As a little commentary on the difference between the East and West here in Berlin, at least as it pertains to museum exhibition: yesterday I wrote about the charming mixture of full-on documentation of objects and lackadaisical information at the Märkisches Museum in East Berlin. Today (or actually yesterday, but never mind) we went to the Martin-Gropius Bau, which was having a big exhibition of the famous Würth-Sammlung. The museum–built in the 1870s by the great-uncle of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius–also had an exhibition of Piet Mondrian, which we had hoped to see as well. But here we come to the first evidence that we’re in the consumerist West: one had to pay separately to see each show, no combined tickets. Welcome!
The Würth-Sammlung exhibited here is only part of the largest private art collection in Europe. The collector is Reinhold Würth, a mega-billionaire businessman who began collecting in the 1960s. He began collecting what we call “die klassische Moderne”–the classical Moderns–with an emphasis as well on German Masters, especially Lukas Cranach. He has continued to collect contemporary art, acquiring all the big names of the last 60 years up to the present. The collection’s curators, then, pulled out all the stops to present as many works as possible in as “innovative” a way as possible–which I often find leads to incomprehensibilty. What happens, then, is that the exhibition design begins to overwhelm the artworks themselves. There were splendid pieces, “From Holbein to Hockney “, as the show’s title demonstrated, and dutiful homage was paid in presentation to the stars of the show, his magnificent Darmstadt Madonna by Holbein, purchased in 2011 for a record price. This “destination piece” (meaning that people would come to see this work specifically) was exhibited in its own room, with special framing and special lighting, as if it were a shrine. In a way it is: a shrine to the COLLECTOR, rich enough to buy such an incredible 500-year-old altarpiece.
His choice of Cranachs and other German masters was also telling, I thought: they were almost all portraits of 16th-century powerful men. None of Cranach’s wiggly nudes or mythological scenes (although a wonderful Saint Barbara). Several galleries were filled with blockbuster works of the last two centuries, too, displayed in some kind of thematic order at times, but at the center, always, was an emphasis on Würth himself, with big wall labels talking about him, his passion for collecting, and his business acumen. The worth of his companies was emphasized (he is listed by Forbes as the 200th richest man in the world), and pictures of Würth appeared everywhere . This is not to knock his incredible eye nor his admirable desire to collect great art. It’s just an example of the difference between the less developed, less consumerist East, and the fully monetized, corporatized art world of the West. Berlin is the perfect place to compare these differences.