95 years of Now
In the summer of 1919, a gallery devoted entirely to the works of living artists – the so-called Galerie der Lebenden (Gallery of the Living) – opened in the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin. Alfred H. Barr Jr., who would go on to become the founding director of MoMA ten years later, was deeply impressed by its presentation of contemporary work. Are the origins of the museum of contemporary art perhaps to be found in Berlin?
In 1927, at the age of 25, Alfred H. Barr Jr. embarked on an extended research trip around Europe. In almost forty different ports of call, the American art historian met museum directors, artists and architects as he was working on his own plans for a New York museum dedicated to modern art. Berlin was, of course, one of the stops on the young aesthete’s itinerary, where he went to the Kronprinzenpalais to see the Galerie der Lebenden, a museum founded in 1919 that was devoted entirely to contemporary art. He was impressed with the risk-taking that (to some degree at least) characterized its attitude to building a collection, as well as its innovative approach to the hanging and installation of the works.
The Galerie der Lebenden was the brainchild of Ludwig Justi, who had been appointed director of the National Gallery in 1909. In October 1918, barely returned from military service, he immediately began lobbying for a modernisation and extension of the National Gallery. Rallying sponsors, supporters and friends, he began his acquisitions, buying the latest pieces by the likes of Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. The purchase of Oskar Kokoschka’s Die Freunde (The Friends) for 15,000 Reichsmark in December 1918 – when the paint must have scarcely had time to dry – caused such a scandal that the Art Commission officially responsible for acquisitions under Kaiser Wilhelm II was disbanded. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, on the other hand, was considerably cheaper: three big landscapes were acquired for a total of 14,000 Reichsmark.
On Monday 4 August, 1919, it was finally ready: one week before the Weimar Constitution was signed into law, the Galerie der Lebenden opened in the Kronprinzenpalais, a prominent building on Unter den Linden that had previously been a residence for the German Kaiser’s family. Justi’s understanding of modernisation was revealed as a finely calibrated response to the political and social shifts of the time. Across three floors he presented the works he had chosen to stand for an art of the present. He was both a progressive moderniser but also a technocratic institutional politician, and his museological staging of the works in an evolutionary logic immanent to art was done in typically pragmatic style.
As representatives of the local scene, the Berlin Secessionists were strategically given a prominent position on the ground floor, while the first floor was dedicated to German Impressionists. In a distinctly nationalist display, Max Liebermann, Max Slevogt and Lovis Corinth were presented alongside the French precursors whom Justi felt they had long since surpassed: Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet and Claude Monet. The latter’s works, much to the displeasure of the Kaiser, had been purchased for an appropriate but considerable sum and were prominently displayed by Justi’s predecessor; they had ultimately cost him his job. On the second floor were works that were just a few months old by artists such as Max Pechstein and the Dresden-based Expressionist circle Die Brücke, alongside sculptures by Ernst Barlach and Wilhelm Lehmbruck.
In an act of curatorial foresight and courage, these shared a space with works by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Signac and James Ensor.
In contrast to the imperial residential atmosphere of the palace, where the artworks easily take on the formal role of home furnishings, the upper floor exuded the kind of neutral, minimalist ambience that has since established itself as the archetypal default for the presentation of art – not least due to the example set by the MoMA. Vintage photographs show an expansive, airy setting for the works, displayed – unusually for the time – in rooms with monochrome walls. A further novelty they show is that a selection of works by August Macke and Franz Marc were all hung with the lower edges of the frames aligned.
The idea of showing contemporary works in a museum context was itself thoroughly new.
At the end of the 1920s, MoMA would go on to create its distinctive identity (with an eye to Berlin) with the secure accomplishments of the old masters of the past but by a focus on current artistic production. Admittedly, on another level, this form of participation did have its price. While the investments that Justi made were good for his collection, this was offset by greater demands for communication and education about the works. He labelled works with their titles and provided instructive information about them, both of which are now more or less compulsory for any museum – and no less than 19,000 Reichsmark went into producing a short guidebook to the collection. He responded astutely to the new government’s explicit policy of furthering the education of the working class in particular, which became a mainstay of the museum reform movement. This is how it came to pass that art entered into a direct dialogue with the public.
The visitor from New York was impressed, and later wrote to Justi telling him that he wanted to give his planned institution the same kind of function as the museum he had seen in the Kronprinzenpalais.
Admittedly, what made the MoMA model stand out so starkly in the early 1930s – its interdisciplinarity and the manner in which works were presented – was something that Barr owed more to his conversations with Walter Gropius and Sergei Eisenstein. Yet an important aspect of what we still admire as modernism nevertheless began in Justi’s Galerie der Lebenden on Unter den Linden in the summer of 1919.
Hans-Jürgen Hafner is director of the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf.
Translated by Ishbel Flett