On the occasion of Will Grohmann’s 125th anniversary in 2012, a monographic exhibition commemorated the life’s work of one of the most influential German artists of the 20th century in Dresden – the city where Grohmann worked for most of his life. The exhibition portrayed art criticism and its biographical, institutional and cultural-political mechanisms of action. In view of the dwindling interpretive power of contemporary art criticism, the exhibition project investigated the reasons for Will Grohmann’s journalistic success and cultural-political influence. One of the premises of the exhibition was that the investigation, thematic interpretation and the cultural-political presentation of art through criticism is only possible when the critic is “assimilated” into the various artistic and institutional aspects of modern art production. However, for art criticism to have any real impact, it needs to assert itself as an autonomous taste and opinion-forming voice in the complex framework of art production, exhibition-making, the art trade and the art public. In this regard, Will Grohmann (1887-1968) is an art-historical model in terms of both the opportunities and limits of the intellectual elite to influence and shape the art world under changing sociopolitical conditions. The exhibition presents outstanding works of classical modernity which Will Grohmann had so extolled, works by Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger, for example, which have been displayed in Dresden for the first time since being maligned as “Degenerate Art”.
Grohmann actively followed the development of the German and international art scene over a period of fifty years – from the First World War until his death in 1968. He participated in the Dresden Secession group in 1919 as a critic, art scholar, curator, collector and advisor. In the 1920s and 1930s, he supported the artists of the Brücke and Bauhaus, introduced the German public to French modern art, wrote for the National Socialists, and at the same time, promoted German artists who had emigrated. After 1945 he supported the newest works of the German abstract artists. He wrote monographs on Klee, Kandinsky, Kirchner and Baumeister, which are still regarded as reference works today. As a curator of major exhibitions – e.g. Dresden in 1926 and 1946, the documenta I-III, and the Venice and São Paulo biennials – he played a significant role in presenting the avant-garde to international audiences.
Will Grohmann was practically unknown in the former GDR and even today, few are familiar with his name and legacy in the five new German states. The works of postwar modernity and abstract art – the major stylistic trend of the 1950s – were practically inaccessible for most people in East Germany until 1989. And since then, because of their astronomical market prices, only a negligible number have been acquired by East German museums. Therefore, visitors to the exhibition in Dresden had the chance for the first time to view a selection of abstract artworks which have featured in every West German modern art collection for decades. These works remained underrepresented in Dresden on account of the Nazi propaganda and socialistic art doctrine which banned or marginalized them in the past.
The exhibition embraced several new approaches in presenting cultural educational content, in particular by taking advantage of modern multimedia technologies and the newest trends. The curators underpinned the presentation of renowned artworks with data and background information along with details about the people and institutions related to them. As part of the project, the Dresden State Art Collections and media information researchers at the TU Dresden were collaborating on a prototype for an interactive room installation spanning the entire exhibition hall. The curators were particularly interested in integrating the project into the academic activities offered to students in the Media Design department.