Busch-Reisinger Museum Celebrates Centennial in (Expressionist) Style

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Andrea I. Gonzalez

A sculpture from the Busch-Reisinger Museum; the museum recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

It’s the story of a little museum that could—an institution that survived two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War and widespread antagonism to a museum dedicated to Germany. More than 100 years ago, tucked away in the vacant Rogers Gymnasium, Harvard Faculty members assembled a hodgepodge of plaster replicas and photographs. The collection, known then as the Germanic Museum, consisted only of Germanic architectural and sculptural monuments, generous gifts from Emperor William II of Germany.

Today, however, the Busch-Reisinger Museum houses the world’s leading collection of artwork from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Now celebrating its centennial, the museum has had “a most improbable survival,” according to Daimler-Benz Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum Peter Nisbet.

Founded in 1901 by Kuno Francke, a Harvard professor of German literature, the museum officially opened on Nov. 10, 1903 with the full support of Harvard’s then-president Charles William Eliot, who deems “German as important to the modern economic world as Latin was to the classical ages.”

Generous funding from St. Louis’s Busch and Reisinger brewing families allowed the construction of Adolphus Busch Hall, now the University’s Minda de Gunzberg Center for European Studies. Adorned with gargoyles and mask-like water spouts, the building was specially designed to house the plaster cast replicas of German monuments. The collections’ original purpose was to give Harvard students studying German culture a chance to visit the monuments of the country. Art was not observed, but experienced through photographs and full-scale reproductions.

Ironically, construction of the museum space finally began wholeheartedly in July 1914, just weeks before World War I undermined the Germanic Museum’s concept of peaceful cultural exchange. The museum nevertheless endured, opening its new halls to the public after the war in 1917.

Though little-known and often forgotten over the years, the museum has accumulated an impressive collection of artwork, especially in Austrian Secession art, German expressionism, 1920s abstraction and Bauhaus art. Comprehensive collections of work by Joseph Beuys, Lyonel Feninger and Walter Gropius are among the finest in the world. Although it also maintains collections of classical Renaissance and Baroque work, the Busch-Reisinger has recently focused on obtaining more post-war and contemporary art from German-speaking Europe.

“We serve the works of art.... We as a group do not intend to push the museum in any one direction. For us it is to support the museum as loyal friends,” says Professor Michael Hoffmann-Becking, president of the Friends of the Busch-Reisinger, an international group based in Germany.

Nowadays the Busch-Reisinger Museum serves as a “tableau vivant for the mutual exchange of ideas…nowhere in the country is there another place to study consecutively German art,” said Joseph L. Koerner, professor of history of art at the University College in London. It is unique as “a teaching museum that allows American students to learn and understand the art and culture of the countries of Central Europe,” says Becking.

The current exhibit, “Before Expressionism: Art in Germany circa 1903,” aims to show the period’s diversity of progressive styles and forward-looking artists. Also featured are drawings and prints taken from Harvard’s collections, among them early works by well-known artists such as Emil Nolde, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.

Reactions to the museum have been varied. According to Carter Pledger, the exhibit might be too focused on one particular area and time period to really attract a wide audience.

“Careful scrutiny is needed to really get it,” he says. “Most people don’t have the time and patience. It’s a perspective I don’t normally see, [developing] in a way that I don’t normally think of. Do I expect this at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston? No. They have the curators to do it, but their target audience is different.”