Rare & Beautiful

The Way It Happened: Modern Art Exhibition Catalogues

From German Expressionism to Pop Art, exhibition catalogues preserve exciting moments in 20th-century art.

By Peter Kraus February 4, 2020

The turbulent art world of the twentieth century is history, and the exhibitions that launched new movements and artists have long been taken down. However, in many cases, a printed record remains. While sometimes only a small pamphlet, these catalogues offer precious documentation of art as it evolved, and are a unique way of experiencing the excitement many of these exhibitions generated when they first opened.

Front (right) and back covers of the exhibition catalogue Le Surréalisme en 1947 featuring the multiple Prière de toucher (Please touch) by Marcel Duchamp and Enrico Donati (Paris: Eacute;ditions Pierre a Feu, 1947).

Some of these catalogues contain texts by important writers, some contain original graphic work, some are splendid examples of design, and quite a few are art objects in their own right. Here are just a few examples.

Cover design by Erich Heckel incorporating a work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Fränzi mit Puppe (Fränzi with doll) for the catalogue of the exhibition KG [Künstlergruppe] Brücke, held at the Galerie Ernst Arnold in Dresden, Germany, in 1910.

The first new movement of the twentieth century was Expressionism as espoused by the groups Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, both of which published manifestos before there were exhibition catalogues. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was the author of the manifesto for Die Brücke in 1906, and Wassily Kandinsky did the same for Der Blaue Reiter in 1912. In 1910, the first exhibition of Die Brücke artists was held in Dresden, Germany. The extraordinary catalogue for that exhibition contained twenty original woodcuts by Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and is a great rarity.

The year 1909 saw the publication of E. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, but it was not until 1912 that the first important Futurist exhibition was held in Paris, at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. A small illustrated catalogue, Les Peintres Futuristes Italiens, was published, and despite its importance, it is surprisingly not very rare, unlike the catalogue for the next major exhibition, the Armory Show, which is almost impossible to find. The Armory Show, formally The International Exhibition of Modern Art, first took place in February 1913 in New York, where it was accompanied by a small unillustrated catalogue. The exhibition, which was the first time the term “avant-garde” was used to describe painting and sculpture, changed the face of art in America. The show subsequently moved to Chicago, where the accompanying catalogue contained illustrations, among them one of Marcel Duchamp’s notorious Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.

Cover of the catalogue for the International Exhibition of Modern Art 1926, arranged by The Société Anonyme for the Brooklyn Museum in 1926. The catalogue, by Katherine S. Dreier, was designed by Constantin Aladjalov.

One of the most sought after of twentieth-century exhibition catalogues was published in 1926. This was the catalogue for The International Exhibition of Modern Art, assembled at the Brooklyn Museum by the Société Anonyme. Designed by Constantin Aladjalov, and featuring a bold black and red layout and alphabetical tabs, the catalogue itself is a work of art.

In 1929, The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) opened and in the same year published its first catalogue, a rather drab affair, on the exhibition Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh. Since then the museum has published a steady stream of catalogues, often with outstanding design, which form a unique history of the development of modern art. Quite a few museums, such as the Stedelijk in Amsterdam and the Pompidou Center in Paris, have emulated MoMA’s publication program and have produced a substantial body of important catalogues.

Munich in 1937 was the site of one of the most notorious art exhibitions ever to take place, Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art). The catalogue for the display of so-called degenerate art was published in a substantial quantity, with quite a few copies surviving, and is a somber witness to this low point in the history of civilization.

The Surrealists celebrated their return from exile after World War II with a splendid exhibition in Paris in 1947. To accompany the exhibition catalogue, Marcel Duchamp provide a foam rubber breast to adorn the cardboard box bearing the label “Prière de toucher” (Please touch), which housed the actual catalogue. Copies with the breast in fine condition are now extremely rare and desirable.

Plastic-embosed cover of the catalogue Kunst der sechziger Jahre. 5th erweiterte Auflage/Art of the Sixties. 5th revised edition, featuring 92 artists, including David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg, among others, represented in the collection of the Ludwig Museum (Cologne: Wallraf-Richartz Museum, 1971).

Between 1969 and 1971, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne published five editions of the catalogue of the Museum Ludwig collection of Pop Art. The catalogues themselves are Pop Art objects, the last edition being a massive book in a plastic binding held together by bolts.

There is a whole other world of exhibition catalogues on individual artists, offering a vast range of collecting possibilities. There are catalogues of the first exhibitions of artists’ work, and those with original graphic or otherwise remarkable design or important textual contributions. The possibilities are legion. Collecting exhibition catalogues is a way to experience art as it happened and can be indulged in on almost any budget.

For those interested in finding out more about the books highlighted in this article, including possible acquisition (Les Peintres Futuristes Italiens and Art of the Sixties), please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or ursus@ursusbooks.com:

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.


This is the seventh installment in a collaboration with Peter highlighting important books from the past.

Previous articles in this series are “Matisse as Book Illustrator and Designer,” “Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler: Publishing Artists and Authors in the Early 20th Century,” “Paris and the Artist’s Book in the 1920s and ’30s,”  “Discovering Old Design Books in Japan,” “A Dialogue with Color,” and A Flowering of Creativity: Ladislav Sutnar and F. T. Marinetti.”

Please note that Designers & Books will receive an accommodation from sales resulting from this collaboration.

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