Director Markus Brüderlin’s expansive, ambitious show is the latest in a series of thematic, cross-disciplinary exhibitions at Kunstmusem Wolfsburg that aims to track the pursuit of modernism from the last century into this one. ‘Interior/Exterior: Living in Art’ attempts to trace the development of interiors in relation to art and the fluid exchange that began with modern ideas about interior design and art practice, and continues to occur between the two disciplines today.
The exhibition catalogue begins with a wonderfully tautological introduction, ‘Living is one of the great topics of modern life’, providing an apt entry into what proves to be an impossibly sprawling subject. In a move typical of Brüderlin’s erudite, essayistic curating style, the exhibition shuffles together forms of ‘living’ as exemplified in pieces of furniture, room reconstructions, architectural models, futuristic living modules, architectural photography, art works historical and recent, and documentary videos and commissioned works by living artists. The result is a dizzying dash in 12 ‘chapters’ across generations, continents and disciplines, dipping into various aspects of the theme. The aesthetics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, function, politics and architecture of the interior are all briefly touched upon as we fly through.
The exhibition begins with the dichotomous idea of the domestic interior versus the great outdoors, as represented by two 19th-century paintings: a romantic landscape by Caspar David Friedrich (Bohemian Landscape with Mount Milleschauer, 1808) and a Biedermeier interior scene by George Friedrich Kersting (At the Embroidery Frame, 1827). This two-sided theme threads throughout the exhibition – ‘cocooning’ as opposed to the dissolution of boundaries – where landscape or exterior can also represent a metaphorical, spiritual interior. From the get-go, the dichotomy is not a simple one. By the second chapter, the interior becomes a manifestation of the state of the soul – an unconscious interior loaded by Sigmund Freud with fecund resonances of the homely and the unhomely or uncanny. This is interesting material, beautifully summed up by a small ink drawing by Wilhelm Tischbein (The Long Shadow, 1805) of a troubled man’s shadow that bends around the three walls of his small dark room. But attempts to reach across the generations by including works by Robert Longo (large charcoals of Freud’s furniture from 2000) and Sarah Jones (photographs of teenage girls looking anxious in middle-class living rooms from 1997) seem forced and illustrative, rather than enriching.
The most successful points of the exhibition occur when the subject is pinned down precisely in time and place, and where it is really concerned with private living spaces. The fourth chapter, for instance, covers the period from 1900 to 1930 and uses works of Art Nouveau and De Stijl to show, as Brüderlin puts it, how ‘the picture wants to become space and the interior wants to become a picture’. A life-size photographic wallpaper of an Art Nouveau interior by Henry van der Velde, a suite of furniture by Joseph Hoffmann, and paintings by Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and Édouard Vuillard together illuminate the theoretical crossover of an all-over interior design, where built-in furniture became part of the wall in a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, and a corresponding movement in fine art, where the interior was flattened out in the painted picture plane. A four-panelled painting by Niele Toroni (Untitled, Imprints of a no. 50 paintbrush repeated at regular intervals of 30 cm, black, red and green tableau, 1993), which approximates a kind of wallpaper, is one of the rare occasions where the inclusion of a contemporary interloper proves to be illuminating rather than a jarring or one-dimensional footnote. The reconstruction of Mondrian’s residential studio in this section is also meticulous and fascinating. A modest, almost monastic, room in white and shades of grey, full of angular furniture with walls tessellated into blocks of colour, it demonstrates a radically lived-out aesthetic of reduction, where a change in thinking is paralleled by a change in living. But can an artist’s studio interior be taken as symptomatic of the time?
Moving along, we take in Bauhaus (its architectural functionality wonderfully illustrated in a short film of Walter Gropius’ wife at home), the sexualized interior of the 1960s, the theatricality of living on view behind glass walls, the museum as interior, and ‘retro-futuristic’ capsule living. A profusion of about-turns in taste and design philosophy are shoehorned in, and the relatively straightforward chronology of the exhibition’s narrative is skewered by the smattering of contemporary works that seem to detract from each theme. Any one chapter could have been expanded into a rich exhibition. As it is, areas of real interest, such as Donald Judd’s critical experiments with sculpture and furniture, are skipped over; his rigorous thinking is fudged by setting his sculptures alongside works by Imi Knoebel or Richard Artschwager and interiors of artists’ studios painted by Matthias Weischer.
The problem is that ‘interior’ as a subject does not stay in one place long enough to be effectively unpacked in exhibition form. A great theme, it is more coherent in the catalogue, with its generous resources of space, plural voices and many reference images. As an exhibition, it must either be more tightly argued or given 12 times as much space to do its subject justice.