Referring to his time at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, Gerhard Richter once said that he’d received a ‘very well-rounded education’. At the time, an atmosphere prevailed in Dresden in which classical painting was held in high esteem: ‘a certain basic trust in art might well come from this time’, Richter goes on. Indeed, the stately Dresden art academy continues to sit enthroned on Brühlsche Terrasse like an imposing castle on the banks of the river Elbe. Built at the end of the 19th century according to blueprints drawn up by the Leipzig architect Constantin Lipsius, the academy, which celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2013, is one of the oldest in Europe.
After the year-long celebrations marking this anniversary, accompanied by various exhibition projects, in October last year Mark Dion staged a large-scale exhibition called Die Akademie der Dinge (The Academy of Things) in the academy’s exhibition rooms, the ‘Oktogon’. Preparing for the show, Dion combed through the academy’s archives and storage for documents and objects – artistic studies and final-year projects, death masks, carnival posters, glass slides from an educational curriculum, old X-rays from an on-site laboratory – and rearranged these to pre-sent an ‘archaeology of education’, as he put it. The question that crops up here is: how much driftwood washes ashore when an institution looks back over a 250-year history?
The show, curated by Petra Lange-Berndt and Dietmar Rübel, exuded a kind of historical severity. Often enough, the exhibition, which was augmented by two small satellite shows in the neighbouring Albertinum and the Grünes Gewölbe of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, presented education as a form of physical abuse. In connection with the leitmotif of the broken (damaged plaster models, decayed slides, incomplete skeletons, broken bones), a history of violence ran throughout the show like a suture.
Gruesome photographic documentation from 1905 – a dissection of a lion by animal anatomist Hermann Dittrich – was presented around a centrally installed, five-metre-high, pyramid-shaped shelf structure containing anatomical figures of animals and humans taken from the academy’s anatomy collection, which comprises approximately 500 objects. The lion’s body was fixed in place with screws and hooks; the removal of fur shown in several stages. After this introduction, one suddenly saw the animal’s bones through completely different eyes; they were neatly arranged according to size and presented on a long board in one of the adjacent exhibition spaces.
Elsewhere, the focus turned to Gottfried Bammes, a professor of art anatomy who taught in Dresden between 1960 and 1985 and who became known well beyond the borders of the former German Democratic Republic for his standard reference works such as Die Gestalt des Menschen (The Artist’s Guide to Human Anatomy, 1964). During his research, Dion happened upon Bammes’s crude instruction panels from the 1960s, which speak not only of brotherhood among Socialist nations, but also of ‘racial characteristics’. Apparently, the anatomist’s teachings were punctuated by biologistical stereotypes. In other instances, too, the academy fell prey to ideology – this could be seen in some of the 400 black and white slides that Dion arranged on a light table several metres long: between Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1486), Albrecht Dürer’s Feldhase (Hare, 1502), and Fritz Cremer’s Buchenwald Memorial (1958), are portraits of Walter Ulbricht, Mao Zedong, and Nikita Khrushchev. These slides were used by the Institute for Marxism and Leninism. From the early 1950s onwards, ML Institutes were installed in every East German college and university and remained in place until the demise of the GDR in 1989/90.
In the main exhibition at the Oktogon, Dion succeeded in conjuring up the ghosts that normally haunt archives and depots. One of the bones that Dion retrieved from storage actually looked as though dark tissue fibres were still clinging to it. The inclusion of the two satellite locations Albertinum and Grünes Gewölbe seemed puzzling though. While the Albertinum offered a survey of images of wild animals, the section in the Grünes Gewölbe turned out to be the weakest link in the three-part exhibition. The manner in which Dion smuggled fake artifacts into time-honoured museums displays – he inserted five new objects (including a rhinoceros horn and a magpie figurine) into the Renaissance treasure chamber of the Grünes Gewölbe – added nothing of substance to the precise archival work presented in the academy.
Translated by Andrea Scrima