A brief history of the art fair, from its roots in medieval markets to Rudolf Zwirner’s Cologne art (and beyond)


In August 1932, Venice raised the curtain on the world’s first film festival, showing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as the first of fifteen screenings during the city’s famous Biennale. Conceived as a showcase for new films amid a tide of American imports, it was a European cultural salvo that echoed through the ages. The film festival industry it spawned quickly spread to Cannes, then to Berlin and eventually across the world. And these festivals in turn fostered a whole new audience for cinema and a generation of auteur filmmakers, from Italian neorealism to the French New Wave.

Thirty years later, European art dealers faced a similar challenge: how to revive a market in a world that was only now ready to embrace it. Just as the continent’s economies had gone through the long period of post-war reconstruction, its cultural centers had needed time to absorb the loss of artists and intellectuals who had died or emigrated. In the 1960s, Europeans felt a growing need to break with a horrific wartime past. Avant-garde art, despised by the Third Reich, has proven itself. Cities like Cologne, Bologna and Paris could boast of a long cultural history and a relatively high concentration of collectors, certainly of historical art. By the early 1960s, cities across Europe also had leaders in local and national governments who were able and willing to support a new beginning. But gallery trade in art was limited, even at the national level.

Fortunately for the Europeans, the art fair model was already in their blood. In medieval markets, located at the confluence of rivers or roads, intermediary traders had paid rent to offer their wares to a mass gathering of interested visitors. Meanwhile, hundreds of years of religious festivals and associated pilgrimages had heightened the importance of being in a certain place at a certain time of year. As the German merchant Johann König notes, Mass, the German word for a trade fair, is also the word for a religious mass.

Great Exhibition, Hyde Park, London, 1851. Interior view of the Crystal Palace showing two visitors being shown a stand of Oriental goods. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Over time, the goods simply came from further afield. At the so-called International Exhibitions which began in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, visitors paid an entrance fee to view thousands of items including elephant fabrics, exotic silks and even the Koh Diamond -i-Noor from India, all for spectacular purpose. -surrounds built. For the Mayday opening of the London International Exhibition of 1862, English poet laureate Alfred Tennyson wrote of its “giant aisles / rich in pattern and design” and pointed out the

Rough or fairy fabric. . .

Polar Wonders and Feast

Of wonder, between West and East. . .

And the shapes and colors of divine Art!

All beauty, all purpose,

That a just planet can produce.

The language may be 19th century, but the message is not so different from the press materials sent before today’s art fairs and biennials.

Five days in Cologne

Rudolf and Ursula Zwirner with The Spanish Night by Francis Picabia (1922).  Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne.

Rudolf and Ursula Zwirner with Francis Picabia The spanish night (1922). Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne.

Some 100 years after Tennyson’s ode, contemporary art dealer Rudolf Zwirner sat in his gallery in Essen, West Germany, debating where best to seek out a wider audience. At the time, he had a choice between neighboring Düsseldorf, where Joseph Beuys had just begun to wield enormous influence at the city’s cutting-edge Kunstakademie art school, or going a little further on the Rhine to Cologne, one of the oldest cities in Europe, with “a Catholic openness to images and culture. Cologne won for many reasons, Zwirner says, including its relative proximity to Bonn, at the time the political capital of West Germany, and to an international airport that offered nonstop flights to New York. Cologne had other advantages, notably its contemporary music scene which revolved around avant-garde electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. For Zwirner, however, Cologne’s defining feature was the Sammlung Haubrich Museum (now Museum Ludwig), which seemed to mark a radical cultural change after the country’s dark war years. Its foundation was born thanks to the donation of works in 1946 from the lawyer and local collector, Josef Haubrich, who privately collected works by so-called “degenerate” German artists, banned by the Third Reich. A selection of around one hundred works by Haubrich, including those by Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, were first shown at the University of Cologne in 1946. Their audience included a young Peter Ludwig, more later chocolate magnate, a major collector and donor. of American Pop Art and key client of Rudolf Zwirner.

installation view,

Installation view, “Masterpieces of Modernism. The Haubrich Collection at Museum Ludwig” in 2012.

The shadow of the Second World War still hangs over Cologne’s nascent trade. Against the backdrop of the trials of the organizers of the Holocaust in the 1960s, the most important American art buyers – many of whom were also Jewish – turned away from German culture. “Something had to happen to breathe new life into the stagnant art trade,” explains Rudolf Zwirner in his candid biography. Thus, together with fellow Cologne dealer Hein Stünke, he founded the world’s first official contemporary art fair, Kölner Kunstmarkt, or Art Cologne, in 1967.

Often considered a revolutionary moment in the history of the art market, Stünke and Zwirner were consciously engaging with a business model they knew worked. Events that created a market for individual traders, especially specialists in books and antiquities, had been on the scene for centuries. As early as 1460, Antwerp’s status as an international hub was cemented with Our Lady’s Pand, a fair for art and book dealers that took place in the courtyard of the church which operated it for a hundred years. year. The Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, the largest in its field today, also traces its history back to the 15th century.

In the 20th century, London’s Grosvenor House Arts & Antiques fair was launched as early as 1934, while book and antique fairs were held across Europe after World War II. Temporary biennials and other non-commercial exhibitions are also essential. Documenta, the now five-year, 100-day contemporary art exhibition, was founded 250 miles east of Cologne in Kassel in 1955, also with the ambition of breaking with the recent past of the ‘Germany.

ruruHaus de la documenta fifteen.  Photo: Nicolas Wefers, 2020.

ruruHaus de la documenta fifteen. Photo: Nicolas Wefers, 2020.

The growth of more modern events was accelerated by the industrial revolutions of the 19th century throughout the western world. This was accompanied by a marked shift in wealth from the aristocracy – the traditional buyers of art and antiquities by inheritance – to a new breed of self-made patrons. They wanted to connect more with the art of their time and demonstrate their success with the finer things in life. The further away, the better.

This new clientele is then well served by the marketplaces of the the industrial era: department stores like La Samaritaine in Paris and later Selfridges in London, which grouped several traders under a roof. The concept of an encyclopedic museum, with multiple facets of artifacts from about the world, Also has begun at take hold in Europe In the 19th century. These department stores and museums had regular opening hours all year round. But the Universal Exhibitions, which began with The Great of London Exposition of 1851, may have generated greater excitementlies simply by being time-limited events. Potential buyers were even willing to pay a premium, via an entry fee, for temporary access at the last and more exotic goods from all about the world.

Such a model underpins the commercial success of the modern era art fairs. The money comes from booth rentals and admission fees, while the temporary character of one just encourages related events and other premises investment this dungeon Everybody happy. A Marlet generates his own momentum. Or, as a magazine The Spiegel put it after the well-rehosted the first edition of Art Cologne, with its 15,000 visitors, “Germany’s contemporary art trade, otherwise dispersed and therefore insignificant by international standards, had a metropolitan center for five days.”

The Cologne fair provided a platform for some of the new Neo-Expressionist artists of the time, including Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, as well as showing American pop artists at European customers. But the fair was not without its challenges, many of Who would like to be familiar at an event organizers in the 21st century.

Professor Joseph Beuys in his studio in Düsseldorf on June 26, 1967. (Photo by Horst Ossinger/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Art Cologne has been based very many in the spirit of after the war accesssibility and freedom, with the support of the liberal spirits of the city responsible for cultural affairs. But its location, a banquet hall in a medieval castle building, only had room for 18 galleries. Its small size contributed to a reputation for elitism. This was started by artist Joseph Beuys who, when he learned that artists, unlike journalists, were not allowed early access to the fair, led a protest that briefly managed to shut it down down entirely. Zwirner Remarks this Beuys has beenmanufacturing money inside and protest outside. Indeed, one of the artist’s works sold at fair edition from 1969 for 110,000 DM (equivalent to €205,000 in 2021), the highest price at the time for a West German artist. And Beuys clearly overcame his objections. The Madrid gallerist Juana de Aizpuru, later the founder of the Arco fair in Madrid in 1982, says she met for the first time Beuys because the artist visited Art Colognealmost all daytime.”

The fair’s biggest challenge, however, was the competition. First from Düsseldorf insofar as, between 1976 and 1983, the fair alternated between the two cities. Ultimately though, the real threat has been from a city 500 kilometers down the Rhine.

Extract of The History of the Art Fair: A Rollercoaster Ride by Melanie Gerlis (Lund Humphries, 2022).

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