Art

A Museum Built Among Ancient Ruins Impels an Inward Gaze

In other museums, fragments of the past are isolated into forgotten history, but at Kolumba, they are part of a dynamic whole.

Richard Serra, “The Drowned and the Saved” (1992/1997), in the former sacristy of St. Kolumba Church (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

COLOGNE — There is a sameness that plagues museums around the world today: A small group of canonized artists are exhibited under standardized rubrics within similarly grandiose architecture, separated into antiquity, renaissance, modern, and contemporary. The opposite is true at Kolumba, the art museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne, where new and old works are exhibited alongside each other to create a deeply introspective, multi-temporal space curated for the purpose of contemplation. In building and maintaining the museum, an inherently religious institution, the archdiocese sought to inspire faith in visitors who are unlikely to visit the church. Awe-inspiring and spiritual to be sure — thought not necessarily godly — Kolumba is a sort of post-religious space for worship.

The space itself is part of the exhibition Me in a no-time state, composed from the archdiocese’s permanent collection, which is reimagined every year with new curatorial proposals. Ruins excavated in Cologne date back to Roman times; it’s upon these that the St. Kolumba Church was constructed during the Middle Ages. It survived until World War II, when it was almost completely destroyed along with the rest of Cologne. Today the ruins are preserved and incorporated into the building by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.

The ruins of St. Kolumba Church and architecture by Peter Zumthor
“Me in a no-time state” (1994/95) and “Holy Trinity” (17th century)

“We need art so that it can help us look beyond ourselves,” said Joachim Cardinal Meisner, the 94th in the succession of Cologne archbishops, in an interview about the Kolumba for Salve magazine, which was later translated into English and published in a book in collaboration with the museum. Does art inherently fulfill an existential need, or is it the institution that creates the existentialism so present here? Kolumba is a museum centered around emotional questions, not necessarily intellectual or theological hypothesis. The total destruction of war, the ruins of the past and the present are sandwiched vertically within the futuristic, light-filled architecture of Zumthor, which is at once solemn and hopeful.  

I visited the Kolumba after a red-eye flight, after having seen literally thousands of artworks in the previous week. I was certainly not expecting to have the wind knocked out of me when I walked into the south tower to see the restored “Holy Spirit Retable” (1448/49) facing Bernhard Johannes Blume’s “71 Designs for Editions in Porcelain” (1985). In this soaring tower, where footsteps and whispers echo off the walls, these two works are alone, along with the weight of the five centuries that separate them.

Workshop of the Wolfgang Retable, “Holy Spirit Retable” (1448/49), tempera painting on conifer wood

The retable is on display after a restoration process that took more than two years. Here the busy Renaissance composition, which contains a whole world, has space to breathe. But the restoration also reveals several psychedelic imperfections: A piece of bread on the table surrounded by Jesus and the apostles seems to bend with the tablecloth, and a water jug has been rendered transparent, as if hanging between this dimension and the next. On the opposite wall, stretching toward the ceiling and large windows above, Blume’s porcelain plates propose thoughts about the retable with nouns, adjectives, and conjunctions in German, like “and,” “is,” “abstract,” “soul,” etc. The south tower is the emotional climax of the current show, and it is representative of the museum as a whole.

Workshop of the Wolfgang Retable, “Holy Spirit Retable,” detail
Johannes Blume, “71 Designs for Editions in Porcelain” (1985)

The real impact of the Kolumba lies in impeccable museology, with an effective mix of spaces in which there is a lot to look at, like rooms 16 and 17, in which Chris Newman’s 2016 installation “Relief Behavior Option” fills the galleries with a crowded group of paintings hanging from the ceiling, and spaces containing only two or three works, such as the south tower and its breathtaking triptych. Newman’s heavy line-work paintings, which look like sketches in a diary, indict his everyday life without any glamorization, recreating the architecture of his small Berlin apartment and immersing the viewer into a loose and sketchy personal narrative. The installation was created specifically for the space at the invitation of the museum, and it is currently on loan from the artist.

Chris Newman, “Relief Behavior Option” (2016)

Newman’s work, and others within the collection, speaks to the humbleness and quiet of the museum itself, which doesn’t seek to attract the attention of the masses — the website is terrible — but to create an inward gaze. The quantity of exhibition space has been carefully thought out: It is neither too much nor too little but entirely manageable, with time and room for each piece to make its mark as the galleries fold into and out of each other. This unpretentiousness is carried through the Kolumba, where the grainy concrete walls are a uniformly soft, warm grey, creating a neutrality that is indifferent to the standard coldness of white museum walls.

Between the south tower and Newman’s installation, a collection of 25 Archivolt figures from the St. Peter Portal at the Cologne Cathedral dating back to the 14th century are scattered around a low gallery and spotlit with warm bulbs. These sacred figures are flanked with contemporary works by Norbert Schwontkowski and Stefan Wewerka. Schwontkowski’s painting, “The Eve Before History Began” (2006), is bathed in natural light from a window looking out over the Cologne Cathedral, and it depicts the Garden of Eden without Adam or Eve, but instead monkeys, suggesting an alternative history of humankind that is at odds with the context of the museum. Wewerka’s sculpture, “CELLA with Kitchen Tree and Swing Chair” (1984), is a futuristic modular living space where every nook, shelf, or seat faces out into the gallery — the opposite of the sheltered and private domestic spaces we are used to.

Various artists, “25 Archivolt figures from the St. Peter Portal at the Cologne Cathedral” (1375–81)
Norbert Schwontkowski, “The Eve Before History Began” (2006)
Stefan Wewerka, “CELLA with Kitchen Tree and Swing Chair” (1984)

In another gallery, fleshy paintings by Eugene Leroy, sensual abstractions of the figure like “Petit nu profond (Small profound nude)” (1997), are again linked to the distant past with a neighboring bust of “Madonna and Child from the Altarpiece of St. Mary in St. Kolumba” (1677), which was rescued from the ruins of the church and restored from 70 fragments after having been destroyed by American and British bombs in 1945. Leroy’s grotesque and textural nudes are also exploded — into tiny fragments of oil paint.

Eugene Leroy, “Petit nu profond (Small profound nude)” (1997)
“Madonna and Child from the Altarpiece of St. Mary in St. Kolumba” (1677) with paintings by Eugéne Leroy

These are only a few examples of how new and old not only exist alongside each other but are merged into one multi-temporal mystery. Curator Stefan Kraus called the space “a continuation of the ruins” from which it was erected, a “vertical museum that penetrates the time axis.” The approach of Kraus and his team includes the ruins within a vision of hope. Whereas fragments of the past are isolated into forgotten history within other museums, here they are part of a dynamic whole: a present time made from many overlapping histories.

The Kolumba is an elegantly sophisticated, unique institution, one where questions about being, time, and art exist together as if they are one and the same. Compared to this space of openness and contemplation, other museums look utterly outdated. The Kolumba emerges from the tradition of the church with a utopian vision of a museum’s purpose.

Stephan Baumkötter, untitled works from the Marfa-Paintings series (1993)
Kolumba reading room

Me in a no-time state continues at the Kolumba Museum (Kolumbastrabe 4) through August 14.      

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