PASADENA, CALIF. — In 1925, the American press dubbed Galka Scheyer the prophetess of modernism. She called herself Minister of the Exterior for four artists she'd devoted her life to promoting: first, the Russian painter Alexei Jawlensky, then Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, and Lyonel Feininger.
Today, the art world knows her as the force behind a collection of some 500 works of modern art at Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum, an assemblage that gave California an important role in the evolution of 20th-century modernism.
"She helped to make the point early on that California collectors were serious," says senior curator Sara Campbell. "She laid the foundation for the major museums to see that California had a serious role to play in the art world."
Ms. Scheyer's role was to ensure that the works of these four major modernists were kept together.
"The Blue Four Collection," as it is known, has been seen in partial exhibitions at various times since Scheyer's death in 1945. But until now, it has not received the thorough cataloguing the art maven stipulated in her will.
In two separate shows, "My Four Kings: Galka Scheyer and the Blue Four" (through April 14) and "From Europe to California: Galka Scheyer and the Avant-Garde (through Sept. 8), the Norton Simon offers the most comprehensive display in two decades of the artists Scheyer called her "four kings."
"Many of these works are on paper," adds Ms. Campbell. Since the pencil and chalk drawings are sensitive to light, "it is difficult to keep them properly displayed for long periods of time, so we can't put them up very often."
Galka's story, (her real name was Emilie - the nickname, meaning blackbird, was bestowed by Jawlensky), began in the art schools of London and Paris just before World War I. A child of affluent parents, she developed into a painter herself. But when she encountered an oil painting, "The Hunchback," by the relatively unknown Jawlensky, she said she was moved to forsake her own ambitions and dedicate her life to promoting his.
"Why should I go on painting when I know I can't produce such good art as you?" she said to him. "It's better I dedicate myself to your art and explain it to others." She befriended the artist, arranged shows for his work and began to meet other artists as well.
Soon, she arranged a trip to the United States, where she hoped to spread the modernist gospel, which as she saw it, is the importance of the spiritual reality that goes beyond the surface appearances of everyday life.
Although the four artists Scheyer eventually championed are quite different stylistically, they shared the passion that Scheyer herself felt for the importance of art in understanding the world.
"This is a transitional stage in the development of modernism," says Campbell. Artists at this period, she says, are making the break from figurative into more abstract explorations of reality.
She points out that not only were Klee and Kandinsky active in art movements such as The Blue Rider Group, which believed in the underlying spirituality in all artistic expression, but they, as well as Feininger, were also teachers at the influential Bauhaus School.
The journey to America gave the group its name - the Blue Four. Art historians don't agree on the exact source, but curator Vivian Endicott Barnett, who wrote the introduction for the new catalog, speculates that it comes from Klee and Kandinsky's Blue Rider affiliation.
The catalog for Scheyer's first US show in New York in 1925 spelled out her hopes. "[Mrs. Scheyer] has brought this collection to America," wrote gallery owner Charles Daniel, "trusting to interest us in its spiritual significance and with the hopes that through it may come an exchange of spirit between the artists of the two continents."
Sales were dismal in New York in 1925, as in fact, they often were during her life. Scheyer's real contribution then and now is not in shilling for the works of these masters so much as opening people's minds to the new ideas they represent, says Stephanie Barron, senior curator for modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
It is no accident that she migrated west, ultimately settling in Los Angeles in 1930.
"There was more openness here to the new ideas she brought," says Ms. Barron. Scheyer joined a large community of émigré artists that was in full swing.
Scheyer threw herself into lectures and shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles, preaching the modernist gospel. Barron says this zeal is key to understanding Scheyer's contribution.
"When someone becomes deeply involved with an artist, their work becomes almost messianic," she says, "but that's what it often takes; someone who understands and sees the merit of work that is not immediately understood."
Stanford professor Arthur Clark wrote in a letter recommending Scheyer as a speaker, "she made her hearers understand something of the serious aims of even this ultra-modern art because she showed that it is closely related to all modernism in which we live, and that it contains elements essential to our growth."
History has given her lifework an added poignancy, says Barron. "One of the other reasons why her activities were all the more important is of course [that] by the late '30s this is exactly the kind of work that was being stamped out in Germany, being declared degenerate and being destroyed."
Scheyer's personal collecting, Barron says, literally helped preserve an important piece of modern art history.