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by Susanne Nusser
|It's the last weekend of "Die Nacht" (The Night), an exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich of nighttime scenes by painters ranging from El Greco to Paul Klee. Visitors pour in, a television reporter is also there. Amidst the activity is a man in a dark gray suit, very slim, carrying a transparent plastic bag filled with salad. He has just been shopping and obviously feels quite at home at the exhibition, chatting to a few visitors.
The man originally comes from Zurich, but he knows his way around this museum, where he has counted every square inch of it at night when he couldn't sleep. This is his exhibition, this is his house, this is Christoph Vitali, director of the Munich Haus der Kunst.
The Haus der Kunst is not an easy place. It was designed by the architect Paul Ludwig Troost as a neo-classical temple of National Socialist art, and was formally opened by Adolf Hitler in 1937. Today the public comes here en masse in order to admire exactly the modern art that was then ostracized. One can argue but the building has survived and stands as if it has a large stomach, which cannot be left empty, which must be filled with exhibitions over and over again.
That is Vitali's job. He oversees approximately 13 exhibitions per year, and has done so since 1994, when the Bavarian government invited him to come to Munich in the hope that he could revive this difficult museum.
He has done well. Surprisingly, Munich, that city of slow motions, has a place of art that is open until 10 p.m. each day in the week. The museum offers a season ticket as well as special events like ballets, dinners and laser shows. And people come. Last year, for instance, 148,300 visitors came to see "Gauguin and the School of Pont Aven."
The staging of exhibitions is an occupation for extroverts -- the antithesis, perhaps, of what is required from a museum director, who must preserve a permanent collection and safeguard the art, whether it speaks to the Zeitgeist or has been forgotten.
To be successful, an art show needs the spotlight. It must have a certain resonance with the public, and have a certain public resonance. In this respect it is closer to the theater than to the museum.
As it happens, Vitali has ties to the theater. After studying law and working for the city of Zurich, he relocated to Frankfurt in 1979 and became managing director of three municipal theaters. Only in 1985 did he begin to direct his energies to the fine arts, as director of the Frankfurt Schirnkunsthalle. Vitali is not an art historian, but he follows his enthusiasm for the arts. And he does so with a cunning understanding of cultural politics and pleasure in sensual, opulent presentation.
The Haus der Kunst operates with a team of 15 employees (plus free-lancers) and a yearly exhibition budget of DM 13 million. Slightly less than half comes from government subsidy, including DM 4 million from the Bavarian government. The other DM 7.3 million is earned income -- ticket sales, catalogue sales, etc. The hearts of politicians beat faster when they hear such figures, as culture in Germany is normally dependent on government subventions to a very high degree.
The overflowing diversity of pictures was grouped into 12 thematic sections in galleries that were hung in deep red for religious themes, deep blue for the profane world of the night. One could see the intimacy of Dutch candlelight, moonlit Romantic landscapes, dazzling Expressionist city nights. And the fantasies that the night breeds: the dream worlds of Johann Heinrich Fueslli and William Blake, the fantastic creatures of Goya's Caprichos and the Surrealistic hallucinations of Max Ernst, Paul Delvaux and René Magritte.
The 12 themes were inscribed on the walls -- sleep and dream visions, loneliness, the macabre, night of love/night of death. The installation above all addressed the emotions, and did so in a sensual way. Was the intention to lead the visitor through the spaces as if through a panorama of feelings? Is that a concept of the future, to create an emotional Erlebniswelt -- world of experiences -- in pictures for a mass public?
Vitali did not feel comfortable with this idea. "Naturally, we have created a very emotional exhibition," he said. "The night arouses feelings -- positive, soothing, disquieting, threatening. But we did not want to develop a large panorama of feelings; rather, we sought to present a general survey of this subject."
But the installation, a kind of labyrinth wandering through the centuries, gives little of an art historian's social or political context. Has art history outlived itself?
"A museum should impart a bit of classical education, but we do not want to show just historical styles in correlation with art. One cannot experience art only in an intellectual manner. Looking at pictures is something sensuous, a direct sensual experience. The most essential point is to interpret the reference to topicality. People need works of art. They remain important for the mastering of their life's problems."
Can you give an example to make this more concrete?
"In the exhibition there was a small picture from the Dutchman Gerrit Dou. A young girl stands at a half-open window, pulling the curtain back with one hand, so that one can see her more clearly while showing the space behind her -- metaphors for an opening. The girl is leaning far out of the window, in the other hand she is holding an unsteady flickering candle, a symbol for her uneasy mind or expectation. One can interpret the theme as an offer of love, for which no knowledge is needed but understanding. This is a subject of a picture that can be picked out directly."
But does that not amount to an oversimplification? Are exhibitions only to give the public exactly what it wants? Would it be so bad to make it clear that art can be difficult and sometimes one cannot explain it at all?
"But of course art is difficult. Art should be difficult. We do not want to force-feed information to people. We want to have a dialogue. "
At present there are two exhibitions at the Haus der Kunst. "Kunst über Grenzen" (Art across boundaries) is on view Mar. 7-May 30, 1999. The retrospective of the painter Angelica Kauffmann, originally organized at the Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf by Bettina Baumgärtel, runs in Munich from Feb. 7-Apr. 18, 1999.
The Barbier-Müller Collection
As a collector Müller took passionate interest in the development of abstraction. While he was still a student in Switzerland he spent his small income to purchase pictures by Ferdinand Hodler, in 1908 acquiring the mountainous landscape Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau in Mondschein ([three Swiss mountains] in the moonlight), which Hodler painted in a completely new style. A little later Müller turned to Paris and Cézanne, the early Cubist works of Braque and Picasso, and then from 1914 on to Kandinsky and Miró.
When this type of art began to establish itself and become too expensive, he started looking beyond Europe and discovered the art of other continents and ancient art. Between 1933 and 1940, he sought forms and structures in other cultures that were similar to modern ones. He brought the world to his home in the form of art objects, ranging from the Mediterranean up to the steppes of Russia, from Africa to the Orient, and finally squeezed it all into his Solothurner "Schanzmühle," the ancestral seat of the family.
After his death parts of the collection were taken and scattered in various museums. For this exhibition the original form of the collection was put as close to its original form as possible.
If there is anything that brings Vitali close to Josef Müller, it is his sense for the universal. And is there anything else which the two have in common? Vitali says it is the curiosity to discover new things over and over again for himself.
Angelika Kauffmann: A Retrospective
"Angelika Kauffmann is a fascinating subject," he said. "A woman in a society in which the woman did not play a part, but who succeeded in catching the attention of a whole cultural world. She was able to break away from the stratifications of behavior that prevailed in her day and was also, as an artist, able to understand and adjust to her role, even stylizing herself in it."
Angelika Kauffmann lived in the era of novels such as Pamela and Clarissa, those fantasies of beautiful, soulful women who died of grief in pure white robes. The real Angelika Kauffmann lived differently. Early on she was able to feed her entire family with the proceeds of her painting. She lived in England and Italy and maintained a salon that entertained the most famous painters and poets of her time. Only once did a man succeed in taking advantage of her. A fake baron contracted a fictitious marriage with her and then tried to cheat her out of her fortune. She learned from this and the next potential husband had to sign a marriage contract.
It is difficult to find traces of this life in her pictures. They portray women who intensify the passive reflection of the soul. Kauffmann's actors are contemplative muses and grief-stricken nymphs, mothers imploring on their knees and daughters acquiescing in their fate.
In her self-portraits, too, Kauffmann reflects the social conventions and virtues of the middle class, which her fans still admire in her. The German poet Johann Gottfried Herder has enumerated them -- the inimitable expression of gentleness and devotion, tranquil cheerfulness, peace of mind and modesty.
The success which Kauffmann had with this was immense. "The whole world is Angelika-mad," reported the Danish ambassador in London in 1781. Artisans took over her motifs of muses and nymphs for expensive porcelain, trays and tables, tapestries, jewelry and fans.
The strength and self-confidence that led Angelika Kauffmann to her international success does flare up in her work, however rarely. In Selbstbildnis am Scheideweg zwischen Musik und Malerei (Self-portrait at the crossroads between music and painting), a variation of the famous theme of Hercules between virtue and vice, Kauffmann puts herself in the place of Hercules in graceful gestures, not more and not less.
SUSANNE NUSSER is an art historian who lives and works in Munich.