During the shutdown due to the coronavirus, Munich’s major museums have digitised huge parts of their collections. We asked three museum professionals to introduce us to some of their personal highlights.
The “Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen” are huge collections and it is difficult for me to name my favourite works, although I have a particular weakness for the portraits they contain. The first painting I would like to talk about is shown in the Alte Pinakothek (art gallery): “Portrait of Madame de Pompadour”, painted by François Boucher (1756) Nothing in this painting is left to chance since it was commissioned by her, the king's official mistress, herself; perhaps her appointment as additional lady-in-waiting to the queen's court was the occasion. Madame de Pompadour is sitting in one of her private chambers, looking into the distance. The attributes surrounding her – books, engravings and the desk – testify to her excellent education, thus justifying her role as an influential advisor and friend of the King. Unlike the Queen, she was not allowed to be portrayed standing upright as a full-length figure, although this picture does refer to her position at court and her influence there. On the surface, an intimate and private moment is suggested, but this is counteracted by her gaze, which is turned away from the viewer: She, the commoner, grants intimacy and at the same time keeps her distance, thus confidently staging her powerful position. I recognise a certain chutzpah in the way the painting is depicted, which again and again draws me into its spell.
Almost two centuries later, Max Beckmann created the work “Self-Portrait in Black” (1944). It shows the artist in a black suit sitting on the side of a chair while he looks directly at us. The use of the few colours – black, brown, red and white – as well as light and shadow and the perspective detail draw attention to his gloomy face, which attracts me almost magnetically. You forget everything around you, and although Beckmann creates a barrier by using the back of the chair, the onlooker imagines them self, unlike Madame de Pompadour, in a situation in which one is directly focused. Beckmann painted this self-portrait under the most difficult conditions in Amsterdam in 1944 after he had left Germany in 1937 and emigrated to Holland. The turmoil and cruelty of the war are not shown in this self-portrait, and yet for me, it is present in the artist's gaze, which seems to penetrate everything.
The theme of “penetration” also plays a central role for the photographer August Sander. In contrast to Beckmann, Sander refers to the people being portrayed, whose essence he wanted to penetrate through to by means of photography. Between the 1910s and 1950s, Sander created an epochal cycle of portraits that is considered to be among the most important works in the history of photography. In the series “Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts” (“People of the 20th Century”) he portrays people from different social classes in a search for features that a person’s social position typically leaves inscribed in the faces and bodies of those being portrayed. Thus, in atypical fashion, he dispenses with the names of the persons being portrayed and only mentions their professional titles: e.g. henchman, philosopher, painter. In my opinion, a particularly fascinating portrait is the photograph of Heinrich Hoerle, a painter friend of his. The concentration with which Sander stages him and, at the same time, leaves him room for self-dramatisation has always inspired me. All of his photographs bear witness to a special sensitivity for both standardised and individual compositions. This, sadly, unfinished work is not only of enormous importance in art history but also in contemporary history, because the photographs seem to have been taken from a time capsule through which we gain an insight into our society one hundred years ago.
Here, I would like to present three of my absolute favourite works from our collection, all from the Blauer Reiter (group of artists) scene. The first is the “Portrait of the Dancer Alexander Sacharoff” by Alexei Jawlensky (1909). This is our “Mona Lisa”, almost every week we receive requests to lend the painting, which unfortunately is not possible because the painting is very fragile. So it is always available for viewing to our visitors, and everyone who sees it is indeed captivated by it. It is a typical work of Expressionism: Jawlensky painted it very quickly and yet he captured an incredible amount with it. Like Jawlensky, the person depicted – Alexander Sacharoff – was part of the Munich bohemian and art scene; he also painted, but then came to the realisation that he was not talented enough in this field and chose to pursue the career of a dancer and choreographer. In this role, he went on to revolutionise modern dance. What fascinates me so much about this picture is the obvious queerness. There was no term for it at the time, but the thing was obvious. Most viewers think Sacharoff is a woman in this painting. He appears in a sort of kimono. You have to know that in Japanese theatre, women's roles were classically played by men. Apart from the very complex interplay with gender identities, an incredible liveliness emanates from this picture. It captures the wildness of the Munich scene in its entirety at the turn of the century.
An attitude to life that only flared up again in the 1970s with Freddie Mercury and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. A picture in which this scene’s attitude to life is also expressed, albeit in a completely different manner, is Wassily Kandinsky's “Kallmünz - Gabriele Münter beim Malen I” (1903). The painting style prevailing at that time was a strict academism: Princes of the arts would paint huge pictures in huge studios, which were then framed in gold. Kandinsky and Münter did it completely differently. They packed a small knapsack with their painting utensils on their backs and cycled all over Europe. Women who rode bicycles were considered to be of a morally dubious nature anyway, and in addition, Münter wore Kandinsky's reform clothes without corsets: what a scandal! The painting technique was similarly unusual. This painting is a sort of snapshot, the colours are pressed directly and unmixed from the tube and then applied without a brush, only with a palette knife. The speed and spontaneity are still impressive today.
The last painting is decades younger, from 1931, and by Münter himself. It shows the house in which she lived in Murnau, which was a centre of the Blauer Reiter: sometimes referred to as the “The Russian House”. The painters loved Murnau because the landscape opens up here and presents an unusual expanse. The light there is unique. But this was not the only reason why Murnau became an artists' colony. There was a railway line to the town. During the day you could enjoy the light of the blue country and, in the evening, you did not have to miss the opera, a visit to the salon or even an exhibition. A longing for the connection between country and city has remained until this day.
Further information: Lenbachhaus
Bodies have always played a prominent role in art – including in modern and contemporary art. In our collection, we have many works that relate in a very specific way to the human body in the present. For example, the group of sculptures from the series “New Model Army” by Alexandra Bircken (2016). The onlooker sees four headless mannequins in a row: a kind of post-apocalyptic army. The mannequins are stuck in a motorcycle outfit, which gives them a martial, violent appearance. On closer inspection, however, you also see that the outfit is covered with a thin, fragile nylon fabric. The individual components of the clothing are roughly sewn together, creating a net of scars that runs across the body. All this refers to the highly hybrid state that characterises the body: to protection and exposure, to drill and injury, to fashion and fetish.
The latter is also what Seth Price's sculpture – “Vintage Bomber” from 2006 – is all about. What can be seen is a casually discarded gilded bomber jacket, or rather the gilded form of it. The artist set the garment in a vacuum inside a special plastic material, and what at first glance looks like the result of a coincidence is, in fact, a precise construction. Price meticulously reproduced every wrinkle, stuffed the jacket and then vacuum-packed it. In doing so, he took aim at very different directions: By using the gold leaf, he is referring to medieval icon painting, but above all, he is concerned with the fetish of fashion. Unlike almost any other garment, the bomber jacket, which was developed as a military functional garment, plays a decisive role in various subcultures: from punks to skinheads to the techno scene. Price depicts the jacket in 2006 when it had long since been appropriated by capitalism and transformed into a commodity. What is also interesting about the work is that the human body is an empty space within it. The jacket becomes its representative and forms a body within itself.
The painting “Fatso” by American artist Amy Sillman from 2009 is about bodies in a completely different meaning. It shows a misshapen green figure, sitting somehow unhappily in the middle of the picture. Sillman told us that she painted the picture after going swimming at the Baltic Sea with a svelte-like friend – and looking down on herself. The interesting thing is that it is not about a realistic representation. Sillman does not simply repaint her body, but the body, its form, evaporates into all dimensions. The painting is both: a very human, anti-heroic statement about bodies that deviate from the form widely considered to be beautiful. Then there is also a very theoretical study of painting itself: a kind of diagram revealing how “forms lose their form”. It is both funny and sad, concrete and very abstract.
Further information: Museum Brandhorst