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  • Christian Hain

Glass, Rocks, and Canvas: Colourful Stones at Georg Kolbe Museum

(Berlin.) Georg Kolbe Museum resides in an affluent Western borough of Berlin. You almost forget those exist, too, when staying too much in the more "arty" neighbourhoods of Mitte, Kreuzberg, or Neukölln. Here in the South West, in the offshoots of Grunewald forest, Berlin’s upper middle class enjoys clean streets, neat lawns, and many lake views from their villas and townhouses - there’s always a lake nearby in the suburbs of Berlin. When in the mid-1920s, sculptor Georg Kolbe moved his studio near Heerstraße (“Army Street”) which still exists and even lends its name to the closest S-Bahn station (the army once had a very different standing in German society than today), this was almost out of the city borders but the capital has grown considerably since then. Kolbe’s said to have sought silence among the pine trees, working away in his architectonically not uninteresting studio, sober yet relaxed, laid back, Bauhaus-y but without the gigantism and plebeian monotony. Windows open like picture frames to frame those very pine trees that have much grown as well (maybe they’re not exactly the same, but scions), and the occasional bird before a Berlin pre-spring’s light blue sky - it’s unusually sunny, though not exactly warm, this year! You can easily imagine retired physicians and professors having a cuppa and cake at Café K which might contribute a considerable share to the museum budget.

However, to discover the host’s art, you’ll need to stay in the garden or descend to the cave. Kolbe’s art blends perfectly into the surroundings, solemn, no-nonsense, classic, busts and bodies, bronze dancers and athletes that more anticipated Arno Breker than followed Rodin, Barlach, or Brancusi. The most surprising, most “modern”, artwork down there is an installation by the museum’s art handler: A shelf inhabiting body parts and heads, bronze or marble carcasses, and to its side three art coffins, closed shipping crates. iPads and headphones on benches could be silent witnesses of the patrons circle’s generosity; modern times and quite unnecessary (rather this than taxes, right?). But enough of this - and don’t be mistaken: Kolbe’s art is great, very much worth a visit!

The main reason though for a trip to Grunewald these days (beside the weather!), is a temporary exhibition on ground floor. Two curators finishing their trainee programme with the project, chose a concept that only remotely links to Kolbe and more (but not too much, either) to mid-19th Century writer Adalbert Stifter and his volume of novellas Bunte Steine (“Colourful Stones”). Stifter is, if at all, still best known among the same demographics that likes Kolbe and lives in this area. Solid, lyrical, narratives close to nature. “Kolbe->sculptor, sculpture->stones - Wait, I’ve been reading something lately!” Stifter further was an Austrian citizen, and at least one curator’s accent hints at the same roots, while an artist here, Stefan Guggisberg, is at least Swiss-born. Alpine connection, and what is a mountain else than a lot of stones? The exhibition is well-done, to say it immediately.

The aforementioned Guggisberg is not a sculptor but the token painter in show (his thoroughly professional gallery and their newsletter sent me here in the first place, by the way) – you would not want to leave those walls empty, would you? Guggisberg is great, when working in small formats at least. The larger ones, of which there are only two at Kolbe Museum, could be a bit too much on the decorative side, almost like what you’d expect to see in hotel floors and conference rooms instead of a museum or a collector’s warehouse. Those small formats on the contrary: excellent. What on first sight - and on second, third, or fourth, still - appears like a digitally treated photograph is indeed an oil on canvas, manually treated by scrubbing away the once applied colour with a household eraser, again and again, using a stencil for finest lines and stark contrasts. Could you call it mock-sculpting? A mountain, many rocks, covered with coloured spots, among them a tiny blue sphere that might induce thoughts of that Jeff Koons series of marble sculptures playing with blue balls, supposed to signify – well, something, reflections on life, the universe and all the rest, up to the beholder and Greek philosophy. Guggisberg‘s Collision could hide some deeper meaning, too. Yet, it’s a pity how most visitors will think, “nice photo”, then proceed to the next work for there are no labels (yes, they do have leaflets, but that just isn’t the same – you need to open them, search, identify). The bookshop offers one more, very small (tiny!), format of Guggisberg’s to takeaway for a fee. That gallery is efficient.

His paintings accompany the works of two bona-fide sculptors, Kai Schiemenz and William Tucker. Tucker is suspiciously absent from the other, much bigger, sculpture show in Berlin these days, Deutsche Bank-Tate’s compendium of British Sculpture at Palais Populaire - his change in citizenship from British to American in 1985 might be responsible for the omission, although this would seem odd in the context. Not much of an innovator, yet nevertheless a confirmed great, Tucker might be even better known for his 1977 book The Language of Sculpture that, I am told, is still essential reading in many art schools. Tucker most revers Rodin, Brancusi and the modernist lot, his series at Kolbe Museum consists of stonen globes in various sizes, from shrunken head to hydrocephalus, in a degree of abstraction that makes it hard to recognize the (intended) human frame behind the meteorite. Fallen to earth, into life, the objects preserve visible traces of the artist’s efforts in creating them, dents, furrows, so very far from everything Kolbe ever did! From up close, it’s possible to see screaming, melting, faces, if you want to think in painting categories, think Bacon (everything tastes better with bacon). Once you’re told, you'll even recognize Brancusi’s lying head (Sleeping Muse) in one work, but rather not before. William Tucker’s not exactly fashionable, but still a big name, and worth more than one look.

The third artist completing the show, Kai Schiemenz, heard “Colourful Stones” and, well: “Say no more, I what you need!“ He adds fabulous rainbow- or mono-coloured glass panels, more gemstone than stained glass window. This whole thing is called Colourful Stones, and that’s exactly what he did there, the glass forms having been created with the use of a traditional, slow, and hard to control, technique as exact copies of stones Schiemenz collected in a quarry.

With one notable exception, all artists' works pre-existed the show’s name and concept, that exception being a small human silhouette, a Giacometti-influenced hunger artist by Schiemenz to represent Ötzi, the Austrian stone ager whose ice mummy resurfaced some thirty years ago and became an instant celebrity. Much skinnier than the Yeti, this Ötzi looks a very faithful representation of the mummy, not the man.

A sound artist has also been invited, but only for one night at the museum. A permanent sound installation could have been a welcome addition, but, on the other hand, that one step too far into “modern hogwash” for Kolbe Museum regulars. On this background, a single wall panel close to another of Guggisburg’s small formats, monochrome white, should not trick you into suspecting a lost Rauschenberg or Ryman, it only hides some cables.

Colourful Stones, 23 February-1 May 2019, Georg Kolbe Museum

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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