A lesson in managing uncertainty: digitizing the First German Autumn Salon

Image: Jenny Anger, First German Autumn Salon Reconstruction Project.

Professor of art history, Grinnell College

A trio of international exhibitions defined the parameters of modern art ca. 1912-13: the Sonderbund (Cologne 1912), the Armory Show (New York 1913), and the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon (First German Autumn Salon, Berlin 1913). The Armory Show is by far the best known in the U.S., mostly because of the explosive effect it had on American art. Yet the First German Autumn Salon was arguably more international and more radical than either of the other shows. The Berlin show, for example, featured Italian Futurism and a broader range of German, Russian, and Eastern European art, much of which was more abstract than art in New York or Cologne. Another feature that has assured the Armory Show of fame is its thorough documentation. The legacy of the First German Autumn Salon, in contrast, suffers from the exhibit’s paltry records. Yet it was a major production of Herwarth Walden’s Sturm enterprise, so my book dedicated in part to Der Sturm (Four Metaphors of Modernism) had to address it somehow. The problem was how to do so with any degree of certainty.

Thanks to a grant from Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry, a collaboration between Grinnell College and The University of Iowa funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, students of mine and I constructed a three-dimensional digital reconstruction of the exhibition. (An IT expert, David Neville, was instrumental.) Given the limited documentary resources, we had to accept the provisional nature of the project. Still, our work led to some reliable and revelatory conclusions that we might not have reached if we had not ventured into this territory.

The most certain data point is the Berlin address, Potsdamerstrasse 75, which appears in multiple letters and journal entries. Walden rented a large hall, nearly 1200 square meters, on the fourth floor of a new commercial building just a mile away from Potsdamer Platz (home to Europe’s first electric traffic light in 1924). The building was destroyed in the war, but we located an original elevation—unfortunately without measurements—in a neighborhood archive (Museen Tempelhof Schöneberg Berlin). We found that the current building (renumbered postwar to #180) matches the general structure of the original, including a fourth floor arcade, so we cautiously made some decisions based on the current structure. Using Google Earth, my student James Marlow discovered that area behind the two street façades of the corner building combine to approximately 1200 square meters. We don’t yet know if the exhibition was in such an L-shaped area in the earlier building, but since the measurement matches our known figure so neatly, that is our working premise.

The next question was what was in the show. Fortunately, a catalog numbering 366 works survives: https://archive.org/details/ersterde00wald. The titles are often imprecise, and sometimes a group of more than one work is listed under just one number, but the source appears to be reasonably reliable in listing which works were shown by which artist. The exciting feature is that a Roman numeral after each artist’s name designates one of nineteen temporary “rooms” installed in the open hall on Potsdamerstrasse. Those numbers were the key to our knowing which works were grouped together, even if we could not know the exact hanging in any given room. Adding to the uncertainty, some artists’ names are followed by more than one Roman numeral, but enough aren’t that we felt confident to proceed.

While some students worked long hours tracking down the sometimes little-known works (Rebekah Rennick is to be commended here), others began thinking about the hanging, comparing contemporary sources to determine probable exhibition design strategies. The one photograph that survives from the show—Filippo Marinetti standing between his lost portrait by Gino Severini and Carlo Carrà’s Simultaneity: Woman on the Balcony (1912)—proved invaluable. From it we could determine the value and texture of the sackcloth covering the portable wall as well as determine the structure of the latter. Also, it was clear to see that at least in this area, paintings were hung well below our now conventional eye-level. Although we don’t know if that technique was followed throughout the show, its use here was enough for us to generalize it with some confidence.

What did we learn? We learned that modern art in 1913 was still a very inclusive and greatly varied banquet. In particular, we learned that it was more feminine and decorative than it was to become. The largest room by far belonged to Robert and Sonia Delaunay. (To make that determination, my student Eliza Harrison carefully measured the widths of all the paintings assigned to Room XVIII.) Robert’s and Sonia’s paintings covered the walls, but this temporary room, unlike any other, also featured a large collection of Sonia’s decorative objects: curtains, scarves, pillows, lampshades, and book covers. Prior to the exhibit, Walden had written to Sonia: “I would like very much to exhibit your decorative works in the Autumn Salon, and am very happy that your Sturm covers met with such success.” The success that the collaged book covers allegedly met before the Sturm show, however, must have been private, because Sonia had never had the opportunity to exhibit these works prior to Walden’s international undertaking in Berlin in fall 1913. Reception there was profuse and wildly inconsistent—signaling just how revolutionary this decorative ensemble and its emphasis in the exhibition were.

My hope had been to host a website devoted to our model, but the copyright permissions for so many artworks proved prohibitive. Still, my student Sonja Spain has made videos of “walk-throughs” of many of the rooms, and we offer them to scholars interested in imagining a visit to the First German Autumn Salon. Please contact anger@grinnell.edu for more information.


Jenny Anger is professor of art history at Grinnell College. She is author of Four Metaphors of Modernism: From Der Sturm to the Société Anonyme and Paul Klee and the Decorative in Modern Art.

Four Metaphors of Modernism is a tour de force demonstration of the centrality of metaphor to the modernist project both in Europe and America. Through comparative analysis, Jenny Anger charts the surprising aesthetic and philosophical continuities informing two key modernist ventures.”
—Mark Antliff, Duke University

“The book not only brings together various strands of scholarship with brand new archival research, it is also the first major effort to systematically trace the connections between the German Der Sturm (gallery and journal) and the American Société Anonyme. Jenny Anger’s highly original and engaging instigation of connections between these two key modernist institutions is particularly noteworthy for the author’s nuanced discussion of gender, which builds on her earlier published work and will no doubt further cement her reputation as a major contributor within this area.”
—Anna Brzyski, University of Kentucky

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