The making of an exhibition: Max Weber

Professor Anna Gruetzner Robins (Department of Art, University of Reading) has been instrumental in building the current exhibition at London’s Ben Uri Gallery on the cubist painter Max Weber. The exhibition, which is on until 5 October, includes paintings and rare books from our collections.

Portrait of Max Weber from Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Men of Mark (1913) (Coburn Collection)

The making of Max Weber: An American Cubist in Paris and London 1905–15, currently on at the Ben Uri Gallery in London, took place over several years. The exhibition focuses on a collection of Weber  pictures  left to the University in 1966 by the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, who also features. I was unaware of their existence until a few years ago. I knew little about Weber but I remembered that his name cropped up in books I had read about the Bloomsbury Group, and  I could see that the pictures were of good quality. After reading Coburn’s letters to Weber, I realised that they represented some of Weber’s best early work, and that they had a great historic value for British Modernism. Many of them were in a 1913 exhibition organised by the critic and painter Roger Fry, and Coburn subsequently made his Hammersmith photographic studio a showcase for the entire collection.

I  decided to plan an exhibition which would tell the story of the collection, and I approached Sarah MacDougall , the Eva Frankfurther Research and Curatorial Fellow for the Study of Émigré Artists and Head of Collections  at Ben Uri. Sarah is a Reading graduate  and well known for her work on Mark Gertler and other British Modernists. Sarah came to see the collection with David Glasser, the Director of the Gallery. David was a great fan of Weber, who is very well known in America where his work is in all the major museum collections.

Max Weber, The Dancers (1912). Pastel and chalk. University of Reading Art Collection

We decided to make the exhibition in three sections: 1) the formative years Weber spent in Paris, where he persuaded Matisse to set up a teaching studio and got to know Henri Rousseau and Picasso; 2) Weber’s friendship with Coburn; 3) Fry’s 1913 First Grafton Group Show. To do this we needed to borrow pictures from America for the first section, and also comparative works by  British artists that had been shown alongside the 11 Webers in Fry’s show. The last task was problematic because  while Fry identified the exhibits by Weber and Kandinsky, he chose not to indicate which picture was by which British artist, all of whom were nameless in the catalogue. It was only by reading reviews of Fry’s show that I identified some of the British works. We borrowed them from the Ashmolean, the Courtauld Galleries, the Government Art Collection, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum and several private collectors. The exhibition and accompanying book also include photographs taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn of Weber, his contemporaries and his art from the University of Reading Special Collections.

The book that accompanies the exhibition  makes a lasting contribution to Weber scholarship. My essay explains the exhibition history of  the University of Reading Webers, but with so many stories to tell we decided to bring in a team of international art experts including Weber scholar Dr Percy North, Dr Nancy Ireson, who researched Weber and Paris, Coburn expert Pamela Roberts and Lionel Kelly, who the professor responsible for the paintings coming to the University.

Max Weber’s Cubist Poems (1914) (Elkin Matthews Collection)

The day finally came when we stood in Ben Uri watching large crates of pictures from as far away as New York being unpacked and hung by a technical team trained to place pictures safely on the wall. Sarah and I had worked out where we wanted to place the pictures and the accompanying explanatory texts  beforehand. Everyone was delighted with the installation. The exhibition looks superb, and the 250 people who attended the private view seemed to agree. I urge you to go and see it.

Max Weber: An American Cubist in Paris and London 1905–1915
Ben Uri Gallery
108a Boundary Road , off Abbey Road, NW8 ORH
Tuesday–Friday 10am–5.30pm; Sunday 12 noon–4pm

The accompanying book, Max Weber: An American Cubist in Paris and London 1905–1915, is available for sale in the gallery, and is distributed by Lund Humphries.

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