Between The Ancients and The Moderns

It became a familiar curatorial move: the inclusion of a few works of contemporary art interspersed among collections of more venerable, more properly art-historical art.  The thinking seems clear: it’s win-win, isn’t it?  Potential stuffiness is relieved; connections are made; and respectability is conferred by association.  I may sound a bit skeptical, and perhaps I am, like the puritan suspicious of any pleasure he might feel— but it’s a move I enjoyed, familiarity notwithstanding.

We saw it a few times in Vienna.  First, at the Upper Belvedere, the greater half of a late-seventeenth, early-eighteenth century Baroque palace.  The collection is best known for its Klimts and Schieles, but it also ranges back to the late Medieval (the carved-wood Znaimer Altar is stunning), on through the Baroque, the Neoclassical (including, notably, David’s Napoleon am Großen St. Bernhard), up to nineteenth-century Romanticism and Barbizon.  But the first works we saw in the circular entranceway of the palace were two Franz West sculptures.   The boulder-like masses, baby-blue and it’s-a-girl-pink, respectively, were unexpected and welcome sights after the ostentation and obsessive control on display in the garden and facade.


The Belvedere does not allow photos; I snapped this one before learning this.

The next day, at the Kunsthistoriches, we ran across not only the Ruscha-curated “The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas” (as mentioned in the previous MPW post) but, also, several sculptures by Joannis Avramidis installed in the collection of Greek and Roman antiquities.  The simplified forms, both geometric and organic (think Brancusi or maybe a honeycomb) provided a counterpoint while also drawing out the abstractions inherent in the older representational works.

The contemporary work in the Belvedere and the Kunsthistoriches was set up in contrast not only to the expectations established by the reputations and collections of each institution but, also, in more direct visual contrast to the architecture of the buildings.  A less complete sort of anachronism is on display at Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, which houses the city’s impressive collection of European paintings, covering, roughly, the start of the Renaissance in Italy through the Rococo in France.  A part of the state museum system, the Gemäldegalerie is located not on neoclassical Museumsinsel, where the plurality of the institutions can be found, but in the more contemporary cultural complex, the Kulturforum.  And so Walter De Maria’s IMG_2588

sculpture, The 5-7-9 Series, installed in the museum’s blandly pleasant central space, looks entirely at home: in fact, it almost disappears in the otherwise empty room, which seems to split the difference between a corporate lobby and the nave of a cathedral.  The temporal disjunction, then, is created only by the knowledge that this De Maria is located in the “Old Master’s Gallery.”

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The Gemäldegalerie is, by the way, a wonderful and surprising museum.  The gallery’s official website calls it “one of the world’s finest collections of European art from the 13th to 18th century,” but until I’d actually seen the collection, I assumed this to be typical copy-filler bombast.  After all, I can’t say for sure I’d heard of the museum before arriving in Germany.  And, yes, Berlin’s an art-town— but a contemporary art-town, right?  The copy is not, however, an overstatement.  The collection is indeed world-class, deserving to be included alongside the Uffizi, say, or above-mentioned Kunsthistoriches.  Why, then, was I totally ignorant of it?

My ignorance here, as elsewhere, is, of course, my own fault.  But, as Benjamin Paul’s article “Memory Wars” in this past November’s Artforum deftly explains, more complex circumstances are also involved.  “Memory Wars” recounts the state museum foundation’s decision, made this past summer, to use the existing Gemäldegalerie space to house a newly acquired collection of Surrealist works.  According to Paul, this “nonchalant willingness to drop a superlative collection for what is widely considered a mediocre one” led to “concerns that the old masters would be put into storage indefinitely.”  Protest ensued, including an online petition.  Ultimately, the foundation shelved its plans, at least until it finds a new home for the Gemäldegalerie paintings.

The foundation’s decision, unthinkable in most cities, is, Paul argues, symptomatic of “the lasting trauma of German history.”  The state, seeking to “smooth over” the “scars left by the nation’s fascist past,” is scrambling to bolster its collection of Modernist art, “to fill the gaping lacuna in its public collections resulting from Nazi Germany’s violent rejection of “degenerate” modern art.”  The object, according to Paul, is “what Germans call the Neue Normalität (“new normality”), meaning a condition in which they are finally relieved from Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the constant pressure to work through the Nazi past.”  The Neue Normalität accelerates, in turn, Berlin’s “relentless pursuit of contemporaneity.”  It’s as if, Paul contends, “an ostentatious open-mindedness about all things related to contemporary culture is a civic duty that could banish memories of Third Reich conservatism.”  Economic factors are also relevant here: “this emphatically contemporary creative scene has made Berlin attractive to tourists, who by now provide the city with a crucial economic lifeline.”  Citing its relatively poor attendance, “barely more than 250,000 visitors a year—a depressingly low number for a collection of this size and quality,” Paul concludes, “the traditional old-master collection is increasingly marginalized in an otherwise buzzing art world.”

Check out the article, and I encourage you to sign the petition.  Below, are a handful of images of works in the gallery’s collection, for my own enjoyment and in case you need a nudge.



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