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Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask

Five Overlooked Modern Artists

Radical Pioneers Ripe for Rediscovery

Conrad Felixmüller, Clemens Braun (1931) © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

BY Alexandra Christl
senior director and specialist of Impressionist & Modern Art at Sotheby's

In Analysis

Conrad Felixmüller

Conrad Felixmüller (1897-1977) was a founding member of, and driving force behind, the German Expressionist group called the Dresdner Sezession (1919-1925). In spite of this, he did not receive international recognition until late in his life—he didn’t have a solo exhibition until 1971, in Bologna and Rome—and even today remains somewhat overlooked.  

His top price at auction was set in 2005 for the somber portrait of an elderly man, Clemens Braun (1931), which sold at Sotheby’s for $1.1m (est. $300,000-$400,000). Compare this to the top prices for his peers: the record for a work by Lyonel Feininger is $23.2m (est. $7m-$9m) (for Jesuiten III (1915) at Sotheby’s in 2007); £3.6m ($6m) (est. £600,000-£900,000) for a work by Otto Dix (Bildnis Rechtsanwalt Dr Fritz Glaser (1921) at Sotheby’s in 1999); and $2.2m for Wildwest (1916) by George Grosz at Christie’s in 1996.

Felixmüller was fascinated with the dynamism of modern urban life, which he initially represented in his compositions using vibrant, contrasting colors and energetic forms. His style changed in the early 1920s, away from Expressionist and Cubist-influenced art towards a more simplistic and realistic style, often depictions of working-class or private scenes.

Part of the reason Felixmüller is less well known than his peers is because many of his works were lost after their confiscation from public collections by the Nazis, beginning in 1933. Then, in 1944, an air raid destroyed his Berlin studio, wreaking further damage.


Hannah Höch

Hannah Höch, Untitled (1945) © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by Scala/Art Resource, NY

The German artist Hannah Höch (1889-1978) is best known for the Dadaist work she created during the Weimar period, when she was a pioneer in collage and photomontage works, but her oil paintings and watercolors also account for a major part of her oeuvre. 

In fact, the world auction record for the artist was set in June last year for the autobiographical painting Frau und Saturn (1922), which documents her turbulent relationship with fellow artist Raoul Hausmann. It sold for £1.1m ($1.3m) (est. £400,000- £600,000) at Christie’s, surpassing the previous auction record of $824,000 (est. $8,000-$12,000) for the Dadaist work on paper Mechanischer Garten (1920) at Christie’s in 2007. Höch’s early work from the 1920s and early 1930s is by far the most sought after—when paintings from this period surface on the market they are highly competed for.

While her work shares affinities with Expressionism, Surrealism and Constructivism, she did not identify with any movement. There are several key themes in Höch’s work such as androgyny, shifting gender roles, political commentary, and there is a deep feminist discourse around her work.

She formed close friendships with fellow artists such as George Grosz and Kurt Schwitters, yet was often overshadowed by her male peers. She never chased fame, living in a modest home on the outskirts of Berlin after the Second World War. 


Erika Giovanna Klien

Erika Giovanna Klien, Abstraction (1926). Yale University Art Gallery, gift of Katherine S. Dreier to the Collection Sociéte Anonyme

Born in Borgo Valsugana in north Italy, Erika Giovanna Klien (1900-1957) was one of the leading figures of Viennese Kineticism, an avant-garde movement that flourished during the 1920s.

A key moment in Klien’s artistic development began with her enrollment in the radical class on ornamental art led by Franz Cižek at the Vienna School of Applied Arts in 1919. An experimental pioneer in the field of art education, Cižek’s classes followed a tripartite structure: developing the observation of emotions (Expressionism); the study of spatial relativity (Cubism); and the representation of movement (Futurism).

Klien went on to develop her own distinctive aesthetic and become a key figure in the Viennese avant-garde. She achieved a sense of dynamic motion in her work through the repetition of elements, such as in Lokomotive (1926), which set the auction record for the artist when it sold for £545,000 ($854,000) (est. £500,000-£700,000) at Sotheby’s in 2015. The other two top prices were set in 2011 at the Austrian auction houses im Kinsky and Dorotheum for less accomplished kinetic works: Bewegung (1930) which sold for €160,000 ($229,000. Est €150,000-€250,000) and Kopf einer Tänzerin (1923) which sold for €104,000 ($138,000. Est. €70,000-€100,000).

Her market development is hindered by the fact that supply is thin because she worked mainly as a graphic artist after the late 1920s. By 1929, after moving to New York, she focused on art teaching and writing. 


Léon Spilliaert

Leon Spilliaert, Self Portrait, 3 November (1908). © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels. Photo credit: Alamy Stock Photo

A true original, the Belgian painter Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) is best known for his beautifully rendered depictions of Ostend’s broad and sweeping promenades, intense solitary figures and ever-changing seascapes. Largely self-taught, Spilliaert’s style could be described as Expressionist Symbolism. Some of his portraits are as disturbing and angst-ridden as Edvard Munch’s works, which the artist discovered when he stayed in Paris in 1904. 

Spilliaert’s Self-Portrait, 3 November (1908) set the current world auction record for his work when it sold for €741,000 (no estimate given) ($816,000) at de Vuyst in 2015, a figure far eclipsed by Munch’s top auction price of $120m for the pastel on board version of The Scream (1895), which sold at Sotheby’s in 2012.

Spilliaert was something of an introvert, which may be part of the reason he never gained the same international recognition as did his contemporary and fellow countryman James Ensor.


Jean Crotti

Jean Crotti, Heads (date unknown). © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Image © Whitford & Hughes, London, UK/Bridgeman Images

The Swiss-born artist Jean Crotti (1878-1958) experimented with several styles including Fauvism, Cubism and Orphism. He studied first in Munich and then at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1901. He then moved to New York in 1915, where his art began to flourish. He became of a community of artists that included Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, sharing a studio with the latter and ultimately marrying his sister, Suzanne Duchamp, who was part of the Dada movement and who was a great influence on Crotti’s work.

Crotti never pursued one immediately recognizable style, which might be one of the reasons he has been sidelined by the market. His most sought after works are from the period between 1915 until the late 1920s: the auction record for his work was set last year at $1m when Les forces mécaniques de l’amour en mouvement (1916) sold at Christie’s (est. $700,000- $1.5m).




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