It’s almost dusk, and I’m driving down Bismarckstrasse, towards the Schloss Charlottenburg, on an avenue lined with lamps designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, an organizational genius, and, according to the psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich, homoerotically attracted to him. The lamps have a soft cocktail lounge glow, the kind of softness conducive to erotic fantasies. Also, ironically, considering how "degenerate" the Nazis thought modern art to be, they’re eloquently modernist -- spartan geometry with a bit of ornamental edging, giving them a defiant yet ingratiating simplicity, calm composure with a touch of tension.
The Nazis had a way of appropriating what they hated for their own purposes, an ingenious act of assimilation that is the best method of dominance. Witness Speer’s Olympic stadium (still very much in use) and the Tempelhof airport (some liberal Berlin officials suggest that it become a legal whorehouse when it is closed, which will happen when the new airport on the city’s outskirts is completed). Both are elegant examples of spartan modernist discipline and restraint. Perhaps above all the best example of the Nazis’ creative ingenuity -- and insidiousness -- is their appropriation of German Expressionism, however tidied up and militarized ("classicized?"), in the Sturm und Drang of their propaganda posters.
Thus dialectic and idealism triumphed even in seemingly one-dimensional authoritarian Nazi society. But the Prussian kings, who used the Schloss Charlottenburg as a summer residence, the Iron Chancellor Bismarck, and Albert Speer, Hitler’s agent, all had the same delusions of grandeur -- not to say arrogant imperial ambition -- that eventually led Germany to castrate itself (no more East Prussia, Danzig, Alsace-Lorraine, Austria, etc.), reducing it to the small, rather self-contained country it is today, suggesting the psychotic self-deception built into power-hunger.
I’m sort of elated and excited because I’m going to see the Scharf-Gerstenberg collection of Surrealist art, housed in a museum of its own opposite the Berggruen Museum, both across from Schloss Charlottenburg. The Berggruen Museum contains the collection of Heinz Berggruen, a Jew who fled Berlin in 1936, and became an art dealer in Paris, where he got to know "Picasso and His Circle" -- thus the theme of the museum, which has a number of Berggruen’s favorite Picassos. Together with the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection, built by the insurance magnate Otto Gerstenberg early in the 20th century, it offers a grand overview of so-called classical modern art. I was fortunate to be met by Julietta Scharf, the daughter of Dieter Scharf, who together with his wife Hilde, built the Surrealist collection. It is named in honor of Otto Gerstenberg, the founder of Victoria Insurance, who built a famous collection of Impressionists and traditional and modern graphic art. It is enormous, ranging from Goya and Piranesi through Meryon and Klinger to Ernst and Masson -- to mention only a few famous names -- and beyond to postwar Surrealism. The collection is more than a sampler; the Surrealists were collected in depth, giving one a chance to survey their ongoing development. The installations are intimate: small rooms, many with subdued lighting, and one huge gallery, carefully marked and divided by sculptures.
Scharf, who guided me through the museum, ironically noted the huge Egyptian monuments on the ground floor of the building -- they’re due to be moved to a new Egyptian museum, but she had no idea how they would get them out (they’re more authentically surreal than the modern, self-consciously surrealist works, which is why she suggested that they should be left in place) -- remarked that her grandfather collected quietly and carefully, out of love and insight. He was not interested in acquiring new possessions -- he already had more than he needed -- but out of Geistigkeit, that is, to redeem his consciousness from ordinariness, from the banality of the daily grind, to turn from disappointing exterior reality to creative interior reality, to use Kandinsky’s distinction, in other words, for emotional and spiritual reasons. For great collectors, such as Gerstenberg, collecting art is as creative as making art -- they do not simply identify with the artists they collect but create their own identity through their collection -- and modern art is resistance to the forces of dehumanization and despiritualization at large in modern society, however ironically it distills and embodies them. The Gerstenberg-Scharf Collection suggest that Surrealism is a kind of sacred art manqué, the unconscious being the perverse refuge of spiritual consciousness.
I had earlier visited another magnificent Surrealist collection in the home of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, both great lovers of Surrealism, particularly of Max Ernst, whom Ulla met, and who flirted with her, as he seems to have done with every attractive young woman he met. The Pietzsches’ home was as grand as a museum, and had many striking works, installed Salon style by Mr. Pietzsch. I was particularly struck by three extraordinary Exquisite Corpse drawings in a corner of their own, all too meticulously executed to be spontaneous. The different parts, made by major Parisian Surrealists, were seamlessly connected, and the paper was a luxurious black, as though of black velvet, but nonetheless exemplary pieces of voluptuous "associative" art, suggesting the community of minds and collaborative feelings responsible for the best Surrealist works. Ms. Pietzsch has her own collection of woman’s art, many new to me, virtually all dealing, with esthetic tact, with issues of female identity.
The Pietzsches’ story is the story of Berlin itself: just as Berlin rose from the dead -- for it in effect died during World War II -- so Mr. Pietzsch, an impoverished refugee from the DDR, rose to become an extremely wealthy man, his rise in tandem with and emblematic of the BDR’s postwar rise to economic glory. Surreally rising from the ruins, West Berlin was surreally isolated in the DDR until the re-integration of Germany and with it Berlin. Mr. Pietzsch crossed from East to West Berlin just before the wall separating them was built. When I crossed from West to East Berlin to visit the exhibition of Fre Ilgen at the Vonderbank Gallery on Unter den Linden -- once in East Berlin -- a line marking where the wall once stood was pointed out to me as I was crossing a street once divided by it. The line in the street was a mnemonic trace of the graffitied wall, part of which could be seen elsewhere in Berlin, a memento mori of a Berlin which had traces of its past everywhere -- ruins that were now cultural tourist attractions, which seems to be the modern fate of everything "different" and "novel" (not just avant-garde art, which lost its difference and novelty long ago and also seems like a trace of another era) and also heavily marked by what might be misread as a kind of anonymous Expressionism, namely graffiti.
I think there are two choice Surrealist collections in Berlin, in unconscious recognition that Berlin is a surreal city -- a self-contradictory place, in which signs of destruction and death incongruously rub shoulders with new buildings and pre-war leftover buildings, making for an over-all sense of absurdity. (Perhaps not so different from New York, which also has a wrecked, even more chaotic look, however pseudo-new it struggles to be.)
The Pietzsch collection was the reason I came to Berlin. They had asked me to write about three works in the collection -- Leonora Carrington’s Ladies Run, There Is a Man in the Rose Garden (1948); Rene Magritte’s Les Complices du Magicien (1926); and Andre Masson’s Massacre (1931) -- and discuss them at Checkpoint Ilgen 6. Fré and Jacqueline Ilgen run the best Salon in Berlin, probably in Germany, attracting art people from every corner of it. They have a huge prewar apartment, with wonderfully old-fashioned ornamental details, which they turn into a discussion space once a month. Tom Messer was the speaker at Checkpoint 5 (he spoke in German, as did I), and other critics and scholars, as well as artists have spoken, always to many people, all individually invited. The event was private, but the public was large. Some hundred were at my Checkpoint, and the discussion was lively, intense and serious, with none of the vituperative backlash I have often seen at New York discussions of art. The level was consistently high, although one artist had to indulge in the usual "advertisement for myself" -- a seemingly incorrigible narcissistic vice of many belligerently desperate-for-attention (and maybe fame and fortune) contemporary artists.
Ilgen tries to bring artists and art thinkers -- let’s call them that, rather than simply critics and scholars -- together, hoping to establish a community of serious interest not just a vanity showplace. They after all have art in common, however different their ideas may be. He believes that there is too little serious -- and nonpartisan -- discussion of the character and condition of contemporary and modern art. He is a highly educated intellectual as well as a major sculptor and installationist, vitalizing sterile buildings with the baroque intricacies of his works. His book ART? No Thing! offers a major philosophical-scientific take on art and its import. He and a brain expert are working on an experiment with brain response to art that a major museum in New York seems interested in pursuing.
Ilgen’s exhibition of painted sculpture / sculpted paintings, titled "Carouselambra," at the Vonderbank Gallery -- not far from the Reichstag, where the surrounding streets were heavily guarded in honor of Vladimir Putin’s visit (he apparently had a larger police escort than any previous dignitary, suggesting the German commercial rapproachment with Russia) -- had a delirious, joyous feel to it, all the more so because of the dashing / flashing bits of color that marked the stream-like sculpture, with its relentless swirling celebratory movement. Its complicated self-involvement -- self-entanglement -- is charged with what the Germans admire as "Schwung," that is, epic power lyrically animated.
The positive feeling conveyed by Ilgen’s dynamic works -- all abstract, yet viscerally alive, as he acknowledged, adding that abstraction without exuberant bodiliness is empty (some painterly "re-thinkings" of figurative sculptures in the Bode Museum, "experimentally" extracting the energy from the self-dramatizing drapery and dramatically posed bodies, made the point clear) -- was a welcome relief from the glumness and morbidity of Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial, officially called the National Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Eisenman’s work, apparently made with the assistance of Richard Serra (so I was told), stands by itself, in a deserted, barren terrain, not far down the street from Vonderbank’s gallery on Unter den Linden. (The Reichstag, and other government buildings, are more or less in between them.) They were not only emotional worlds apart, but also artistic worlds apart, for Ilgen’s painted sculpture is abstract expressionist while Eisenman’s monument is minimalist. Its starkness seems out of place in the new Berlin -- always a place with a comic sense of irony to relieve the tragedy of politics and tedium of daily life, as the sardonic wit of the Berlin cabarets of the Weimar Republic made clear -- although the Germans are as obsessed with their unhappy past as they are concerned about their future.
I thought Ilgen’s work conveyed the freshness of spirit I experienced in Berlin, while Eisenman’s work clung to the misery of the past, suggesting it was a weight that could not lifted -- his monument consists of 2,711 dark grey oblong blocks of rather heavy-looking impassive stone, densely packed together, although one could move between them as though in a labyrinth from which there was no exit (only many entrances), apparently inspired by the Jewish graveyard in Prague -- which is a defeatist pessimistic lie, just as Eisenman’s assertion that it is a "place of hope" is a gratuitous optimistic lie. There is a sense of taking pride in suffering in Eisenman’s work, rather than of working it through to understand its nature and causes. Eisenman’s work is an abstract version of a traditional figurative Triumph of Death -- the Germans produced many famous ones -- but Berlin is ripe for a Triumph of Life. Brooding on the dead weight of the past is out of place in a city that is no longer the chaotic cemetery it became at the end of World War II, but the capital of a new consciousness of life, and with that what Donald Winnicott calls a facilitating environment for growth.
Life outsmarts death -- innate vitality triumphs over social melancholy -- in Siegfried Loch’s ACT art collection, "Paint It Blue," one of the last major private collections I saw in Berlin. Loch, one of the great impresarios of the blues -- he is the head of ACT, the largest jazz record company in the world, and the heir of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf, two German Jewish immigrants who founded "Blue Note Records" in New York in 1939 -- is in love with the color blue. He has a scholarly knowledge of its heritage of meanings in music and literature. Every one of the works in his collection -- mostly paintings, a few representational -- strikes a note of blue, however different their styles. Judging by his extensive collection, virtually every major master seemed to have worked in blue, of whatever tone and texture. Sometimes the blue is handled with abstract passion, sometimes it seems to have fallen silent, but it is always inwardly alive and intense. Loch continues to collect the blue works of younger artists, suggesting the primary color’s hold on him. Blue is always royal for him, an inspiring grand obsession, suggesting that his life-long engagement with the musical blues is a labor of eternal love.
Berlin had been a major center of the blues until Hitler came along, and it is becoming one again. Even Otto Dix’s sarcastic association of "barbaric" jazz with upper class entertainment in his City Triptych (1928) suggests its power (the city is Berlin). One may recall Mondrian’s admiring essay on jazz, written in 1927, in response to Amsterdam’s threat of suppressing it as "sensual." He thought its deceptively simple rhythms conveyed the contradictory spirit of modern urban life; jazz is arguably the model for his abstractions, even before the jiving colors of Broadway Boogie and his New York paintings (early ‘40s). When I arrived in Berlin it was raining and overcast, but the weather cleared and I could see the blue of the sky, which lifted my spirits as only blue and Berlin can, all the more so because of its history of "the blues."
The Pietzsch Collection goes on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in summer 2009.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.