What Would a ‘Clean’ Art Collection Look Like?

German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the answer?

BY Kristian Vistrup Madsen in Opinion | 29 MAY 18

For better or worse, the Germans are known as a tidy people. Now the time has come to clean up the country’s art collections. But is it possible for a collection be clean, and if so, what would one look like? With the Global Museums Programme, the German Federal Cultural Foundation has granted funds so that four national collections can diversify their canons and open up curatorial narratives towards a globalized and postcolonial world. Now the fruits of this labour are on view at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, where the reserves of the National Gallery and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – which include the ethnographic collections – have come together in the museum-wide exhibition ‘Hello World – Revising a Collection.’

‘Hello World’, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: National Gallery and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; photograph: Thomas Bruns

The German context brings a special focus on the provenance of artworks. Many collections emerged from the ashes of World War II, at a time when artefacts which had lost their rightful owners to the Nazi purge were up for grabs on the secondary market. With funding from the German Lost Art Foundation, in recent years it has become normal practice for even small institutions to employ an in-house provenance researcher. Far from the capital, one such institution is the Bodensee Museum Collection housed in the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen which is tucked away on the idyllic Lake Constance (Bodensee in German) near the Swiss and Austrian borders. All the museum’s original art holdings were lost in WWII bombings, and their current show ‘The Obligation of Ownership – An Art Collection Under Scrutiny’, investigates the stock of artworks all acquired in the frantic post-war gold-rush.

Osman Hamdi Bey, Turkish Street Scene, 1888. Courtesy: National Gallery and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Both exhibitions work on the assumption that these collections are in some way ‘wrong’ and must be rectified. In Friedrichshafen, the title is lifted from a passage in the German constitution which says that legal property comes with certain (moral) responsibilities, while the tag-line in the original ‘Eine Kunstsammlung auf dem Prüfstand’ suggests a legal connotation, putting the artworks on trial: guilty, or not guilty. At the press conference for ‘Hello World’ the slightly naive levity of its title relative to the violence of the history it purports to confront, caused a stir. Only 15% of the work is by women, one journalist pointed out. Another asked whether the exhibition is trying to retrospectively legitimize a collection that is inherently problematic, reflecting – as any such collection grown since the 19th century inevitably would be – Euro- and phallocentric nationalism and colonialism. ‘We can’t change history. This is the collection we have,’ came the pretty self-evident reply, as if to say: ‘what do you expect us to do – give it away?’

The endpoint of provenance research is exactly that: to return works to their rightful owners. But seeing justice served, while an artwork disappears from public view, to Fanny Stoye, who has been researching the Bodensee collection for the two years prior to the exhibition, is a pyrrhic victory: ‘It always troubles me not knowing what happens to an artwork once it is restituted’. Still, Stoye is guided by an unflinching obligation to full transparency, which, per the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, is widely deemed necessary. In ‘The Obligation of Ownership’, each work is marked with a green, yellow, or orange sticker, implying clean, incomplete, or suspicious provenance, respectively (no works were labelled red, i.e. proven illegally acquired and having to be restituted). In addition, the verso of the paintings are either exposed or represented photographically next to them, inviting visitors to examine their various stamps and labels for themselves. Through her work, Stoye was able to prove that a 1923 Otto Dix aquarelle titled Die Negerin (The Negress), had not, as first suspected, gone through a Nazi-affiliated dealer, but been in the artist’s possession until the end of the war, thus allowing it to remain in the museum’s collection.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Portrait of a Lady, 1827. Courtesy: Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

That this painting – which, incidentally, is frightfully racist – has been blessed with the ‘clean’, green dot illustrates that when it comes to the ethics of an art work, there is a big difference between context and content. In the case of the latter, there is no easy sticker-system. ‘We want to show as much work, and supply as much information about it as we can,’ Stoye told me. And the triumph of this exhibition really is that it offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at how and by whom a collection is built. As for the question of the retrospective legitimizing of these collections, the opposite is the case: the two works marked with orange stickers – the impressive Bouquet (1923) by Otto Dix originally owned by a Jewish collector in Berlin, and The Adoration (1520), a religious painting by an unknown master, which at one point belonged to the prominent Nazi politician Hermann Göring –  are the centre of the display. As such, the raison d’etre of the show is not to loudly broadcast its now-confirmed innocence, but rather to dwell on the continuously unresolved ethical complexity of the issue.

Mladen Stilinović, An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist, 1992. Courtesy: estate of the artist; Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin

‘Hello World’ is similarly motivated. The introduction to one of its 13 ‘chapters’, the continued display of the German entrepreneur Erich Marx’s foundational donation of works by Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol, seems to contain a disclaimer for the exhibition as a whole, recalling art historian Aby Warburg’s postulate: ‘art must be exempt from the demands of social norms.’ Instead it invites viewers ‘to pursue a multitude of references … rather than hasten to fixed conclusions.’ The necessary confines of working with the collection-as-it-is means working not just with what is shown, but how it is shown. In its best moments (the by-now tired Marx collection is not one of them) ‘Hello World’ welds generative connections between disparate places and moments with the works themselves as lead protagonists. Reading the arrival of European surrealism in Mexico in the 1940s, for instance, together with the concurrent vogue in the country for Arte Popular, before seamlessly shaping kinship between the formalism of Josef Albers and the ‘emotional architecture’ of Mathias Goeritz (who also worked in Mexico around the mid-century), is both resonant and elegant. In many of the displays, the contribution of artefacts from the Staatliche Museen invigorates viewer and art works alike, making this round of cleaning not a frugal purge but a lavish makeover.

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1987. Courtesy: National Gallery and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Keith Haring Foundation

As ever, the challenge is to balance a simultaneous commitment to multiplicity and specificity; not just to check Latin America off the list, but acknowledge this is a snapshot of Mexico, 1940–60 – for now. ‘Hello World’ falters when an educational detour into a generalizing history of orientalism distracts from a promise to probe the theme of paradise in art from Indonesia specifically. Or when there are simply too many works, such as in the chapter on Indian modernism (many of which, shockingly, had been quarantined in the Ethnography Museum rather than displayed in the National Gallery). Or when a section on ‘alternative types of artistic production in socialist Eastern Europe between 1950 and 1980 is so loud and sprawling it made my blood sugar plummet and my eyes well with tears of exhaustion.

This sensation – familiar, perhaps, to visitors to last year’s documenta 14 – is unfortunately often the result of attempts to globalize, or otherwise revise, art history wholesale. What starts out as Fanny Stoye’s pledge to full transparency, and showing ‘as much as we can’, soon ramps up to the production-value of the mega-exhibition, which, in a compensatory moral frenzy, tries to include everything at once, and defies even the most earnest curatorial efforts (such as those of the team behind ‘Hello World’) to avoid making a discourse-dependent display. When cleaning one’s home, it is important to not sweep past (and present) injustice under the rug. However, once we’ve agreed on that, our options are not between parading the dirt or getting rid of it. Rather, the bravest curator today is perhaps not the most thorough cleaner, but the one who understands how best to organize the mess. 

Main image: Inspection of Nazi-looted artworks, 1950, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Courtesy: Collection Spaarnestad; Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Kristian Vistrup Madsen is an arts and culture writer based in Berlin, Germany.