August 24, 2021
WINDSWEPT AND SOAKING WET, I took a seat on a Barcelona chair. Around me wall text was still emerging from behind sheets of protective plastic, and a bright red crane extended to fix a light in the ceiling. I’d been circling the expansive terrace of Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie for a while, searching for a way into Mies van der Rohe’s immense glass box, which is finally reopening after a six-year overhaul led by David Chipperfield architects. Amid the rainstorm, the building’s inhuman proportions and impossibly clean lines seemed alienating and defiant. A huge, newly polished Henry Moore sculpture glistened in the rain. As I sat dripping onto the crisp leather, I thought about how Mies’s monolith makes you feel small and despondent in the same way as Karl Marx Allee, the Stalinist parade street in the East of the city. The structure was originally to house the Bacardi rum headquarters in Cuba, a destiny thwarted when the distiller’s assets were seized by the revolution. Mies’s plan was instead realized as a museum in the architect’s country of birth, a stone’s throw from the Berlin Wall. When the great glass house stood finished in 1968, there was nothing around it except Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie a hundred meters over. No Staatsbibliothek, no Kulturforum, no Potsdamer Platz. Though buildings have since amassed—on the last vacant plot, Herzog & de Meuron’s Museum der Moderne is under construction—it still looks and feels somehow desolate. An inadvertent homage to the bombed-out site’s erstwhile emptiness, I said to myself. How poetic.
The Neue Nationalgalerie reopens with special exhibitions by Alexander Calder and Rosa Barba, as well as a fresh hang of the collection from 1900–1945, but the real headliner is Mies. “Chipperfield set out with the aim of being invisible,” the national gallery’s director, Joachim Jäger, said after he picked me up from the chair. “It’s ninety-nine percent Mies.” Strangely, though, the building seems older to him now that every part has been exchanged for its exact equivalent, every surface repainted (by hand, no less!). “When we had Kraftwerk here in 2015, the place was falling apart”—condensation running down the massive, cracked windows—“but it didn’t seem like a historical building. Now you really have the feeling that you are in a building from the ’60s. It is pre-Pop art in the sense that it maintains a division between high and low culture, art and non-art, and also appeared before Brian O’Doherty’s writing about the white cube. It is really a product of its time.” This is key, Jäger explained, to the Neue Nationalgalerie being a major venue, not just for displaying modern art, but for asking what modernism was, is, and can be. In that pursuit, the museum itself has become a museum piece. I cannot help but see a pair of invisible scare quotes around Chipperfield’s seamless renovation: serious, stone-floored, steel-borne camp.
It must be said that a white Calder mobile in front of a dark green marble wall has the capacity to take your breath away. Todschick—a dorky German word meaning “chic as death”—was what came to mind, quickly followed by the thought that death does in fact have something to do with it. It reminded me of what Jeffrey Weiss wrote recently in this magazine: “At Frick Madison, there is a rightness to the placement of paintings on a wall that is directly attributable to the wrongness of the Breuer building as site.” Amid the unremitting rightness of Calder in the context of Mies, however, the past seems perfect but, ironically, immobile. The Calder works are expensive and fragile, we were told, and can only be activated once or twice a day. The danger here is that the historicization of modernism turns the museum into a stage-set for a period drama, or a wildly classy midcentury theme park with a killer souvenir shop. Certainly the merch would design itself.
Downstairs is a different story. In the collection display, what I am sure were exhaustive deliberations as to carpet or no carpet (carpet), the color of the walls and curtains (white), and the names on the placards (all caps) immediately recede in light of the works on view. The brutal clarity of the Neue Sachlichkeit portraits, Lotte Laserstein’s masterful Evening over Potsdam, 1930, an unusually spare Max Ernst, and a cuttingly sarcastic Hannah Höch: Once again, you gasp for breath under your mask. Jäger and Dieter Scholz, another of the exhibition’s curators, were quick to note the lack of women artists (works by Hilma af Klint, Tarsila do Amaral, and Irma Stern, on loan from other collections, provide a small plaster) and global perspectives, the problematic Emil Nolde’s unproblematic beach scene, Die Brücke’s debt to colonial plunder, and the Nazi affiliation of the institution’s first director, Werner Haftmann. (Pause as a dolly rolls by with another Barcelona couch.) These issues have come to public light through important exhibitions during the last years, such as Bauhaus Imaginista at HKW in 2019, the Nolde show at Hamburger Bahnhof that same year, and the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s current excavation of the political history of Documenta, the first iterations of which Haftmann played a big part in organizing. But the problems identified by the curators—and accounted for on gray free-standing walls that emblematically disturb the smooth flow of the galleries—bring little to bear on the art itself. In fact, the pieces that struck me as genuinely challenging were not so by way of the artists’ identities or personalities but their own fervid candor. Otto Dix’s incredible The Skat Players, 1920, portrays a group of card-playing, severely disfigured World War I veterans with a biting gallows humor scarcely thinkable today, and Theo Balden’s bronze bust Head of a Beaten Jew, 1943, is more than a little difficult to swallow. In such moments you feel far from the theme park, and close—perhaps closer than you would like—to the pained confusions and as yet unlearned lessons of the last century. By the time I got to Rosa Barba’s installation of video projections and lights on a black steel skeleton, like a deconstructed Mies pavilion, I was relieved by the relative evasiveness of contemporary art. “You mind if I take my mask off?” I pleaded. “I can’t breathe either,” Barba said.
The next evening we were drinking champagne and eating small garlicky slices of bretzel on the terrace in honor of the BMW Art Car. “Shall I start the engine?” asked Alexander Rower, the grandson of Alexander Calder and president of his foundation. “For the love of God, no,” I thought to myself, but everyone shouted “Yes!” And so the engine of the colorful race car Calder designed in the mid-’70s roared and roared. I downed my glass. “If you had still been in charge,” Rower joked to the museum’s former director Udo Kittelmann, “we would have been allowed to drive the car around the building.” If Kittelmann had had his way, I rather think there would have been no car at all: His dream was to make an exhibition that could be transported in a single suitcase, he told me, just as Calder had done when he first showed his works in Berlin in the late 1920s. “His work is not about size, but about movement and interaction.” But of course the modernist exhibition complex that developed with and around him was not one for modesty. Styling Calder as a surprising forerunner to Pop, Rower said his grandfather intended for the car to be a kind rupture in the everyday, not some rarified aesthetic experience. A friend of Rower’s wore unique silver mobiles as earrings and a matching choker originally made for the artist’s wife. Though it also errs on the side of the souvenir shop, this is the kind of rupture I prefer: Chic as death. And quiet.
— Kristian Vistrup Madsen