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 LaVera Ann (Kempfer) Pohl  (1901 - 1981)

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Lived/Active: New Jersey/Wisconsin / Europe      Known for: painting, art historian, collector, administrator

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Ad Code: 4
LaVera Ann Pohl
from Auction House Records.
Left Bank, Paris
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
La Vera Pohl and her collection
by Erika Esau, Lawrence University

“Sie war so ein besonderer Mensch” - “She was such an extraordinary person.” These were the words used by Gisela Macke to describe the young La Vera Pohl who she met in 1926. At the time, Macke was a 12-year-old girl, the daughter of the artist Hans Thuar. She remembers quite vividly the quiet American woman who appeared at her home one day. Pohl had seen an exhibition of Thuar’s work and wanted to take lessons from him. She came often and made an enormous impression on the young girl. Even after years of acquaintance, however, Macke found it difficult to give an adequate description of La Vera Pohl’s intriguing character: “She was charming, but also aloof, she was pretty and lively;...even today a fascination emanates from her photo when I look at it.” Macke sent along the photo she had been examining to prove her point. Taken of Pohl by the Thuars’ friend Kaethe Augenstein, the portrait does indeed give some indication of the woman’s enigmatic presence, a quiet radiance that seems to have marked her personally throughout her life. Above all else, she was determined to experience as much of life as possible, and art became the focus of her enormous energies.
Reconstructing the chronology and progression of Pohl’s life, especially of her early years, is not an easy task. One must depend primarily on the biographical notes she wrote herself for a newspaper article and the curriculum vitae that accompanies her German dissertation, as well as the reminiscences of those friends and former colleagues who are still living. When tying to piece together this biographical puzzle, one also realizes quickly that Pohl had a highly developed penchant for story-telling and elaborate overstatement, a flair for the dramatic, which often colored her recounting of the events in her life. One must constantly keep this fact in mind when searching for reliable information.

She was born La Vera Ann Kempfer in Port Washington, Wisconsin, on January 20, 1901. She first went to school at Holy Trinity Notre Dame Academy School in Milwaukee, where, she wrote, the nuns sparked her interest in music and art. Her family moved to Beloit when La Vera was 12; she attended high school there. At about this time–whether before the move of after is not clear–her mother divorced her father. The experience was apparently traumatic for her; at least that was how she described it to friends years later. Although raised Catholic, she seemed to have little interest in religion after the divorce; in the vitae of her dissertation, she states her religious affiliation as “konfessionslos”–undenominational.
Throughout her childhood, she demonstrated artistic talent, and her artwork had already appeared in regional exhibitions when she was a teenager. In 1918, she came to Milwaukee to study art. The leading teachers in the city at the time were Alexander Mueller (1872-1935) and Gustave Moeller (1881-1931)–both Wisconsin natives who had studied in Germany. She took classes with both of them at the Wisconsin School of Art, an organization that soon after merged with the Milwaukee State Teachers’ College (now University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee). According to her own account, she studied privately with George Oberteuffer and attended Saturday classes at the Art Institute in Chicago.
At the college, she also worked with Elsa Ulbricht (1885-1980), a painter and printmaker then just beginning her 44-year career as an art teacher in Milwaukee. Ulbricht remained one of Pohl’s lifelong friends. Ulbricht also taught and was eventually director of a well-known summer art school in Saugatuck, Michigan. With Ulbricht’s help, La Vera received a scholarship to study at Saugatuck in 1922 and 1923. After graduation from Milwaukee State Teachers’ College in 1923, she had her own decorating business in Milwaukee and continued to paint.
In 1925, she met William Pohl, a German-born businessman who resided in Milwaukee, he was the president of the Kepec Chemical Corporation (now a division of Henkel Corporation in Oak Creek, Wisconsin); most of his business was conducted in Germany. An example of La Vera’s enduring desire to make dramatic gestures was her choice of Christmas Eve as a wedding date. She seemed to be intent on constructing an interesting life; in the beginning and for many years thereafter, her husband, whom she called Billy, supported and even participated in her ambitions. The Pohls moved to Germany immediately after they married. They remained in Europe until 1939, with frequent visits to the United States. On the basis of information in the Lebenslauf of her dissertation, one can assume that she returned to the States for the period from December, 1936 to 1938, since she wrote that at this time she enrolled at the Milwaukee State Teachers’ College. In Germany, the Pohls lived in Siegburg, a small town between Bonn and Cologne where Mr. Pohl’s factory was located. La Vera apparently set about immediately to involve herself in the cultural life around her. She began to learn German (a postcard written in 1929 to her mother-in-law, who lived in Viersen near Düsseldorf, indicated that she still had only a rudimentary grasp of the written language at that time). She also wrote several articles for American journals on contemporary German art and architecture. Of most significance to the subsequent development of her collection was her ambition to attend every art exhibition and museum she could find throughout the Rhineland.
During the 1920s and 1930s, artistic life in this region of Germany had improved considerably since the pre-World War I days, which Elisabeth Macke-Erdmann described in her memoirs of her husband August Macke. Major galleries appeared and a real artistic atmosphere existed, especially in Düsseldorf and Cologne.
Pohl was certainly familiar with the major dealers, as is evident when one examines the provenances of her artistic acquisitions, for she purchased works from every one of them. The most important dealer in the Rhineland–indeed, the “art pope” for all of Germany–was Alfred Flechtheim (1878-1937). Flechtheim’s major interest was in contemporary French art–he was a close friend of Picasso’s dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler–but he also had an overwhelming impact on the direction of German artistic taste. Flechtheim’s first gallery opened in Düsseldorf in 1913; by 1921, he had important branches in Cologne and Berlin. When the Nazis compelled him to leave Germany in 1933, his galleries were taken over by Alex Voemel. The Voemel Gallery is still in Düsseldorf today. That Pohl’s name is still known by the present owner, Voemel’s son Erwin, verifies that she was an important patron. It was here that she purchased some of her most significant pieces, both before the war and during her frequent buying trips in the early 1950s.
Pohl also became a frequent customer of other important dealers in contemporary German art: Ferdinant Moeller, husband of the artist Maria Moeller-Garny whose work in the collection was one of Pohl’s latest acquisitions, and Karl Nierendorf, who later opened a gallery in New York City. Both of these men played significant roles in the promulgation of modern German art. While very little correspondence between Pohl and these galleries is extant, the few surviving letters indicate that she was for the galleries a well-known and revered customer. For Pohl, her personal acquaintance with these dealers seemed to give her intellectual impetus, since she could discuss art and artists that were of mutual interest to them.
Her persistent pursuit of artistic activity eventually led her to Hans Thuar. According to Gisela Macke, Pohl saw Thuar’s painting Segelbild (see Eggeling) in the window of the Bonn art dealer Kramer; she asked for the artist’s address and sought him out. As well as Macke remembers, this acquaintance began in 1926 and continued for many years thereafter. According to Pohl’s vitae she was still studying with Thuar in 1931, by which time Thuars lived in Ramersdorf, a small village outside of Bonn. During her lessons, Pohl and Thuar often worked on the same subject–most frequently still-lifes–and no doubt spent time discussing contemporary cultural life in Germany.
The experience with Thuar was for Pohl important and enduring; through Thuar she developed a first-hand appreciation and understanding of contemporary German art at a time when most Americans were completely unaware eve of the Expressionists who were so highly regarded in Germany. After World War II, she reestablished contact with Thuar’s family, visiting his wife and Gisela Macke, who had married August Macke’s son, Wolfgang. In her writings and notes of the time, Pohl frequently referred to Thuar with affection and admiration.
Aside from lessons with Thuar, Pohl also took courses at the Kölner Werkschulen (th Cologne Artisan Schools) in 1929 and 1930. The Werkschulen during this time, under the direction of Richard Riemerschmid (1868-1957), was a model of modern art education and counted among their professors were some of the most influential and effective art teachers in the country. Foremost among them was Richard Seewald (1889-1976), who was then the instructor of design classes for painting, applied arts, glass-painting, graphics, and book art. Pohl noted in her dissertation vitae that she took classes from Seewald, although she did not receive any kind of diploma at the school. She was, however, quite proud of her association with this renowned institution, evident in her purchases of artworks by many artists associated with the school. She also established a relationship with Seewald himself, as she received Christmas greetings from him in the 1930s.
Aside from her continuing pursuit of painting and design classes, Pohl also began an ambitious course of study in the history of art at the University of Bonn. That she was able to enroll as a full-time student at the university in 1933 indicates that by this time her German was good enough to follow a serious course of study with an important art-historical faculty. Later accounts verify that she considered the completion of a Ph.D. in Bonn her greatest achievement. She kept all of her class notes and scribblings from field trips, most of them enhanced by her own drawings. She also maintained detailed lists of the courses she took and the professors with whom she studied. Among her professors were the famous scholar and administrator of the Rhineland’s historical monuments, Paul Clemen (1866-1947), for whom she seemed to have special regard (her files include clippings about Clemen’s lectures and a notice of his death), and Alfred Stange, who served as her doctoral advisor. Her course of study was indeed rigorous and complete; she was as well-trained as any art-historian of the day could hope to be.

The topic of her discussion–surely one that would have found little support in the United States of the time–was entitled Die Entwicklung der Malerie in Amerika von 1913-1939–the development of painting in America from 1913 to 1939. She covered extensively the progression of American art from the time of the famed Armory Show in 1913 and placed particular emphasis on the significance of the “Regional Movements” in this progression–a focus that speaks to her own cultural heritage as a Midwesterner. Her native contemporaries Grand Woo, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry, all received prominent discussion. The dissertation included an appendix listing all American museums and the dates of their foundings, as well as a presentation of “Regional Literature of the United State.” Both segments–as well as much of the text of the dissertation–seemed to be modeled on the WPA guides then being produced in every state in the country. Intriguingly, when Pohl returned to the United States, her art-historical interests were almost exclusively European. As an American in a German university, however, she was no doubt encouraged to focus on a dissertation topic that a European student would not have been able to complete.
In addition to her scholarly and artistic pursuits, Pohl, along with her husband, began to collect art as soon as she arrived in Europe. According to her own account, she purchased Kokoschka’s Peasant Girl A and Chagall’s Musician in 1926, the year the Pohls moved to Europe; she was still purchasing art from European galleries and auctions in 1966. In the early years, when her husband was also actively involved in Pohl’s collecting, she concentrated on purchases of works by German and Austrian artists whose art she encouraged in the galleries she frequented in Cologne and on her travels. She also acquired pieces from artists who whom she had a personal relationship, such as Thuar and Seewald. Form the beginning, then, she had a specific focus to her collection, although this orientation was probably not a conscious decision at the time: she simply bought artworks she and her husband liked by artists about whom she knew something or whose work appealed to her at the time. Only after the war, when she returned to Europe on the buying trips, did she begin to have the awareness of the fact that her collection of twentieth-century German art was unusual among American collectors. In the early 1950's, she began to buy with a conscious didactic purpose in mind: to enhance and expand her collection of works by well-known German artists only then beginning to be recognized in the United States.

In letters and postcards to her husband during those first trips after the war, Pohl spoke of the “mission of our collection.” Indeed, between 1948 and 1955, Pohl made some of her most important acquisitions, not only of paintings and watercolors, but of prints and print portfolios which points to a clear understanding of the significance of graphic art in the development of German aesthetic taste in this century.
While she continued to collect during European trips after 1955, her focus became less confident, less purposeful. She began to purchase, along with some important German pieces, art by other 20th-century artists. While she managed to acquire some good prints and drawings by well-known figures such as Modigliani, Archipenko, Chagall, Matisse, and Dufy, her selections were spotty and often uncertain. She occasionally became enamored with a particular artist from whom she bought several works that were not equal to the quality of her earlier acquisitions. Some of these purchases were indeed based on a personal acquaintance, suggesting that she was trying to recapture the close relationship with an artist as she had had with Thuar and others before the war. Financial circumstances may also have played a role in her later selections. These acquisitions may also be an indication of conflicts raised by the hegemony of abstraction in the mid-1950s, an aesthetic direction that Pohl never entirely embraced. In any case, she was undoubtedly searching for new direction, and one can only assume that the unfortunate sequence of events that occurred at this time affected her attitudes about her collection just as it shattered her confident approach to the world.
When the Pohls returned to the states in 1939, they moved into the Astor Hotel in Milwaukee, where they had an apartment in which they prominently displayed their collection. Pohl also had a studio there, where she worked and kept supplies. She began to lecture in art history and to write quite competent newspaper articles on art; she also was active in art education programs around town. She concentrated most of her energies, however, on her own artwork. In 1943, she designed a medal for the WACS, and created the sketches for the murals at Milwaukee’s well-known German restaurant, Karl Ratsch’s. She had exhibitions not only in Wisconsin but also at the Argent Galleries in New York in 1945. Only a few reproductions of her paintings exist; they reveal her training in Expressionist color but do not demonstrate any great originality.
Nevertheless, she continued to nurture her image as a creative person. In a 1949 article about her in the Milwaukee Journal, Pohl described, in typical dramatic fashion, her use of a water-blotter technique for painting watercolor. She claimed that she had learned the technique directly from Paul Klee, who came to Hand Thuar’s studio while she was there. No doubt she did experiment with unusual method while in Germany, but her assertion that she was there when Klee dropped in to work with Thuar–Klee was not a personal friend of Thuar–was simply one of many examples of her tendency to elaborate upon the basic facts to make her life seem even more fascinating. She was never ostentatious or flamboyant; but her “flair for the dramatic,” no matter how subdued her demeanor, permeated almost all of her public announcements.
The most significant event in La Vera Pohl’s career was her appointment–on her fiftieth birthday, January 20, 1951–as director of the Milwaukee Art Institute (today the Milwaukee Art Museum). Long involved in the activities of the organization, she was, at that point in the institutes history, the perfect, and indeed most convenient candidate. By all accounts, the institute was in financial trouble, so much so that there was a serious danger of its folding altogether. Pohl not only had the qualifications and commitment to run the museum, but she was also one of the only available people who had the independent financial resources to allow her to do the job without pay. No doubt this was her most obvious advantage in the eyes of Alfred Elser, president of the institute’s board of directors.  A prominent lawyer in town, Elser already had plans for a new museum when the board appointed Pohl. He certainly considered the appointment as a temporary measure until circumstances improved and the new museum was organized. No doubt Pohl knew at the time she was considered an “intern director,” although her appointment was not announced as such in the papers. As events proceeded, however, she became increasingly committed to the institute and to the programs that she had introduced. When her first year as director ended and nothing was said about stepping down, she came to see the appointment, at least in her mind and in her heart, as a permanent one.

Those who worked with Pohl at the institute verify that without her presence in those pivotal years, the museum may not have survived. She involved herself completely in every aspect of the institute’s operations. Her experience in Europe strengthened her emotional commitment to the concept of culture for everyone; as she said in an article about her ideas for the institute, “I’d like droves of people here.” With this idealistic goal in mind , she set about to create a museum for the entire city, not one which served only as an elaborate social club for Milwaukee’s elite. She established an art education department with outreach programs to the city’s schools. She sought out local artists and exhibited their works at the institute. She became a skillful fundraiser, managing to get some subsidy from the city itself, and organizing the Beaux-Art Ball, which became a major social event as well as a most important source of money. She had a talent for picking the right people to work with her, and many who began their careers under her leadership went on to become leading figures in other museums and on art faculties around the country. Despite her subdued nature, Pohl reveled in her position as a leader in the city’s artistic circles, and, in her own quiet way, she fully played the role.
Pohl was not, however, an easy woman for whom to work. Because she devoted all of her enormous energies to the museum–an insomniac, she frequently worked well into the night–she expected everyone else to work as hard as she did. She gained a reputation as a slave driver and as an imperious, if not generous, boss. One of her closest assistants at the institute recounted how, driven to exhaustion, she tried to quit three times; each time Pohl insisted that she continue, and each time the assistant reluctantly agreed. On the other hand, Pohl often threw elegant parties for the staff and gave them homemade cards and presents on holidays. She had an original way of managing the museum, and those who worked for her learned to adapt.
Despite any early conflicts, she remained at her post, organizing a series of exhibitions that addressed her own vision of the museum’s broad educational mission. The first major exhibition under her direction was on the topic of “Art in Medicine,” a theme show in which she brought together pairings depicting medical motifs. Similar exhibitions on music and art and literary themes in painting occurred over the next year. She also mounted in 1954 an exhibition of Expressionist art in which she included works from her own collection. Finally, she continued to support the work of local artists, which kept her in touch with artistic life throughout the city. She counted among her closest friends the art teachers at the colleges in the area and began to add artworks by Wisconsin artists to her own collection.

While such exhibitions fulfilled Pohl’s ideas of the museum’s educational aims, some board members did not agree with her choices. Most vocal in his opposition to Pohl’s direction was Charles Zadok, vice-president of the board. General Manager of Gimbel’s in Milwaukee and a leading member of the city’s social set, Zadok was himself a major financial contributor to the museum. He also had his own impressive collection of contemporary art, including most notably Zadok’s opinion, Pohl was too much of a “compromiser” and did not have the courage to champion contemporary art. To many it appeared that Zadok saw the museum as a showcase for his own collection. In any event, Zadok’s dissatisfaction with Pohl found support from the board president Elser.
By late 1954, plans were afoot to move the institute, then housed on North Jefferson Street, into the War Memorial, a modern building on the lakefront when just completed by the Finnish architect Eoro Saarinen. Elser and Zadok, as major financial backers and as board members of the institute, wanted a new direction for the organization, and they wanted a new director to give it that direction.
After several clashes with Elser and Zadok at the beginning of 1955, Pohl saw the handwriting on the wall. The final blow came when Elser suggested that she look for her own replacement, all while supervising the move to the War Memorial. In April of that year Pohl tendered her resignation. She had spoken to no one on the staff about her decision, and no one was fully prepared for the finality of her action. It “hit like a bombshell,” as one staff member recalled.
Again her penchant for the most dramatic gesture led her to take the upper hand. The full text of her letter of resignation appeared in the papers, where she vehemently defended her own actions and criticized her detractors. The brunt of her defense was the inappropriateness of two board members dictating the aesthetic choices of the director: “I feel that as director of the institute it is also my duty to cover a wide range in the field of arts...Further, I feel it is vital to interest the public and to gain their good will, not to interest and satisfy just the few–whether or not those few are able and have been willing contribute major financial and other support to the institute...If the director has not the final decision as to what is to be exhibited, he or she is nothing but a stooge.”
While the situation caused some stir in the community, the board of the institute soon moved to transform the organization, replacing most of Pohl’s staff and nurturing a new image of the institute in its new home. The life of the museum continued, and the sensational mood created by the incident soon faded. Pohl received some support from the artistic community, but even some of her friends felt that she should have had a more realistic approach to the political realities represented by the museum’s move to the lakefront side.

Pohl, however, never forgot the event. Her own personality made it impossible for her to forgive, and she held on to her sense of the injustice done to her for the rest of her life. Her emotional reaction to the loss of her position was so complete that she never again spoke to those people she felt had “betrayed” her and avoided any social situations where she might meet any of the people involved. The event caused for her, as one of her closest colleagues put it, a “terrible sadness.”  The incident no doubt contributed to a decided rift between her and her husband; she now traveled alone, and did not consult with him about purchases for the collection. When the Pohls moved to Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1958, their life together changed. She continued her own painting and her travels to Europe, the Middle East, and South America. When her husband died in November of 1970, Pohl returned to Milwaukee permanently.
Ironically, Pohl’s unforgiving nature brought her collection to Lawrence University. Pohl had always planned to give her collection to the Milwaukee Art Institute when she died. After her resignation, she changed her will, leaving the artworks and her library to Milwaukee-Downer College. When this school merged with Lawrence College in 1964, the newly created Lawrence University became the recipient of her bequest. Since Pohl was still active at the time of the merger, she was certainly aware of the fact that her works would now go to Lawrence. While her last years were spent in ill health–she died October 27, 1981–one can assume that she was happy with the fact that her acquisitions, a reflection of her own fascinating life and her commitment to artistic understanding and creativity, would find a home in Appleton.

Online Source:

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
La Vera Pohl (1901-1981) was a Milwaukee artist, museum director, and collector who studied art and art history in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Across a 40-year period, she collected some 220 prints, paintings, and drawings, most of them by early 20th-century German artists — a collection of particular significance because it was compiled at a time when most Americans were unaware of modern German art. The Collection is called the LaVera Pohl Collection.

Artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff lend distinction to her collection, which has been described as “a sharply focused body of work . . . a survey of German Expressionism that embraces the whole of the movement.”

Mrs. Pohl bequeathed “her books and library and pictures and drawing collection” to Milwaukee-Downer College, which by the time of her death had become part of Lawrence University. A major exhibition of the collection was held in the newly completed Wriston Art Center at the time of its dedication in 1989.

Researched, written and submitted by Stanley Platt, whose online source was Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin

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