POTSDAM — Touted as the “youngest and noblest of all German private museums,” the Museum Barberini opened to the public on January 23 in an area lined with Prussian palaces and gardens on the banks of the old Alter Markt Square, a stone’s throw from some of the city’s other major attractions like Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci Palace and the Babelsberg Filmpark.
Established by billionaire art collector Hasso Plattner, co-founder of the software company SAP SE, the museum is the latest in a growing consortia of private museums in Germany. The Museum Barberini conspicuously reveals an uncommon assortment of works ranging from Impressionist and Modernist masters, to banned, and formerly censored pieces from artists living in the Soviet-controlled East German State (GDR).
I took the train from Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof to Potsdam in little under thirty minutes, sipping cheap red wine in proper art critic form along the way. Once outside Potsdam’s main rail station, the Museum Barberini is only a five-minute walk away. It is housed in an imposing, reconstructed Baroque palace modeled after the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, and decimated by air raids during World War II. Prior to renovations by Plattner’s foundation, the structure served rather unceremoniously as a youth hostel in the 1970s. Reconstructed into a 21st century museum by architect Thomas Albrecht, it now contains two large, adjacent wings housing 17 galleries spread across three floors. I gulped the last of my wine and half-drunkenly entered the sanctimonious space of Germany’s newest white cube.
Most of the works in the Museum Barberini fit a traditional Modernist archetype: second rate Kandinskys, a few lonely looking Monets, some Warhols, some Renoirs, several Pissaros sprinkled together in adjoining galleries in colorful displays that reminded me of a candy shop. I yawned and trod into one of the museum’s galleries.
To my astonishment, I found impeccably laid out studies for what would later become August Rodin’s masterpiece “The Burghers of Calais” (1884-95), on loan from the Musée Rodin in Paris. The room was generously filled with some of Rodin’s most expressive works in bronze and stone, depicting the citizens of Calais at the moment they surrendered to the British. Facing near certain execution at the hands of a hostile enemy, their faces appear sullen and hopeless. With nooses tied around their necks and the keys to the city ready to hand over to their captors, their faces reveal an intensity very few sculptors — other than Rodin and perhaps Gian Lorenzo Bernini before him — have been able to capture with such stunning clarity. The works felt chilling, somber, and sepulchral, yet I couldn’t help but think of them as tragically contemporary.
2017 marks the centennial since Rodin’s death, but as I stood there in contemplation, I thought of Aleppo. Besieged by Russian and Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad for four horrifying years, from 2012–2016, Aleppo would have been Rodin’s subject today. The unjustifiable savagery of this siege on the innocent civilian population stood out in the despair of Rodin’s figures. Blockaded from the outside by an enemy force, a siege lays bare the psychological factors of war and its indiscriminate cruelty. In the hollowed out features of Rodin’s figures, I saw the hardship and doom brought forth by sieges both past and present. Rodin seemed to offer a binding, timeless, and universal point: that the practice of conquering by attrition is as merciless, callous, and was as present within the artist’s own time as it is now. Nothing’s changed, I concluded with regret, except the time and the place.
The year 2017 not only marks the 100 years since Rodin’s death, but also the centennial of the Russian Revolution that saw the family of Tsar Nicholas II killed and replaced by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, ushering in the Soviet Union that would have a profound effect on German art and politics during the second half of the twentieth century. Gathering myself, I sidestepped into a neighboring gallery presenting a show entitled Artists in the GDR, consisting of works made in East Germany while under Soviet occupation, between 1949 and 1990. While Rodin’s works spoke to the consequences of sieges, the works in the GDR exhibition seemed like an effigy to the monotonous disillusionment borne by artists working under state censorship. The works in this exhibition revealed how artists struggled to find their individual voices against the forced collectivity imposed on them by Communist state party doctrine. Exploring taboo themes and subverting socialist realist aesthetics, the works in this exhibition depicted the working class in blandly non-heroic, foolish, weak, even drunken styles.
For example, in Harald Metzkes’s “The Drinker” (1955), (a work censored by GDR officials) an inebriated figure is shown slouched over a table painted in a kind of sloppy, no-fucks-given socialist-realist style. The work was obviously not to the satisfaction of GDR officials, whose guidelines for socialist art required depictions of the working class in sweepingly heroic terms. Instead, the subject is a drunkard, an outcast, barely hanging on to the slab of wood beneath him. Metzkes seemed to actively undermine state-sanctioned values by showing a lethargic, intoxicated man — basically the antithesis of state sanctioned masculinity. It felt to me that at its core, Metzkes’s work is also indebted to melancholy, the persistent agony anyone who has suffered from addiction can attest to.
As cultural policy, administrators and managers in the GDR often avoided outright use of the word “verboten” (forbidden) when censoring works; instead, most of them euphemistically referred to their administrative actions simply as “measures,” even when cancelling performances, exhibitions, or preventing individual art works from public display.
In Stefan Plenkers’s “Strange Signs” (1986), another work censored by GDR party officials, the artist depicts a wall-like frieze inspired by graffiti he encountered on a trip to West Berlin in the late 1980s. While in West Berlin, the artist perceived — likely for the first time in his life — the sense of freedom and openness coming from the expressive potency of art in public space. Plenkers regarded graffiti as a medium for resisting the indoctrinating force of East German censors, likely because he witnessed graffiti speaking of and for the streets.
Nearly three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, artists who were once censored in the GDR for their nonconformity to the collectivist ideology of the socialist state are now being rightfully rediscovered. Though the exhibition is small, Artists in the GDR is testament to how individuality emerged even under conditions where measures were taken to actively police it. However, noticeably absent from its walls were works by important female artists active during this time, and this work remains a woefully under-researched aspect of GDR art history. In addition, process-oriented performance art — one of the most critical and politically active divisions of art during the GDR period —was also conspicuously absent from the exhibition’s themes.
Overall, the Museum Barberini does appear poised to fill an important gap within the circuitry of German museums. However, whether it can do so by illuminating and owning up to the numerous blind sports in GDR art history, or whether it will merely replicate blockbuster exhibitions with the same tired white-male-European-Modernist format remains to be seen.