Navigating Berlin’s ‘Cult of the Artist’ exhibitions

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

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.