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Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk on the Neue Nationalgalerie plaza (with the municipal library across the way).

The back entrance of the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin

The ticket kiosk for "Das MoMA in Berlin"

MoMA-nizers Felix and Lena, in front of a photomural of New York

Bruce Nauman's White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death, 1984

Matisse's The Dance in Berlin

Museum-goers with Brancusi's Mme Pogany (version 1), 1913

Cups reading "Hot MoMA" and "MoMAlicious" in the Neue Nationalgalerie gift shop

Kunst Werke founder and MoMA-affiliate P.S.1 curator Klaus Biesenbach (left) and MoMA director Glenn Lowry at an architectural conference held at Kunst Werke
Berlin, Starstruck
by Kimberly Bradley

"Das MoMA in Berlin: Meisterwerke aus dem Museum of Modern Art, New York," Feb. 20-Sept. 19, 2004, at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Potsdamer Strasse 50, Berlin

A cryptic ad campaign in screaming hot pink and gold has blanketed the German capital city for the past few weeks. Posters and animated billboards bearing simple, unadorned messages like "Das MoMA ist der Star" (The MoMA is the star!) have infiltrated the consciousness of every man, woman and child in Berlin, whether or not they had any idea what the abbreviation means.

For them, the answer only just became clear: "Das MoMA in Berlin: Meisterwerke aus dem Museum of Modern Art, New York" (The MoMA in Berlin: Masterpieces from the Museum of Modern Art, New York") opened in the Neue Nationalgalerie -- Mies van der Rohe's sleek glass box near Potsdamer Platz -- to a whole lot of hype on Feb. 20, 2004. Approximately 200 exemplary sculptures and paintings from MoMA's massive collection are on view till the fall in what is their only European appearance before the museum unveils its new facility on 54th Street in Manhattan next winter.

According to MoMA chief curator John Elderfield, the show is a "synoptic overview of 20th-century art" -- a dignified way to refer to this "greatest hits" survey that every undergrad meets in art history class. Some masterpieces, notably Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, were too delicate or too valuable to make the transatlantic trip. Others, like van Gogh's Starry Night, Matisse's Dance (First Version) and Lichtenstein's Drowning Girl, are shown here for the first time outside the U.S.

Needless to say, the exhibition is in many ways breathtaking, but it has also been more than a little controversial among German critics and other observers, who worry about what it might mean for the state of curating at Berlin art institutions -- especially considering the fact that Berlin is flat broke.

A traveling show of this magnitude doesn't come cheap. The appearance in Berlin was initiated by Peter Raue, chairman of the patron association "Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie," who convinced MoMA director Glenn Lowry of the viability of the Berlin-New York match. The show is part of a larger, seven-month-long cultural festival called "American Season 2004" that carries an overall price tag of 8.5 million euros. And though Deutsche Bank and other sponsors are covering some of the costs, and the German government granted an indemnity to solve a near-impossible art-insurance situation, Berliners are still asking who could pay for this extravagance and how, and whether the whole thing is not some kind of marketing ploy.

The Verein, which is financially responsible for the exhibition, is convinced that the answer lies in ticket and catalogue sales to a projected 700,000-1,000,000 visitors, a greater number than attended Documenta 11 in Kassel in 2002. Standard adult admission is 10 euros on weekdays and 12 euros on weekends, with school groups getting in for 1 euro per head, and a special VIP ticket -- no waiting! -- can be had for 27 euros. The catalogue is 29 euros, and is sold in "a museum shop of the American type," with more than 600 items on sale. It would be interesting, at the end of the show, to see the balance sheet.

Peter-Klaus Schuster, director general of Berlin's state museums and the Nationalgalerie, sees the show as "an exhibition of the century and the cultural event of 2004" for Berlin. Maybe: European museum goers don't often get a long-term chance to see so many masterpieces in one place at one time.

Once visitors pass the outside ticketing area -- a hot-pink shipping container placed well in front of Mies' building -- they enter the Neue Nationalgalere's glass-box upper gallery and are greeted by Rodin's Monument to Balzac and a group of "MoMA-nizers" -- young art students and unemployed architects who are on hand to clarify art-historical questions and steer traffic. Here, sculptures like Bruce Nauman's White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death, Sol LeWitt's Serial Project (ABCD) and Richard Serra's One Ton Prop (House of Cards), appear a bit lost in the space's vastness.

The show seems to really begin in the lower exhibition spaces, the first of which groups Henri Rousseau's The Dream with Czanne, Munch, Gauguin, van Gogh, Braque and early Picasso and Matisse. Past this collection of Post-Impressionism and early Cubism is a space dominated by a 12-meter Monet Water Lilies and a room filled with later works by Matisse and Picasso. From here, viewers can go either left (to view American works) or right (to see European art) through a series of interlocking rooms covering the major facets of modernism in eight thematic sections. These compartments are mirrored by the German-language exhibition catalogue, whose chapter titles might be familiar to New York MoMA visitors: "Modern Beginnings" and "Open End" bracket sections and subsections like de Stijl, Futurism, Matisse-Picasso, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Postminimalism.

Highlights include two dozen sculptures by Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi. Boccioni, Giacometti, Robert Morris, Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois scattered through both wings. The American wing moves from three sleek Edward Hopper paintings to New York School works by Pollock and de Kooning, Pop Art, Agnes Martin and Frank Stella, finally ending with several Philip Guston paintings from the late '70s.

The European wing curves from Kandinsky to the Italian Futurists, Magritte and Dali's Surrealism and a room where Max Beckmann's tryptich Abfahrt faces Otto Dix's Dr. Mayer-Hermann. The section closes with Gerhard Richter's 18. Oktober 1977 cycle. Other heavy-hitters from both sides of the exhibition -- whose layout forces visitors to either backtrack or enter one wing backwards -- include Arp, Calder, Chagall, de Chirico, Duchamp, Ernst, Gorky, Johns, Klee, Leger, Lichtenstein, Mir, Mondrian, Rauschenberg, Rodtschenko, Rothko, Ruscha, Twombly and Warhol.


So MoMA has arrived in Berlin, but now it seems as if the ad people got it all wrong. According to its American organizers, the museum isn't the star at all. While Schuster gushed about the MoMA's stellar quality at the exhibition press conference, Lowry emphatically disagreed: "MoMA is not the star. Art is the star." And according to Lowry, the show is also about partnership -- a German-American partnership that involves the patronage of both U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a friendly partnership between Raue, Schuster and the MoMA people, and "a partnership between an extraordinary collection and a remarkable building."

MoMA's highlights and Mies' sole museum are a lovely historical match (MoMA founding director Albert H. Barr tried to get van der Rohe to design the museum's original building in New York), but it remains to be seen whether the minimum of 700,000 visitors necessary to recoup exhibition costs will pass through by mid-September -- the opening weekend saw the first 15,300 -- and what kind of deeper partnership they'll feel if and when they do.

Most visitors will come for a unique chance to view Elderfield's canon of the stars of Modernism. But a few will probably have to ask a MoMA-nizer just what the letters M-o-M-A really mean before heading off to the interim American-style museum store to buy an Oppenheim-inspired furry ring, a "momalicious" coffee cup or a pink plastic "momanized" handbag.

KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a translator and writer working in New York and Berlin.