The Tale of a Cat: Gino Severini and the Collection of Nell Walden
For curators researching provenance, the aim is to close gaps in a work's chain of ownership. This is particularly important for works of art that may have been looted, confiscated or coercively sold during the critical period from 1933 to 1945 in Europe – before and during the Second World War. It is therefore important to trace each work’s path: from the artist’s studio to any and all subsequent owners, collectors and institutions. At times, these paths allow us to discover intriguing chapters of history and encounter fascinating individuals who owned the work at a given point in time. This was the case with my provenance research for Gino Severini’s The Black Cat, painted around 1910–11 and acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1956.
The original owner of the work was Nell Walden, a progressive artist, author, passionate collector and trailblazing advocate of modern art. Born 1887 in Landskrona, Sweden, Nell married the German musician, writer and publisher Herwarth Walden in 1912. She became an integral part of Der Sturm – the art and literary magazine enterprise founded by her husband in 1910 – and its subsequent expansion, which would eventually encompass a theatre, an art school, a bookstore and a highly influential art gallery.
Der Sturm sought to support and provide a network for artists who worked outside of academism and the establishment. It represented, among many others, such significant artists as Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, Vassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Fernand Léger, Gabriele Münter and Gino Severini. With Nell and Herwarth Walden’s keen eye and unrelenting commitment to the arts, Der Sturm was able to give a wide-ranging platform to artists who were then mostly unknown, progressive, and at times considered radical.
Aside from helping organize some 130 Der Sturm exhibitions between 1912 and 1924, Nell Walden was a successful painter in her own right, her predominantly abstract compositions being shown regularly in Germany and across Europe. She was also a published poet. During the First World War, Nell worked as a correspondent and translator. Her employment provided financial revenue for Der Sturm so it could continue operating during this difficult era. It also provided the means for the Waldens to start collecting art by the artists featured in the exhibitions, soon filling the walls of the couple’s apartment that was located in Berlin just above the gallery and publishing offices. As their collection grew, Nell and her husband decided to open their doors on select nights and welcome visitors to their apartment to view and enjoy their considerable collection of some 400 works.
Gino Severini's The Black Cat was one of Nell’s earliest acquisitions and came into her possession in 1912, most likely acquired when the Der Sturm gallery presented an exhibition of Futurist art in the spring of that year. A group of progressive Italian artists, the Futurists wanted to modernize and shed the confines of academic art, rejecting and challenging all previously accepted aesthetic values. While known mainly for their depictions of speed and dynamism of modern life through machinery-inspired imagery, early Futurists experimented with a variety of painting styles and techniques, including Cubism or Divisionism, with their characteristic application of short and disconnected vertical brushstrokes. Both of these influences are evident in The Black Cat and reveal Severini’s concern to depict energetic motion, not through machinery-related imagery, but through the use of kaleidoscopic colours, rhythmic forms, as well as spatial and temporal synchronism.
For the 1912 exhibition catalogue, Severini remarked that the inspiration for his composition came from a literary source: Edgar Allen Poe’s short story of the same title, published in 1843. Severini intended to depict “the sense of morbid oppression after reading the story,” which addresses the effects of alcoholism and feelings of guilt. The narrator in Poe’s story describes how his disease progressively altered his temper and personality, eventually even fatally affecting the relationship to his beloved pet cat Pluto.
Emphasizing the intensity of the narrator’s experience, Severini suspends the conventional space-time structure in his canvas. He isolates the most crucial and dramatic elements of the story – the wine glass and the cats’ piercing stares – and arranges the disparate narrative components concurrently across the picture plane. Abandoning any rational perspective, Severini creates a kaleidoscopic mosaic of individual brushstrokes that visually coalesce into a multitude of geometric shapes. Painted on a bare and unprimed canvas, this configuration of the abstracted forms further heightens the particular sense of immediacy.
The painting’s title links it to Rodolphe Salis’s Montmartre cabaret Le Chat Noir, famously commemorated in Theophile Alexandre Steinlen’s 1896 poster Tournée du Chat Noir. The feline subject matter reappears in another work by Severini, Danseuse Obsédante (Haunting Dancer; private collection), painted around the same time as The Black Cat. Here explicitly linked, it references the black cat’s particular relevance in the popular and bohemian culture of Montmartre, which Severini frequented regularly after moving to Paris in 1906.
Nell Walden's involvement came to a halt with the couple’s divorce in 1924, and the overall activities of Der Sturm were severely affected by the growing hostility towards modern art in Germany. With Hitler’s power mounting, Walden and her second husband, Jewish doctor Hans Heimann, forged a plan to escape the oppressive regime. While Walden was able to seek refuge and safeguard her art collection in Switzerland in 1933, Heimann was deported and executed by the Nazis in 1942.
Walden continued to organize and participate in art exhibitions in Switzerland during and after the Second World War. From 1954 onward, she began breaking up her substantial collection by selling works, but also by donating some to public institutions in Switzerland and Sweden. She held on to Severini's painting until 1955, when it was exhibited in London at the Marlborough Fine Art Gallery. It then sold to the Saidenberg Gallery in New York and was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada the following year.
Research and reconstruction of the painting’s exhibition history confirmed its continuous ownership by Nell Walden until 1955. The back of the canvas provided valuable clues that helped to retrace the path of The Black Cat before it entered the Gallery's collection: the numerous labels and inscriptions attest to some of the many venues where the work was shown. It took in-depth research in archives and historical literature, however, to be able to identify additional stations of the painting’s whereabouts.
In 1927, for example, Alfred Flechtheim, the prolific art collector, dealer and publisher, featured The Black Cat alongside more than fifty of Nell’s own paintings, as well as other works from her important art collection, at his Berlin art gallery. In an article published in his art journal Der Querschnitt that year, Flechtheim announces the exhibition and pays tribute to his esteemed colleague and friend. He specifically credits her for Der Sturm’s international success and acknowledges her role in jumpstarting the careers of so many of the avant-garde artists promoted by Der Sturm.
This first-hand account underscores Nell Walden’s pivotal role in fostering and safeguarding modern art. She was a pioneer whom Flechtheim described as “a collector of whom there are but very few in the whole wide world.”
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