Micro Stories of an Eccentric Modernity

There they are hanging on overman-high lattice walls, and when the neon light comes on, you rub your eyes in amazement. ‘You here’, one might ask. You know each other, friendship by habit. So close, so dark and simple, but it wasn’t about her for a long time. All right, that’s just an idea. But what should you think when friends just disappear like that? For years one met on the Beletage, under high, bright ceilings, in front of white walls on noble wooden flooring. For years everyone courted for attention.

Every colour, every figure, every stroke, every curve or plane was part of an impenetrable murmur of stories of beauty, eccentricity, lust, corruption, creation, transfiguration, worship, enigma, revelation, knowledge, knowledge and complete ignorance.

Anyone who wants to take a look at ‘modernism’, as we have come to know and love it over the years, would have to – if only he could – switch on the light in the depots of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen right now. Paintings and sculptures, works by Braque, Matisse, Picasso, Feininger, Nolde, Chagall, Kandinsky, Macke, Beckmann, Miro, Magritte, Arp, Giacometti, Noland… All of them there, and so many more, are the saints of an epoch and the figureheads of a museum that, in its short history, has made it to the ‘secret National Gallery’.

A few years ago, the Kulturstiftung des Bundes initiated a project, a kind of commission for museums, to deal with their collection and the history of the collection, to question it and – if necessary – to re-evaluate it. The idea of ‘museum global’ was born, a project to which most of the works in the Kunstsammlung owe their current, unusual location, this silence and invisibility.

And what instead?

The project started under Marion Ackermann had great intentions. It was to be nothing less than the redefinition of a self-image in science and mediation, or as Susanne Gaensheimer, the current director of the Kunstsammlung, defines it questioningly in her foreword to the exhibition catalogue:

Where in the history of this very young museum, initially founded with a strategic objective and built from a singular perspective, are there moments of international orientation and connection? And which works, due to their content or field of influence, can be placed in a meaningful relation to works in other parts of the world in order to crystallize commonalities and differences and thus gain a more differentiated view of one’s own?

You could also get angry, run straight back to the entrance, demand your money back, write an evil comment in the guestbook, and with a waving scarf in your hurry, shout ‘Never again’. Such a museum should also be a reliable partner, inviting, polite. And then one travels from far away, full of anticipation and longing for unmistakable art consumption, and finds….

Until late in the evening the red curtain shines seductively on the grave place, and a rather exaggerated, curved, white arrow points the way. What one may not believe, because this black tiled wall otherwise seems so repellent, is staged here with all the means of art – for art: The ‘open space’, the other way, the new approach, the invitation, the opening, the seduction.

The ‘Open Space’, designed by raumlaborberlin, is the resonating space that is needed for the exhibition and for the questions that need to be asked beforehand, and perhaps best answered here, in conversation, in the group, shaping, listening, talking, answering.

What else seduces us to go to a museum? What are the expectations? How do we enter these spaces? How free are we? What do we want to see? What is this ‘modernity’ actually? And why does everything always have to change?

One comes to a few questions, for sure. And with every question you approach not only the ideal that you have defined yourself for the content and form of a museum, an exhibition. One approaches the history of this house, Paul Klee and the ‘microstories of an eccentric modernity’.

The mind is free – in the best case – for the prologue

In ‘Paul Klee – A Collection on Trips’, the house recapitulates its founding history as a history of a gesture of reconciliation with an artist and the world. Between 1966 and 1985, the collection of 88 works by Klee, which was acquired as the basis for the collection, traveled across four continents in 38 exhibitions as ambassadors of a new Germany, a society oriented towards dialogue and reparation. The message to the world was clear: we have passed ourselves by modernism, not only by selling the look back into art history, marked by conservative role models and pleasing motifs, as a look into the future. Above all, however, by betraying people whose ‘modernity’ was uncomfortable and whose opinions and expression were contrary to us. We have tortured, banished, destroyed them and their work. We apologize.

Clover in Jerusalem, in Prague, in São Paulo, Tokyo, Cairo. Klee (almost) all over the world. Werner Schmalenbach, founding director of the Kunstsammlung, is not only interested in reparation and diplomacy. For the station in Prague, for example, he hopes it can strengthen ‘the liberal forces’ on the ground. Art is also politics in the Federal Republic. Politics for the world, art for politics, Klee as a protagonist, show what one has.

In 1985 the journey ends. Klee’s works find their new home at Grabbeplatz. The world has seen them, but they have brought nothing from the world. The collection for the house, which Schmalenbach, above all, acquired congenially for Düsseldorf, but also in an authoritarian manner, is as outstanding in its selection as it is limited with regard to the artistic realities of a world that does not consist only of Europe and North America, not only of white men. She is a child of her time, with new exhibition formats such as Documenta, from which numerous works are acquired, and an expression of a pronounced collection policy in the 1960s, with her focus on ‘Western Modernism’. In the epilogue of the ‘museum global’ one becomes aware of this at a glance.

In between, however, nothing is as it was

Whoever starts to critically examine collection motivations, collection history and the founding myths of a collection should not be surprised if the view of this collection changes fundamentally.

This applies not only to those who begin to work on the collection from within, but also to the visitors, whose view from the outside over the years may have been driven by habit and expectation.

And – to enlarge the space of perception we have to deal with for the moment: Of course, the change also applies to the art market. The motivation to grant certain female artists or – above all – artists access to the ‘lucrative’ exhibition space and program of a museum – by the way: how lucrative it actually is is is more than questionable. Museums may take the arrogant opportunity to see a presentation as an unpaid investment in future success, however that may be measured – it’s often still part of a chain of dependencies.

In an interview with the curators of the exhibition, the art historian Christian Kravagna, when he says that this is an important area of a debate that needs to be conducted, raises the issue: Their question as to how in the transition from systematic exclusivity to the latest inclusion of non-Western artists.