Navigating Berlin’s ‘Cult of the Artist’ exhibitions

Berlin might be a magnet for modern-day artists, but the city is also staging an ambitious ten-exhibition “Cult of the Artist” show veering from Jeff Koons to Paul Klee. Daniel Miller separates the wheat from the chaff so you don't have to.

Navigating Berlin's 'Cult of the Artist' exhibitions
There's always Klee downstairs if Koons is too kitschy for you. Photo: DPA

Is it a clever take on art through the ages or simply a convenient catch-all?

In order to mark his retirement, the outgoing director of Berlin’s state museums, Peter-Klaus Schuster, who left his post at the end of October, has organized ten exhibitions across five state institutions bearing the collective title “The Cult of the Artist.”

The diverse shows stretch chronologically from the dawn of time all the way to the contemporary art market. The oldest piece of all – an antelope rib engraved with a horse head dating from 15,000 BC – is on display at the Kulturform at Potsdamer Platz, in an exhibition titled “Immortal.”

According to the press release “the intellectual heart of the exhibition” (as opposed to a musical based on the eighties swashbuckling fantasy film Highlander) “Immortal” offers a global history of the adventure of art through an eclectic selection of art objects. These range from Polynesian tribal masks to the pickled arm of Saint George, by way of Dürer engravings.

“Immortal” is more of a survey then a thesis – items are shown, but deeper explanations are not forthcoming. A greater focus is achieved at the Altes Museum, which has joined the “Cult of the Artist” act with a strange show titled “Giacometti the Egyptian.”

“Giacometti is the only modern artist who has throughout his life engaged himself with Egypt,” reads the inscription in the first room of the show. This dubious proposition serves as the justification for sprinkling sculptural works by the Swiss modernist master amongst the Altes Museum’s standing collection of Egyptian artefacts.

Next door to the Altes Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie has apparently, and suspiciously, transformed itself into “a temple of art” with three separate shows on nineteenth century German painting.

The main man here is the Prussian icon Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Last seen on a Vattenfall poster, Schinkel is also the architect of the Alte Nationalgalerie. But the show devoted to his work here focusses on his paintings and illustrations. Some of this is sort of hard to take. You can’t help admiring the man’s talent, but his patriotic romanticism is still slightly troubling.

Nevertheless, he can’t be dismissed. Schinkel was probably the most important German visual artist of the nineteenth century (admittedly, not a hugely crowded field) and his influence continues to be felt today – for instance, quite heavily on The Lord of the Ring production design. At the same time, some of his illustrations – especially his own set designs for Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” still remain genuinely vivid and fresh.

One of these sketches in particular – the star-spangled backdrop for the entrance of the King of the Night – looks forward to the equally visionary work of Paul Klee, currently on display across town in a huge retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie.

The great individualist of early twentieth century modernism, Klee is responsible for the popular “my six-year-old could do that” school of art criticism – he was fascinated by children’s art, and once displayed his own drawings from childhood in a mature exhibition.

But Klee also possessed an incredible stylistic range and compositional craft, and the apparent simplicity of his pictures is often deceptively poised and concise.

Klee has often been seen as as a minor artist in the Modernist movement, with more bombastic and flashier artists like Picasso, more skilled in self-promotion, tending to dominate. The contemporary equivalent of this tendency is probably the American artist Jeff Koons, whose big, stupid, and expensive sculptures occupy the ground floor of the Neue Nationalgalerie, above the Klee show in the basement.

In the video interview with Koons playing near the Neue Nationalgalerie gift shop, the artist claims that the central theme of his work is acceptance. It is indeed hard to accept Koons; and you do walk away from his work feeling relieved that you have resisted the impulse to damage it.

An artist like Koons would have been unthinkable without Andy Warhol, who serves as the principal subject for one of the three exhibitions at Berlin’s contemporary art museum the Hamburger Bahnhof. titled “Warhol and the Stars.” The show features a small selection of work from each of the artist’s periods, from his lively early sketches, to his later silk screen and video work.

The early Edie Sedgwick film “Poor Little Rich Girl” is here, and the large Mao still looks impressive in his usual slot at the far end of one wing, but there is not really enough here to move the conversation along – as with the “Immortal!” show, things feel thinly spread.

Irrespective of the current exhibition series, Warhol is today when one of the two central pillars of the Hamburger Bahnhof’s standing collection. The other is formed by Joseph Beuys, an artist who in many ways was the anti-Warhol.

The third exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof is the best of the whole ten-show series – if you only have time to see one of them, this is the one you should see. “I Can’t Just Cut Off an Ear Everyday” tracks the descent of conceptual art from Marcel Duchamp to the present with a tremendous variety of really extraordinary pieces.

Incorporated here are the poetic compositions of Fluxus, Fischili and Weiss’ famous fake readymades, Ed Ruscha’s methodical stain book, Dieter Roth’s banally exhaustive video self-documentation, Paul McCarthy’s disturbingly violent clowning, and some of Martin Kippenberger’s (the man responsible for the title) very best jokes, including his highly amusing crucified Frog.

But especially good are two works of video art from a pair of less famous artists. Andrea Fraser’s hyper-contradictory video art performance “Official Welcome” mechanically goes through all of the various strategies of self-justification artists tend to employ to distinguish themselves, and Antje Schiffer’s cool “Wunderbar, sagt Vladimir” presents the results from a strategic consultancy to tell the artist how to optimize her business model.

Both works provide yield insight into the changing contemporary status of the artist, who are no-longer masters and instead tacticians, and so supply a good sign-off to this rather broad – and somewhat bloated – string of exhibitions as a whole.

More information

“Cult of the Artist” runs until March 1, 2009 at state museums across Berlin.

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‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”


“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”