Blick in ein Treppenhaus

2019 Annual Report: Is the Fun Over?


reading time: approx.  min

What should be done if an artist’s hands turn out not to be as clean as people have assumed? The library of Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin was the venue for a discussion between Norbert Bisky, an artist, Gabriele Knapstein, the museum’s director, and Aya Soika, who curated the Nolde exhibition jointly with Bernhard Fulda and Christian Ring.

Mr. Bisky, do artists have to be good people – better than others?

Norbert Bisky: They should definitely try to be. But they probably aren’t. To quote Kippenberger, artists too are only human. I think that, for many artists, it is very important to try to be a better person. That has great significance in times marked by a lot of harmful, criminal, or cruel acts, like the twentieth century. Many artists tried to have nothing to do with it. They did not always succeed.

2019 was a year in which the darker chapters in the life stories of several artists were exposed to public debate. Notable among them were Peter Handke, Roman Polanski, Jeremy Irons, and of course Emil Nolde.

Bisky: Each case is different. I find it extremely careless to compare things that people have done in the past if these acts belong in very different contexts: for example, sexual harassment in the office on the one hand and defending a criminal regime on the other, or making antisemitic statements in the Nazi period. The one has nothing to do with the other, and I think there is a need to take care, to differentiate, and to consider the specific details in each and every case. The debate starting now is a very good thing, that people are also considering the moral point of view. As an artist, you ought to be careful: on the one hand with the context that you create and on the other hand with what you say.

Of course, every artist can express himself and say and do what he wants, but then it has consequences. And even more so when artists get involved in political issues without comprehending the implications, which might change completely over the decades. Then artists have to be aware that it could blow up in their faces.

Blick auf ein Gebäude mit einem Mittelrisaliten mit zwei Türmen
Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart - Berlin © SPK / Lioba Anna Keuck
Eine Frau in einer Bibliothek
Aya Soika, Co-curator of the Nolde exhibition © SPK / Lioba Anna Keuck
Eine Frau in einer Bibliothek
Gabriele Knapstein, Director of the Hamburger Bahnhof © SPK / Lioba Anna Keuck
Ein Mann in einer Bibliothek
Norbert Bisky © SPK / Lioba Anna Keuck
Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin. Berlin-Tiergarten, Invalidenstr. 50
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/ Maximilian Meisse

Ms. Soika, a lot was known about the artist Emil Nolde and his antisemitic attitude before the exhibition was planned. Did the success of the exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof have anything to do with the greater sensitivity to such undertones nowadays?

Aya Soika: Emil Nolde stylized himself in four autobiographies. In them he gave us, among other things, a kind of manual on how we should interpret his art. In 1968, Walter Jens proposed that, with regard to these autobiographies, we should “protect” Nolde as an artist from Nolde as a person. With this, he postulated the separation of work and artist as an “act of piety.” In exhibitions, Nolde’s art was indeed mostly considered in separation from his biographical entanglements. At Hamburger Bahnhof, we tried to find a new perspective on Nolde, as well as on his work. The fact that it met with such a high level of public interest is due to a number of factors. Among the most crucial of these was the removal of Nolde’s work from the walls of the Federal Chancellery. Furthermore, the exhibition took place at the height of a general debate on the subject of art and morality. It was perceived as a paradigm shift that exhibitions on subjects from the modern age now focus more strongly on the historical context than ever before.

Is there actually any desire for “art for art’s sake”?

Bisky: The idea that we can look at a work of art naively with children’s eyes, that we can approach it without prejudice, doesn’t hold water. We can’t simply put all of our knowledge aside. Ours is a highly developed civilization, inseparable from information and its interconnections. I do not believe that works of art can be interpreted or read or admired or despised completely out of context as pure artifacts, where the only questions are about the tool marks. Furthermore, we are constantly receiving new information. These are highly dynamic processes and I think it’s important to talk about them and to look at the works.

Ms. Knapstein, are these debates being taken into account in the design of the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts (Museum of the 20th Century)?

Gabriele Knapstein: Yes. It’s part of how we see our role. We present art history from the viewpoint of today and we look for the relevant aspects. Assessments change, contexts change, and perspectives multiply. That is what makes museum work, which is essentially work on collections, really interesting. The Nationalgalerie (National Gallery) has always reflected upon its own institutional history and incorporated this into its presentations. Visitors want to understand why a collection looks as it does and not differently.

So how did the visitors react to the Nolde exhibition and its new approach?

Soika: We had six or seven visitor books. In addition to a lot of praise, there was also a lot of shock at the material on display, and some expressions of consternation. Consternation, because the combination of images and text had given these visitors the impression that we wanted to harm the artist. What we had really done, however, was to move Nolde’s work from the celebratory environment of an art museum into a context that was rather an historical documentation. This led some people to compare it with the Nazi’s “degenerate art” exhibition in the visitor book.

Knapstein: That doesn’t surprise me, because some visitors do not like their image of Nolde to be ruined – although that picture is partly one that he drew himself. If artists themselves specify how they wish to be perceived and are very successful at doing so, then as an art historian you are naturally trained to say that this is source material or a line of interpretation that needs to be queried.

It is a well-known phenomenon that artists write autobiographies in order to prepare a certain view of their work and their lives for posterity. Another well-known phenomenon is that such stereotypes build up over the centuries.

If you say that you mistrust artists’ prepackaged views of their work, what implications does that actually have when an artist’s estate comes into your hands? How much courage does it take to overturn a myth?

Soika: One of our aims was to ask ourselves how we actually interpret pictures. And what narrative frameworks were the same pictures placed in at different times? A work by Nolde was seen differently in the 1920s than in the 1960s, and seen differently again in 2019. This questioning of ourselves was very important to us – to show how the interpretations of pictures can change over time. In the case of our Nolde exhibition, we deliberately choose a historical documentary approach that would reveal the discrepancy between the Germans’ Nolde legend and what we found in the archive in Seebüll. But we are aware that many other approaches could be taken to Nolde’s art.

It is also a challenge to the recipients. It may be more difficult for the public to accept than a show that raises the artist onto a pedestal.

Soika: There is always a discrepancy between what is intended and what you ultimately get out of a show like this, and of course that is up to each individual. Like a work of art, an exhibition develops its own dynamic and with it a multitude of possible interpretations. The different conclusions that were drawn in the press, for example, did not necessarily reflect our objectives and priorities.

Bisky: Many of the facts had already been known for decades: that Nolde would have liked to be a fervent National Socialist and wanted to play a role alongside the people in power. He wanted to earn a place in German art history and he spent a huge amount of time and effort on doing so, last but not least by writing books. I learned that during my studies in the early 1990s.

Knapstein: Perhaps the facts have a different kind of power if you don’t just read them in a wall text in an exhibition, but also see ten display cases with documents that prove them.

Is Nolde actually a singular case?

Soika: Nolde really is a unique case in that he, as an artist, spent his whole life seeking to get his name into the history books, in particular the art history books. It went so far, for example, that he kept his correspondence with a view to publishing it later, that he composed aphorisms with the intention of printing a book of them, and that he wrote his biography in no fewer than four volumes. Nolde subscribed to a press clipping service and got his wife, Ada, to read out what had been written about him. As far as we know, hardly any other artist was so concerned about the public’s perception of him and put so much effort into influencing it.

Knapstein: A figure like Martin Kippenberger addresses this with a deconstructing impetus. His role as an artist is a key theme of his artistic work, but in a completely different historical context, of course. The deconstruction of the artist’s image, which was still valid and important in Nolde’s case, has changed significantly in the context of post-modernism and the increased reception of Duchamp’s work. This myth of the artist, as it has gradually developed since the Renaissance in the context of Western culture, lost much of its power to convince people during the twentieth century.

The fact that it still has power and that Hollywood keeps on cultivating it, in the umpteenth Van Gogh film or whatever, is simply due to it being a nice story. But in the meantime we have completely different concepts of creative energy in connection with artistic identities and social circumstances, and I find that very salutary.

Bisky: Kippenberger got into trouble with all the stuff that he churned out about himself and chucked around, and rightly so. By the early 1990s, people were beginning to say: no, this fun-at-all-costs attitude from the Eighties and negative, questionable depictions of women, that isn’t cool any longer. The context had changed, the decade had changed, and the fun was over.

Knapstein: And now he’s celebrated in one exhibition after another.

Bisky: Now he is dead, now perhaps he is being elevated more than is appropriate. But what would be appropriate? These are dynamic processes. It’s the same with Nolde. You can certainly grant him that he changed in the course of his life. Only, Nolde really wasn’t very particular about the truth – and that has backfired on him, it has backfired on the pictures. And I think that it also changes the pictures.

Mr. Bisky, do you think of your own myth when you are painting?

Bisky: No, I hope I still have a lot of time left and can still change my mind and my way of painting every ten years. The artists who are working now try to learn from the experiences of previous generations and I think it is an important lesson to keep your distance as an artist: distance to the day-to-day business of politics and distance to power. The problem is that perhaps because they have such a precarious existence, artists yearn to be close to power and powerful people.

Knapstein: But isn’t it nice to be recognized by a broad section of the public than by a small circle? As an artist you want to communicate, you want to be noticed. And then it’s a second step if an artist wants to be loved by powerful people in politics or the media. These are different types of power.

Mr. Bisky, was your connection with Guido Westerwelle good, or not so beneficial to your career?

Bisky: It was very bad – terrible, totally harmful. Of course. Westerwelle bought two pictures before my first solo exhibition, at the first art fair that even had pictures by me. And then he used these pictures as a way of telling the media that he was actually gay. He bought a particular kind of picture, in which a queer, camp aesthetic was evident. Unfortunately, it took me a few years to get people to realize that I am not the FDP court painter. Because a politician naturally has quite different options for presenting himself to the public than I did then.

But it was also a learning process. In the beginning, when Westerwelle bought the pictures, I was naturally happy and felt flattered. In retrospect, it greatly damaged me, because a large part of the public, who had problems with this man, then transferred them to me.

That’s twenty years ago now. But I have learned a lot from what happened. Back then, when I was asked to hang one of my pictures in the FDP offices, I put on a wig. The occasion felt totally strange to me. So now there are press pictures of me with long, blond hair alongside Mr. Westerwelle.

Emil Nolde didn’t wear wigs.

Soika: Nolde notes that he would have liked to produce commissioned works on historical subjects for “halls and walls” in public spaces. He wrote this in September 1940, a few weeks before his letter to Hitler, in which he yet again tried to explain himself and his art. In retrospect, it was a stroke of luck for Nolde that he was not given the opportunity to become a monumental painter for the Third Reich.

Bisky: So does that change the pictures now? It’s a really interesting question.

Soika: I think everyone has to decide that for themselves. You can lay out the material, make the knowledge accessible, and use primary sources from the archive to counteract previous misrepresentations. But there is no definitive answer as to how the artistic work should be located amidst the complex web of relationships between artist, society and viewer. Art history and aesthetic philosophy only provide us with a toolbox of methods and interpretative techniques.

So has this changed your view of Nolde’s pictures, Ms. Soika?

Soika: Since I am not susceptible to the hero worship of artists, I can easily cope with the fact that someone like Nolde assigned a very different significance to his pictures than others did; that only makes them more complex. Of course, I too was shocked by the way in which Emil Nolde and his wife Ada made some statements as a matter of course, which is crucial to understanding the identity of the painter. In the meantime I have met many people who would no longer hang a Nolde – if they had one – on the wall at home. I don’t feel that way. But that brings us back to the very personal question of how we define our relationship to the work and what role the artist as a person plays in that.

How should we deal with the works of “tainted” artists now?

Soika: In any case, you can’t banish art and put it into storage just to present a morally smoothed narrative of the modern age.

Knapstein: But you do have to differentiate. A room in a museum is a different place than the reception room of a government representative.

Bisky: There was the Holocaust, there were millions of dead, there were extermination camps. So if someone expresses antisemitic sentiments as strongly as Nolde did, you can say: no, these works are not appropriate for the government premises of a country that is trying to reassess its own history and atone for the crimes of its ancestors. Works by Frank Auerbach would be a good alternative. He is a British painter, born in Germany to Jewish parents, who was sent to England as a child. He was told: “Your parents are coming later.” No – his parents were murdered. He then grew up in the United Kingdom without his parents and became an acclaimed artist, with a career lasting many decades. His manner of painting is very expressive, including his use of color. Auerbach didn’t make such a big thing of his personal background; he got on with painting and he only told his story at a ripe old age.

Knapstein: I would always hope that a museum can cope with a lot of complexity, while opening up many different perspectives.

Is the Nationalgalerie planning similar exhibitions centered on artists’ biographies?

Knapstein: At the moment there are no specific plans, but we are talking intensively about the question of how, from today’s point of view, the presentation of an artist’s biography could be integrated in a museum that is meant to give an overview of the art of the twentieth century. By saying, in such a museum we will make various possible approaches clear to the visitors and we will have a room that presents an artist’s biography as an example of its kind.

In another room, you show how a group of artists formed, in a third room you show major paintings as such, and in another room you explain the importance of artists’ manifestos in the history of twentieth-century art. I find it increasingly interesting to offer visitors this polyperspectivity, which we develop for ourselves as curators. That doesn’t mean that there are no places in this museum where you can concentrate entirely on the works. It’s just about presenting different museological approaches.

Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin

The Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin presides over a comprehensive collection of contemporary art. It is the largest among the buildings housing the Nationalgalerie’s extensive holdings, the remainder of which are divided into the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Museum Berggruen, and the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg.

The museum’s name refers to the building’s original function as one of the first terminal stations of the rail system in Germany. Opened in 1846, it had to stop services in 1884. Years later, after lengthy reconstruction and expansion, the Hamburger Bahnhof reopened in 1996 as a museum of contemporary art.

Website of the Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart - Berlin


Soika: That is also the exciting thing about our topic “work and author.” In principle, this is one of the central areas of discourse in art history or aesthetics. And it has so many approaches that you can’t represent as a single curator. That’s why it is particularly useful to try polyperspectivity, for example by means of temporary exhibitions, guest curators, and collaborative work.

In 2017, the estate of Leni Riefenstahl was donated to the SPK – another figure that we think we know everything about... the works, the biography. What would you expect from an exhibition that is being prepared now?

Soika: It is greatly to be hoped that the estate of someone who, in my opinion, was one of the most interesting people within the official Nazi cultural sphere can be properly studied and assessed. After 1945, Riefenstahl refused to assume any kind of personal responsibility; for the rest of her life, she showed no willingness to reflect on her role. I am therefore curious to see whether this estate contains documents that offer insights into her strategies for distancing herself.

Bisky: I think Riefenstahl is a blatant case. I don’t believe she invented anything. She was incredibly effective at stealing or borrowing – however you want to put it. But in this case, a moral debate is very important because our historical distance from her is not great enough. No way is this about art alone. Society expects artists to create meaning and to reveal the relationships between things. It was the case that many people took an active part in that totally criminal regime and then kept on working in normal situations as though nothing had happened. Many Nazis continued in their jobs and professions, in both parts of Germany. This debate has not been brought to a close.

Artists such as Riefenstahl or Nolde were also part of it, even if they didn’t kill anyone. I cannot imagine taking a neutral view of their oeuvres. Maybe that will be possible in four hundred years, but right now? How would that work?

Ms. Soika, what have you learned through your work, through this kind of investigation of an artist’s life and of what he left behind, the things that you had to evaluate?

Soika: The more you go into detail, the more complicated it often gets. And then to step back and try to communicate the many aspects of our research in an exhibition: that was a challenge. Even after the opening, it was still an exciting process, not least because art historical research doesn’t normally receive nearly as much attention as it did this time. This dynamic of public attention was what made the Nolde project so special.

What role did the estate play in this?

Soika: The Nolde estate was immensely important. Bernhard Fulda went through 25,000 documents in Seebüll. It is a unique artist’s archive, without which insights on this scale would not have been possible.

Bisky: Only we have a different situation now. Now we have Nazis in parliament, there is antisemitism on the streets, there are attacks on synagogues. That’s the difficult thing: that the mood of society is changing so quickly and with it the context of any reception. Doing a Riefenstahl exhibition now is quite a different proposition than it was, say, twenty years ago.

Knapstein: For museums, as a rule, the more importance you give to the contexts that you want to convey to the public, the more problems you make for yourself. Ultimately, you have to integrate the archive areas into an art museum.

But what if that is exactly what people want to see?

Knapstein: I think it can be of interest to the public as an additional option, like: How does writing about something make it significant? What is an image policy in art magazines? What is a curators’ policy? What consequences does this have for artists’ biographies? What do the relationships between works look like? These are all interesting analyses – why should they only be of interest to scholars? These relationships are also interesting and understandable for a broad public, but they need not prevent you from concentrating entirely on the pictures themselves.

Soika: It was my experience, too, that we can trust our visitors to cope with quite a lot. Beforehand, fears were expressed that the wall texts were too long, there were too many display cases in the rooms, and the content was too demanding. In the event, people did read them and we received a lot of positive feedback, especially about the wall texts. I believe that you should certainly also offer demanding exhibitions to the public.

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