A WHIFF OF MODERNISM IN COLOGNE
What makes a successful museum? Ah, good, for once an easy question. A terrific collection, decently housed, makes a successful museum.
Oh wrong, wrong, wrong. How can anybody be so hopelessly out of date? When plans for a new museum were unveiled in Cologne everybody hated them. They hated the idea of plopping a museum devoted mainly to contemporary art down right next door to the Cologne cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture begun in 1269 and renowned for its soaring, rocket-shaped towers. They hated the museums design with its ranks of shark-tooth skylights.
What an affront. Looks like a factory right here next to our venerable and beruehmt cathedral. What we need here is nice park.
Now the museum is finished and since its opening last winter public opinion has about-faced. People love the combined Museum Ludwig and the Wallraf Richartz Museum as well as the philharmonic hall and the cinema housed in the same building designed by Peter Busmann and Godfrid Haberer. That must be because they are wafted to heights of aesthetic delectation by the Old Master art in the Wallraf Richartz collection that contains such delights as Stephan Lochner’s sweet “Madonna of the Rose Garden” and such stirring oddities as Arnold Bocklins’ “Pirate Attack.” It must be because they are proud that the chocolate baron and controversial high-rolling collector Peter Ludwig gave them one of the most highly reputed collections of American Pop art in the known world. It was valued at $45 million when he promised it in 1976 and has easily quadrupled in value in the meantime.
Well it seems impossible that the citizens of the town famous for Eau de Cologne are insensitive to the vapors of art, but it also appears that that is not the main reason they like the museum.
They like the museum because it is improving their relationship with the Barbarians.
Themselves. The German Barbarians.
That doesn’t make sense.
It does make sense, but only after we appear to digress for a little story as related by the Ludwig Museum’s chief curator, Edith Weiss.
The city of Cologne lies astride the Rhine and has a right and left bank like many another old European city. In ancient times Cologne was a Roman outpost, a fact proven by the excellent Romish-Germanisches Museum which is next door to the Ludwig and across the square from the Cathedral and the Dom Hotel. In their heyday the Romans were, naturally, the ruling class and lived on the side of the the river where the Ludwig Museum and all the rest of everything a tourist is liable to see, including the railroad station, is still located today. For all the visitors who throng the city, it retains an aristocratic aura. The main coffee-and-pastries shop on the Dom is so full of classy-looking matrons in lavender beaver hats that the average guy is afraid to infiltrate the place for a gooey afternoon sweet.
So while the Romans where eating their eclairs and having them too, the locals, the plebes, the indigenous Barbarian Teutons, were relegated to the other side of the river. Evidently, tradition dies hard in Cologne because, according to Frau Weiss, to this day houses are cheaper over there even when just as elegant as those on the cathedral side. Two thousand years later it is considered vaguely declasse to live on the “wrong” bank.
To make matters worse, after a few dozen centuries and a couple of World Wars a tacky bus depot stood where the Ludwig Museum is today. The station was a magnet for undesirables. Women were warned not to go into the area at night. Bad enough to have such a blight anywhere in a respectable city, but this haven for low lifes stood exactly on the crucial hub that joins chic Cologne to the old town river walk and the arched iron bridge leading across the river. It was a festering sore blocking civic circulation.
Thanks to the museum and the surrounding Heinrich-Boll-Platz designed (significantly) by Israeli landscape architect Dani Karavan, that is now all fixed. The city is reunited and Cologners even hope the left bank might become socially acceptable.
So there you are. A successful museum is one that furthers a scheme of inner city redevelopment, even as did Los Angeles’ own Museum of Contemporary Art. In Germany, with its intense consciousness of political symbolism, one cannot overlook the conciliatory gesture of the Israeli landscaper or fail to note that the two main museums here are devoted to art by peoples who conquered the Germans in war and furthered their culture in peace, the Romans and the Americans.
That is a good story and only a fink would begrudge museums a useful civic role, if they can play one. All the same, there remains an eccentric minority who go to museums primarily for the art. Is that contingent going to palpitate to this museum?
Well, not exactly.
The architecture of the metal-clad exterior is basically fine, dramatically rugged without being rude. If one has a reservation, it hinges on a slight aura of the pedestrian that dogs the building. Detractors say they didn’t get much museum for the goggling 280-million deutschmark price-tag (roughly $164 million, mainly in state funds), but defenders counter that that was the cost of the whole complex of galleries, performance halls and landscaping, so maybe it evens out.
The museum interior is in three well-lit levels joined by a grand central staircase and some slightly confusing back stairs that can leave you wondering where you are. That fuddlement is compounded by the fact that the Ludwig collection takes up the top and lower levels with the Old Master Wallraf Richartz collection slipped in the middle like the filling in a sandwich. Since this arrangement makes neither chronological nor artistic sense, one is inclined to suspect other motives, among them a feeling that it was done to insure the Ludwig material pride of place.
There are wonderful things to be seen here, and no traveler should miss them. Wallraf Richartz offers miles of soporific old art brightened up by an excellent group of late medieval-style gold-ground paintings, a gaggle of surprising realist-Baroque paintings by Rubens, Jordeans and especially a gritty Ribera, and later a version of Francois Boucher’s famous teaser, “Mistress O’Murphy.”
Visitors are liable to come for the widely publicized Ludwig material, but the experience is considerably beefed up by such fine background works as Wallraf Richartz’s Manet asparagus still life and Edvard Munch’s “Four Girls on a Bridge.”
One is logically inclined to ascribe a virtually obligatory gallery of very worthy German Expressionist works to Ludwig, but they are in fact the gift of a Joseph Haubrich, and thank goodness for anyone with the taste to acquire Max Beckmann’s “Self-Portrait With Black Cap.”
Enough of these warm-up acts, bring on the headliner! We want Ludwig! Where is Ludwig!
Any American curator who has mourned the overseas talent-drain of American art of the the ‘50s and ‘60s must have been thinking of Ludwig. Even with 50 key works missing (for a Pop show in Venice), the collection is impressive. Oh, that’s where Jasper Johns’ legendary ale-can sculpture is. How did America let eight major Lichtensteins and a gaggle of key Warhols slip away? Let’s hope down-home collectors are buying those recent, beautiful De Koonings, too. How is it possible that Ed Kienholz’s “Portable War Memorial” is not in an American Museum? (A satire on U.S. militarism and sentimentality plays very piquantly in Germany.)
In short, the statistics and pedigree are impeccable. And the collection has not forgotten less-renowned contemporaries, both European and American. It is good to see an international mix including Richard Linder, the Canadian Alex Colville and continentals like Mimmo Rotella, Wolf Vostel, Arman and Daniel Spoerri.
Yet for all that, one cannot eventually escape the suspicion that this is a collection where appetite outruns taste. Unlike the recently enshrined De Menil collection in Houston, this compendium lacks a binding sensibility that bespeaks a set of convictions. It bespeaks above all a craving to Acquire . It would rather have a good one but it will settle for so-so if that satisfies the hunger to Have One. Jasper Johns’ immense world map may be the biggest thing he ever did, but its very size kills the delicacy of Johns’ revered touch.
Ludwig’s gaggles of early classic modernism are fitful. His late Picassos are weak. Forays into surrealism skid from a fine Schwitters to a kitsch Dali. Metaphysical art lights nicely on Morandi and Rosso and then takes a pratfall among sentimental Campiglis.
The big exception among classic styles is an important group of Russian avant-garde works that lend the Ludwig material its main distinction outside the American trove. It is too late for major Kandinskys, but Ludwig lucked out in outstanding examples from Malevich to Rodchenko, from El Lissitsky to Natalia Gontcharova.
Cleary, gargantuan gourmandizing has its up side. Ludwig discovered actual virtue in powerful sculpture by German Neo-Expressionists who are overrated as painters--Marcus Lupertz, George Baselitz and A.R. Penck. The down side shows when the gourmand wants a dish he really doesn’t understand--as when Ludwig got a hankering for Conceptualism. The stuff feels like merchandise.
The museum is equipped with the latest in high-tech lighting control. When the light changes so many degrees, scrims automatically cover skylights and bays of florescent lights pop on. The trouble is, the light is always changing in cloudy Cologne. Visitors chuckle at the constant hum of blinds rolling and tubes plocking audibly on. Efficient, but just a trifle insensitive, just a trifle too ready to shift with every change in the weather.