Thursday, March 12, 2009

and by now you are happy that this is part three of a three-part post: on the Neues Museum and others

Michael Kimmelman’s architecture review on David Chipperfield’s renovation of Berlin’s Neues Museum [ ] brings back memories of one of the exactly two press tours on which I have ever been invited—or, rather, in this case, not invited.

Actually, the High Museum invited editors and salaried art writers from around the nation to be their guests on a December 1989 press tour of Berlin in conjunction with Gudmund Vigtel’s magisterial historical survey of “Art in Berlin.” (Being only a freelancer and a second-tier editor, I had not expected to be invited. Such invitations are for the elect, not the preterite. The one exception, for which I shall be eternally grateful, being the 2007 press tour to Glenfiddich's Artists in Residence exhibition, for which I have never been able to recompense William Grant & Sons with any degree of adequacy...even though I thought the residency program was a daring idea, which the corporate bean-counters may have been trying without success to kill. Some of them certainly disagreed with the notion that artists should be invited to hang out in Scotland and make art instead of advertising. I have occasionally written in this journal about this and about 2007 resident artist Romeo Alaeff, whose socially and politically charged work may have surprised many. But I digress.)

Getting back to Berlin 1989: My dear colleague the late Mildred Thompson, who at that time was reportedly the only African-American serving as a member of an art magazine’s senior editorial staff, went to the Goethe-Institut and got the both of us sponsored as a two-person freelance Parallel Action that served as subversive shadow to the authorized press junket, with which I kept crossing paths by accident.

Mildred and I pursued independent professional itineraries from our respective spare-bedroom bases of operation (mutual friends had helped us couch-surf avant le lettre in widely separated neighborhoods. My chosen way into East Berlin via Friedrichstraße station led straight to the Museum Island, where I was stunned to see evidence of reconstruction on the New Museum. It had remained a bombed-out ruin while Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Old Museum had been painstakingly restored and filled with appropriate exhibitions. I snapped lots of pictures of the cordoned-off structure, since my official reason for going was to write about architecture (which I did, at length, including discussions of hypothetical building designs by Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind that were unrelated to later actually constructed projects).

Kimmelman now explains that the German Democratic Republic had undertaken a restoration just before German unification, but it required new funding and Chipperfield’s sensitive redesign to finish the decades-delayed job. And he has left the ruins in place where it was possible, while incorporating them into a fully contemporary museum building in which, as Kimmelman writes, “the new parts ... look clearly new, the old, old, while the two go together gracefully.”

This is an elegant departure from the postwar tendency in so much of war-ravaged Europe to create a sort of Disney World of architecture in which one thinks one is seeing a meticulously and miraculously preserved building until one sees, in photographs of the site, how few stones or bricks were left standing upon one another circa 1945. Friedrich August Stüler’s 1855 building didn’t have the cachet of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s legendary design for the Old Museum, and Stüler's New Museum has gotten little enough respect in the sixty-five or so years since its devastation. Maybe this will get it a little fresh attention, if not indeed a new respect.

It had long struck me as painfully appropriate that some of the large-scale plunder (or effort at preservation) of German archaeologists was cemented into the wall in the Neues Museum, such that the Chinese murals in question couldn’t be removed for safekeeping like the rest of the ancient art. Looking in West Berlin at the fragments of Buddhist and Nestorian paintings from the Silk Road, I wondered what scraps and fragments, if any, still adhered to the New Museum’s ruins.

If I ever have the resources to get to Berlin again, which I strongly doubt, I suppose I shall have the chance to find out. Chipperfield used every scrap of the original building that could be adapted to the reconstructed and renovated one.

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