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Report from Germany

Oskar Kokoschka, “Knight Errant” (1915). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Bob Dylan, all in black and wearing a Stetson, stood on the stage in front of the Rhine-Herne-Canal. Without a word to the audience in the sold-out open-air arena on a perfect summer Sunday evening in the Ruhrgebiet, one of Germany’s old industrial centers, he just sang his songs, as always, as if he had never sung them before. “Like a Rolling Stone, ” “Forever Young, ” “New Morning, ” “Mr. Tambourine Man, ” “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Nothing from the soon-to-be-released new album. “So happy just to be alive underneath the sky of blue.“

Not far away there are still some shaft towers, relics of the region’s coal mining history. A number of them have been torn down, due to a fundamental change in the area’s industrial character since the sixties and seventies when many coal mines were closed. The same is true in nearby Oberhausen, where the Concordia mine and coking plant were significant elements in the landscape.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, known for their conceptually rigorous photography, documented this site with more than 400 photographs, taken between 1967 and 1970. A selection of 210, sorted into 45 groups, is now on display at Cologne’s SK Foundation, which is dedicated to the history of photography and contemporary trends in the medium.

Influenced by Albert Renger-Patzsch’s studies of industrial areas from the twenties and thirties, the couple’s sharp black-and-white photography shows simply what was there: overall views, the winding towers, hoist machine hall, preparation plant water tanks and cooling towers, which take on the material qualities of sculpture in the photographers’ prints. This project was very meaningful for the artists’ development: “The Concordia Mine was so important for us at that time,” Bernd and Hilla Becher have said in an interview, “because it had all the prototypical forms we sought for our work. It is a defining feature of the Ruhr Area, a classic example, a veritable archetype …The diverse nature of each building complex was mostly defined by different operational requirements and technological change. But there were naturally also instances of taste-shaping design, making its mark on residential and prestige buildings. So in retrospect, the photos also show the layers of time that built up as well as the changing requirements that needed to be met as a result.” A beautiful book about the project (Zeche Concordia, Berlin/Cologne 2006) has been published in the PATRIMONIA series of publications of Kulturstiftung der Länder, Berlin.

Put up for discussion: the sculptor Arno Breker (Zur Diskussion gestellt: Der Bildhauer Arno Breker) is the title of an exhibition at the city of Schwerin’s Schleswig-Holstein-Haus in northeastern Germany that presents 70 works by Hitler’s favorite sculptor in a solo museum show for the first time since World War II.

A clever calculation by the organizers, since the name Arno Breker always guarantees attention. As Germany’s Stern magazine writes: “…even the New York Times reported from this most hidden corner (“Mäusewinkel”) of the artworld.” Though there was a lot of excitement at the beginning—Klaus Staeck, President of the Academy of Arts Berlin withdrew his planned 2007 show at the same venue, and the BBK, the professional association of fine artists in Germany, called for a closing of the exhibition—the critics are relatively relaxed. The Schwerin show does not make Breker “presentable” (“salonfähig”), judges Petra Kipphoff in “Die Zeit”, who headlines her story “Buntes Gruselkabinett” (“checkered horror cabinet”). “The case of Arno Breker is a didactic play (“Lehrstück”) of German history and art history. He belongs to what Willibald Sauerländer called ‘archeology of remembrance,’” she writes.

More than 10,000 people have already visited the Breker show, and the first printing of the catalog (1000 copies) is sold out. A new edition (3000 this time) is on its way. But there is also active protest: recently opponents to the G8 summit that is scheduled in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern for 2007 symbolically closed the show. They wrapped Breker’s Nazi-era sculptures with toilet paper and asked the visitors to leave the building. Afterwards they locked the museum with a chain, as reported by dpa, the German press agency, reported.

The highlight of the German summer exhibition schedule is The Guggenheim Collection at Bonn’s Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland) and the Kunstmuseum Bonn, right opposite the hall. Never before has the collection of the Guggenheim been presented so extensively, as one of the four curators, Kay Heymer, said at a preview—none of the Guggenheim Museums has so much space. Nearly 200 of the Guggenheim Foundation’s masterpieces from New York, Venice, Berlin and Bilbao are distributed across 7500 square meters (24,606 square feet) of the two venues. The curators in Bonn (Heymer, Susanne Kleine, Thomas Krens and Valerie Hillings) tell the story of the collection quite convincingly. Solomon R. Guggenheim started collecting systematically in 1929 when the German baroness and painter Hilla von Rebay talked him into buying non-objective art. “Non-objectivity is the religion of the future,” as she said once. After a brief atmospheric prelude with a sculpture by Brancusi, “Le roi des rois,” a little hint at the royal state of the collection, a huge painting by Hilla von Rebay (“Andante Cantabile”) and one by Rudolf Bauer open the exhibition. Rebay believed strongly in the genius of Bauer, who was her adviser, and was blind to the fact that his work was not the quality of Kandinsky’s. She bought many of his paintings for Guggenheim, and it is interesting to see at least one of his works here since one never encounters them in any other museum.

This is followed by an excellent room of Kandinsky, one of the key artists of the collection, that shows his development in works from the Blue Rider period until the early forties, among them such well-known paintings as “Kleine Freuden’ and “Der Blaue Berg.” The Thannhauser collection, a very important addition to the Guggenheim in 1963, follows with a selection of Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, van Gogh and Degas. Picasso, Mondrian, van Doesburg, Moholy-Nagy, Léger, Duchamp, Chagall, Delaunay, Marc, Klee, Kirchner and Beckmann are all represented by important paintings. Especially impressive is Oskar Kokoschka’s rarely seen “Der irrende Ritter” (“Knight Errant”) from 1915, in which he depicts his fearful vision of what would happen to him as a soldier in World War I, where he was sent by his beloved Alma Mahler and was gravely wounded.

Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist paintings and sculpture from Peggy Guggenheim’s collection in Venice, which became part of the Foundation after her death in 1976, include works by Max Ernst, Giacometti, and Jackson Pollock. Minimal painting is represented by works by Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin. For post-World War II figurative art, the curators fortunately chose not only well-known pieces like Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for a Crucifixion” but also a huge painting by Jan Müller, “Jacob’s Ladder.” Müller (born 1922 in Germany, died 1958 in the US), a student of Hans Hofmann, is a regrettably under-known but important precursor to later developments in figurative painting (Guston, Baselitz). Selections from the Panza Collection, bought by the Guggenheim Foundation in 1990, with works by Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Bruce Nauman, Lawrence Weiner and Robert Morris, provide a glorious finale to the 20th century.

At the Kunstmuseum Bonn, nine artists’ rooms (among them Kara Walker, Matthew Barney, Anna Gaskell, Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, Matthew Ritchie, David Altmejd) give an idea of the profile of the collection as it heads into the 21st century. Video and installation art, nearly no painting. Roni Horn’s series of Iceland photographs (“Pi”) is poetic and pellucid. Douglas Gordon’s brilliant “Through a Looking Glass,“ based on the mirror scene in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, is comprised of two facing images that, as described by curator Volker Adolphs (Kunstmuseum Bonn), “begin in sync but progressively fall out of step, creating the impression that Travis [Robert de Niro] is responding to himself.” It is never possible to see both images at the same time, which provokes progressive irritation in the viewer. The massive blocks of Rachel Whiteread’s “Untitled (Apartment)” nearly press the visitor against the wall with their intense volume and historical atmosphere.

The Guggenheim show, sponsored by German Telekom, remarkably took just a year to prepare. It will definitely be a must-see for everybody who is interested in art. Since it lasts until January 2007, there is enough time to make plans.


Barbara Weidle

Barbara Weidle is an art critic and curator. She lives in Berlin and Bonn.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2006

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