroke of luck for Düsseldorf: the acquisition of the Klee collection in 1960 formed the foundation of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, the core around which further treasures were added. Today among the most celebrated in all of Germany, the museum showcases artists ranging from Picasso to Beuys, from Pollock to Agnes Martin.

Text for #32: Anette Kruszynski