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The collection of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld offers an exciting walk through the history of art from the late 19th century to the present on the basis of outstanding individual works, which can otherwise only be experienced in much larger museums. Because, for traditional reasons of lack of money and space, it was mostly concise individual works that were purchased instead of groups of works on individual artists, their eclecticism in the best sense is a defining characteristic of the Kunsthalle collection. It offers insights into artistic developments and their effects, into references and relationships, and it may offer the interested visitor some surprising insights and new knowledge.
With its approximately 500 paintings, 200 sculptures, and some 4,500 watercolors, drawings, and prints, the Bielefeld collection is by no means as old as other municipal collections, which are often based on the legacy of princely collections. The first painting, number one in the collection inventory, the painting “Am Waldesrand” by the Munich painter Ludwig Dill from 1900, came to Bielefeld in 1905. In 1928, the first municipal Kunsthaus was established in the former villa of Kommerzienrat Tiemann on Hindenburg- (now Alfred-Bozi-) Straße, and the painting found its home there alongside several others under the care of Dr. Heinrich Becker, honorary director of the new Kunsthaus. Heinrich Becker, with his many years of commitment to art, is indisputably the founding figure of Bielefeld’s art museum system. Becker’s preference belonged to German modernism. His main focus was on developments since the late 19th century, with an emphasis on Expressionism and local art as well as the work of Käthe Kollwitz. Gustav Vriesen, the first full-time appointed art historian, came to Bielefeld in 1954 as director of the Kunsthaus. Among his first acquisitions in 1955 and 1956 were two works that marked a brilliant start: With Max Beckmann’s “Mother with Child at Play,” which Beckmann painted in Amsterdam in 1946, Vriesen brought one of the most important German artists of the 20th century into the Bielefeld collection with a monumental major work from the immediate postwar period. Willi Baumeister’s early material painting “Three Staggered Figures, Ananke I” from 1920 was the first non-objective painting to enter the Kunsthaus collection. In 1956, Vriesen broadened the view from German art to international developments with a focus on France, thus giving a new direction to the museum’s work in Bielefeld as well as to the collection. He was followed in 1962 by Joachim Wolfgang von Moltke, who as founding director helped to shape the Kunsthalle’s new building and its program. The choice of an American architect for the building also determined the aspiration of a greater internationality of the collection, which was to be realized in the years and decades to come. Especially under the directorship of Ulrich Weisner from 1974 to 1994, American artists such as Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Richard Serra, Ellsworth Kelly, and Agnes Martin also entered the collection. But also with regard to German art, from the mid-1970s the focus of the acquisition policy shifted to contemporary positions, which took into account both the rising prices for modern art on the art market and the need to reflect the museum’s own time horizon in a museum of modern art. The subsequent directors Thomas Kellein and Friedrich Meschede followed this motto by bringing the collection into the present day.
Under the new museum management of Christina Végh, the view of the collection is updated several times a year, each time guided by different aspects.