Acquisitions: Albert Bloch Papers

By Jason Stieber

October 19, 2016

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new acquisitions. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the spring 2016 issue (vol. 55, no. 1) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the Journal can be found at http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/aaa/current.

Photograph of Albert Bloch
Albert Bloch in his studio, 1932 / unidentified photographer. Albert Bloch papers, 1873-2014. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

When Saint Louis-born painter Albert Bloch (1882–1961) packed up his young family and moved from New York City to Munich, Germany, in early 1909, he could scarcely have realized he was embarking on the most perilous, exhilarating, and transformative decade of his career as an artist. Although he had planned to take up formal studies at the prestigious Munich Academy, he instead launched himself into the city’s creative and libertine bohemian scene. By 1911 he befriended prominent members of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM; New Artists’ Association of Munich). Among this circle of Modernist artists were Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, whose letters and postcards to Bloch are included among his voluminous papers, recently donated to the Archives by the Albert Bloch Foundation.

Bloch’s papers broaden our understanding of European Modernism, revealing that avant-garde art across the Atlantic was influenced to a large extent by the efforts of an American painter. Bloch greatly impressed Kandinsky and Marc, and the two artists conspired to get the artist’s paintings into NKVM’s next exhibition. When Bloch’s work was rejected on the grounds that he was a foreigner and not an official member of the collective, Kandinsky and Marc staged a revolt and formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group. Their inaugural exhibition, mounted at Thannhauser Gallery in the winter of 1911–1912, included six paintings by Bloch. Bloch’s papers include original mockups for the Blue Rider exhibition catalogue and installation photographs of the galleries snapped by painter Gabriele Münter.

Photograph of the exhibition Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), 1911
1911 Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) exhibition, 1911 / Gabriele Munter, photographer. Albert Bloch papers, 1873-2014. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Archives’ collection further reveals how World War I shattered Bloch’s sphere of inspiration and support in the European art world. Bloch remained in Germany for the duration of the war, but Kandinsky returned to Russia, and Marc was drafted into the German army. In a series of postcards from the war front, Marc discusses his enthusiasm for both the international conflict and the internationalist ideals of the Blue Rider. Marc believed the war might result in a unified Europe and even penned an essay on the subject, “Das geheime Europa” (“The Secret Europe”), which he sent to Bloch. That Bloch translated this manuscript into English with the intention of publishing it for an international audience points to his deep sympathy for Marc’s (and Germany’s) side of the conflict. Marc was killed at Verdun in March 1916, bringing to an end this formative friendship as well as any zeal, however complex, Bloch may have had for the war. He would maintain a lifelong correspondence with Marc’s widow, Maria, now preserved among Bloch’s papers.

Two bound record books in the collection represent a unique, handcrafted catalogue raisonné of his work during his years in Munich. Despite the obstructions caused by the war and his nearly constant financial insolvency, Bloch’s professional successes in this period likely precipitated the creation of these volumes. In 1919, for example, the Hans Goltz Gallery in Munich organized a retrospective of 104 of his paintings, the largest exhibition of his work at that time. The record books contain black-and-white photographs of Bloch’s artworks as well as reproductions clipped from printed matter, all of which are annotated in Bloch’s hand.

Worsening economic conditions in Germany after the war finally sent Bloch back to the United States in April 1921. After a brief and unsatisfactory teaching job at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1923, Bloch was offered a full professorship at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, a position he held until his retirement in 1947. He remained in Lawrence until his death in 1961, continuing to paint and translate German poetry into English.

The family letters among Bloch’s papers are arguably the most poignant documents to be found in the collection. Some of these letters were exchanged with Anna Francis, a young woman who came to the University of Kansas as a student in the early 1930s. She then worked with Bloch on the faculty and eventually became romantically involved with him. Francis soon was a permanent resident in the Bloch household, along with Bloch’s wife, Hortense, and their two sons. The letters to and from Francis open a window onto the family’s relationship with her, unorthodox for its time. Once they had left home, for instance, Bloch’s sons wrote warmly to Francis and expressed their deep gratitude for the care she provided both Bloch and their mother. Anna Francis married Bloch after the death of Hortense in 1949. A large collection of love notes on scrap paper, scribed in Bloch’s hand, illustrate how deeply he came to rely on Anna, particularly in the final years of his life. Bloch’s papers also include Anna’s correspondence after Bloch’s death in 1961, recording the tireless lengths she took to conserve his paintings and keep them in the public eye.

The Albert Bloch Papers provide an important link between American and European Modernism in the early twentieth century. They specifically shed new light on the critical reception of an American avant-garde artist living in Germany, the impact of World War I on his career, and the personal relationships that helped promote and define his work.


Jason Stieber is the national collector for the Archives of American Art.

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