It is Leistikow’s undisputed accomplishment to have set the founding process in motion, but he deserves even more recognition for the clever manner in which he has assured that the Berlin Secession continues to thrive, since, with the exception of the Munich Secession, all similar undertakings in Germany’s major cities have been short-lived.
In 1899, the Secession hosted its first exhibition in its own space at the Theater of the West on Kantstraße. The funny little building, which elicited an amused smile from all passers-by, was renovated with considerable effort, which lasted right up to the minute before the opening. The walls were in fact still so wet that the paintings—to protect them from damage—had to be taken down each evening and hung again in the morning. There was of course a great deal of work involved, and some mistakes were made, but these were far outweighed by the pure joy this new undertaking engendered. The initiators were now the masters of their own fate within their own four walls, and could now practice what they had preached beforehand. Leibl and Böcklin were exhibited and celebrated as the greatest contemporary German artists with their most impressive creations; they were also among the very first honorary members. Likewise, Thoma and Uhde began to show their works immediately; only Menzel remained aloof and forbade in the sharpest tones the inclusion of any of his works in a Secession exhibition. Only now with the advent of the Secession did Max Liebermann genuinely come into his own and gain full recognition, after participating three years earlier in a group exhibition at the Lehrter Train Station and winning, like Leibl, the grand prize, and at the same time having the rank of professor and membership in the Berlin Academy conferred upon him.
Leistikow and the Secession director, the young art dealer Paul Cassirer, went even further. They exposed the Berlin public to the partly frowned-upon, partly unknown foreign artists: Manet and Monet, the already famous Parisians; the formerly unknown Cézanne, who, still alive, had just been unearthed and given the greatest recognition in Paris; and Gauguin, in whom the predecessor of the previously disputed Norwegian Munch was recognized; and finally a Dutchman, from whom no one had ever heard anything, not even a last dying word: van Gogh. Even Cassirer knew nothing of him; Leistikow had seen works of his in Copenhagen and had sensed a strong affinity with his own work. – As strange and impossible as this first sounded to me, after a prolonged viewing of both artists’ work, I had to admit that he was not mistaken. At first, van Gogh’s paintings caused such a commotion throughout Berlin that everywhere one encountered only ironic laughter and the shrugging of shoulders. But each year, the Secession exhibited new works by this Dutchman, again and again, and today a “van Gogh” is considered among the best and most expensive works in any collection, while during the painter’s lifetime one could have had his finest works for a song. It was not just these foreigners, however, who received recognition in the Secession exhibitions, but also several German artists who had until then been misunderstood: Max Slevogt, Breyer, Baluschek, Brandenburg; I myself have the Secession to thank for the fact that my own works became well known and valued. But the effects of the founding of this institution by Leistikow were even more far reaching: the city of Berlin turned more and more into a city of art. This energizing struggle opened the eyes of the city’s residents to the fine arts in a new way: they took sides for and against the Secession, and even the Lehrter Bahnhof (until then a venue for old, tried-and-true “products”) awoke from its lethargy and had to defend itself willy-nilly against this dangerous competition. Like the Secession, it began to allow talented newcomers to gain recognition and also had to make room in its exhibition halls for avant-garde movements from abroad.
Source: Lovis Corinth, Das Leben Walter Leistikows. Ein Stück Berliner Kulturgeschichte [The Life of Walter Leistikow. A Piece of Berlin’s Cultural History]. Berlin, 1910, pp. 51-56.
Original German text reprinted in Jürgen Schutte and Peter Sprengel, Die Berliner Moderne 1885-1914 [Berlin Modernity, 1885-1914]. Stuttgart, 1987, pp. 553-59.
Translation: Richard Pettit