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  • Christian Hain

“Monet, Monet, Monet, must be funny...” Places At Barberini Museum, Potsdam

(Potsdam.) The Barberini invited, and everybody came. We’ve hardly seen an art related press conference in Berlin that crowded before, so crowded in fact, that WUUHAAA!... oh, excuse me – sorry, what? no, not “Wuhan”! just sneezing, all good, please calm down!... where was I again? Oh yes, so many people came, they even had to move the breakfast buffet – press conferences at Barberini are always more popular than elsewhere – out of the auditorium, and into the corridor. But who would expect anything else with a brand-new Monet exhibition? The French impressionist is a member of that highly exclusive circle of Greats that draw the masses and experts alike because their greatness is obvious even to the most uncultured layers of populace, and also because everybody “knows” this, and them. Does indeed, from posters, TV, and the dutifully endured museum visit on family holidays. A private club of artists that otherwise include van Gogh, Dali, Picasso, Warhol, and hardly anybody else. A new, and huge, Monet exhibition in not-Berlin-but-Potsdam, that’s certainly something people want to know about! Maybe even visit, at least those who have been planning a trip to Berlin anyway – suburban Potsdam will be a busy place for months to come!

Even the boss himself deemed the event worthy of his presence: Mr Hasso Plattner, art collector and generous founder/sponsor/owner of Barberini Museum (and the San Jose Sharks of the NHL, California also counting among his places of residence). As you probably know, he's owing all this to having co-founded the "digital bookkeeping" company SAP in the 1970s, and serving as its long-time CEO he was mostly responsible for making it what it is today. Mr Plattner has a very charming personality, quite relaxed and funny, as funny and relaxed as you get with a net worth touching, if not exceeding, the combined sales value of all the above mentioned artists’ œuvre.

Before we talk about the exhibition, let‘s stay a little more with the gossip, and the words of the - maybe wise, but certainly: - wealthy; admit, you want it too! Alright then, here we go: Mr Plattner fervently condemned the “tearing apart of collections in auctions”, at which point you shouldn’t exactly wonder, how and where he’s bought his treasures, and what would have been the alternative; then once again related how he came about to have this mansion in the “rebuilt” city centre of the former residence town Potsdam restored, assuring that every single part is made from the same materials as used in the historic original. Copy and paste indeed... Nevermind his previous rebuttal of auctions, the donor actually likes to elaborate on his market activities, commenting on “recent rumours surrounding the auction of a Monet at a new record price, that work having gone to Germany, and even that I had bought it - which is false! ... It was the Hasso Plattner Foundation.” (Meules/Haystacks, 1890, 111 Million Euros May 2019 at Sotheby’s London – that’s the kind of hard facts all those media types came for, this you can sell even to a rather uncultivated people like the Germans!) Belonging to a series of haystack portraits two more of which already belong to the same collection, it’s not a particularly iconic Monet, and honestly: the writer of these lines wouldn’t spend a tenth of that sum on it (if only Euro Millions showed some effort, finally). It’s alright, yet there are so many better Monets, not least at Barberini today. ...Saying this: About one quarter of the 130 works on show are the same collector’s - or his foundation’s – property, meaning he already owns those, potentially, more impressive Monets, and still got so much money left. Mr Plattner personally followed that auction, via telephone and web, and did all the bidding himself (so much for “it was the foundation”), then decided to surpass his previously self-set limit by some pity tens of millions the moment he learned, the most active competing bidder would take it to China. – Maybe, we can imagine the situation like when we catch ourselves in the supermarket having contemplated for the past ten minutes whether we‘d better buy the trademark organic yoghurt, or the no-name discounter variant – everybody in his right mind will simply shrug: “wtf, ’tis only twenty cents!”

China, you must know, is something like Mr Plattner’s bête noir (are we allowed to say this anymore? Better make it “bête africain-asiatique”, only to be sure). When asked about his personal experiences with - u-hum, that’s a pretty indecent thing to pronounce: fake Monets, he first of all assures, everything is genuine now, but he indeed once auctioned a painting (which he won’t further identify), when after publishing the auction results, the house received a phone call from Texas to the effect of: “Howdy partners, this here painting’s right there in my living room - been for years!” No expertise could clear the confusion, before a radio carbon dating of the pigments ultimately proved Mr Plattner’s “version” to be of a more recent origin... This spelt a chargeback without further ado, and Mr Plattner is sure, the work was done, “where they build the best chips, too” - China that is. Now, copy pasting a work of art is bad, yet doing the same with a building, and a whole “historic” city centre, is usually perceived as morally less wrong. Why was that again?

All Monets belonging to the collector will, together with others from different Impressionist painters, soon find their way into the museum’s collection on a permanent loan, “leaving a lot of blank spaces on the walls of [his] living rooms”. Apart from the odd new acquisition, those gaps will be filled with photographs, or rather: elaborate scans, that, as he tells himself, “lack the emotional attachment” and cannot cheat anybody taking one step closer, or even touching the “canvas”.

The “three haystacks” could not yet be shown at the Denver Art Museum where the exhibition went first - there won’t be a third instalment! - from past October until some weeks ago, they are the icing on a cake that is one of the largest Monet exhibitions not only in recent years, but outside Paris ever. Full stop.

Obviously, size alone doesn’t matter, and even after a visit to Barberini Potsdam, and to fully grasp Monet, you should have more than one look at the Nymphéas at l’Orangerie and the treasures of Musée Marmottan-Monet if you’ve never done so, although you can probably skip the Orsay. Mentioning the Marmottan, there is one little detail setting this show apart even from the latest huge Monet retrospective on French soil, at Grand Palais in 2010: In an amusing little soap opera of art the artist family’s homeground then refused to loan any work, but today, when Mr Plattner (’s subalterns) asked, they willingly sent a handful over, among them two very abstract Pont Japonais.

Whenever you decide to do an art show, you need a title, at which point you might encounter unexpected difficulties. The Barberini decided not to overcharge the public with anything unexpected, this is not about a particular scientific interest after all, not about any revolutionary new insights, aspects, or comparisons. It’s about show(v)ing a fine collection (in the public’s face) - and there’s nothing wrong with it! Thus, they went with Places. A suiting title, and yet about as creative as calling a Warhol show “Pop”, or one about van Gogh “Madness” (still waiting for “Ear-ly – the young Vincent” though). It’s the most obvious title anybody could come up with. Because that’s basically the meaning of Impressionism: To capture the impressions of a place while painting on site (at a given moment). On the upside, Places casually solves another problem, which is the question of how to arrange the artworks, and divide the exhibition in different ‘”chapters”/rooms. With Places, this is easy: One room each, Giverny, London, Normandy, the Mediterranean, Railroad - wait: what?! this one seems strange, not truly a “place”, but more like marking an era of technological progress. Accordingly, visitors are taught here about the French railroad network's fast development in Monet’s lifetime, and see a painting by his teacher Eugène Boudin. The master’s own scenes of station life and railroad bridges on the contrary are reserved to the respective cities, Paris and London.

A second less specific place is called Snow, and here let’s delve a little more into the paintings: Claude Monet is not particularly known for his images of frozen landscapes, much less than for his impressions from warmer seasons. And somehow they preserve much of that warmth, appear in stark contrast to the forlorn melancholy of another, the “Icy Impressionist” who dedicated large parts of his œuvre to wintery desolations, speaking about Alfred Sisley. Monet’s scenes appear homelier, almost in every case, there is some form of human dwelling, a house, a hut, a cabin, in sight, providing the promise of a cozy fire and a sizzling pot of grog (or cocoa!) - it’s winter with a bobble hat! Subjective, personal, interpretation? But yes, there is so much subjectivity in Impressionism, that of course did not – and never possibly could – capture, then release, unfiltered, “objective”, impressions, as they always needed to pass through a human spirit, of somebody who had well chosen his place in advance.

Even though the exhibition cannot tell anything new, the non-chronological presentation - Monet would return to some places at different points of his career -, invites to comparisons among the artist’s œuvre, see for yourself how his style developed over the years. The young Monet’s places of predilection were Normandy and the forest of Fontainebleau, in this chapter we also find his first ever painting the world knows about: Vue prise à Rouelles, 1858. Just like the rural scenes of the 1860s, it seems (and how could it be any different?) still conventional, strictly focusing on a view, limited to the visual, but not bringing the whole, atmospheric, impression on canvas. Whereas right from the start, Monet took much care of geographic correctness, he still stopped short at adding the atmosphere and mood, the “impression” in the whole meaning of the term. These are impressive, yet in no way special works. - And yet, knowing the painter's later masterpieces, you might hesitate occasionally, and smile, there are haystacks: Meules près de Chailly, soleil levant, 1865; and does this Chemin sous les bois, 1865, not announce more famous views from his garden in Giverny of decades later, the Chemin de Roses in particular? Still 1865, a Forêt de Fontainebleau is explained as a conscious essay to compete with the world’s first photographers, everything was still about documenting a “reality”, understood in a precise, unpsychological, way (art history students might now discuss the “aura” of photographic works).

Came the 1870s, and an all-decisive breakthrough, as we recall: Impression. Soleil Levant, the one painting that (involuntarily) gave Impressionism its name, dates from (~)1872 (this, of course never leaves the Marmottan - but if you only look closely, the sun often gives a very similar impression, not least at Étretat, soleil couchant, 1883). Suddenly, or not so suddenly – they were labouring for quite a while, Impressionism came into being, with a lot of artists more or less collaboratively giving it birth. And of course, the true aficionado will get his money’s worth at Barberini, too!

We accompany Monet to places in France and abroad, to Holland, Norway, London – if you missed the train stations and bridges in that railroad room, Charing Cross, Saint Lazare, Waterloo, they’re all here. (Just by the way: The wall text “The Colors(sic!) of Fog: London” reads bloody wrong, don’t you think? Monet himself probably didn’t spell American English.) Also Italy. Venice would not easily submit to the painter, it’s nearly impossible not to see Caravaggio in his view of the Palazzo Ducale, 1908, and that’s probably not - or not only – for the schooled eye’s connotations. (Also by the way: Wouldn’t it have been fun to discover the Palazzo Grassi here? How do those collectors get along with each other?) Other Venetian scenes are more distinctly “Monet” - even though Rio della Salute, 1908, brings some unexpected shrill colours to the mix. Which takes us to a different kind of comparison, with other artists. Talking about unstable, shrill, neon, colours, a Champ de blé of 1881 in its skies and trees just screams van Gogh, doesn’t it? ...which is strictly impossible, the Dutch fields dating from a decade later! And could you not think L’eglise de Vétheuil of 1878 Maurice Utrillo’s highest achievement ever, yet he wasn’t even born then – the point being that it is not a “typical” Monet)?! It’s safer to establish parallels with other impressionists, the voluptuous Coin de jardin à Montgeron, 1876, could well be signed by Renoir, too.

Back once more to the South, and the Riviera: Italy and Antibes, the latter never looked so North African, with walls glowing violent white like Algiers, la ville blanche. Off to Bordighera, and suddenly you realize, how void of animal life these scenes are. Only flora, no fauna here, are people even amiss? It’s a post-human world, in which cities have become natural phenomena like flowers and streams. (No, not “wuhaaaan” again.) Appearing in this grey and white mass, manmade constructions no longer offer a promise of refuge, and there is nobody who could profit. But compare this impression to, e.g., La maison du douanier, 1882, Oies dan le ruisseau, 1874, and even Rivière et moulin près de Giverny, 1885, all in harmonious resistance to and with wilderness. As long as nature’s in majority, even the humblest hut with Monet signifies protection, a way out and home, a rescue; silent, peaceful, contemplation far from danger. Somewhere in-between, the Maisons sur le vieux pont de Vernon, 1883, (Parisian bridges once looked like this, before Haussmann came) are grown into nature, a part and yet a thing apart, a natural? dwelling. On the beach, we either find the dissolution of massed human forms in the sea and sun: Marée basse aux Petites-Dalles, 1884, or an equally faceless individual towered by the waves, and very possibly contemplating that one step too far: Plage de Fécamp, 1881. The overall impression that could overcome all contradictions being man’s inferiority to the powers of nature as expressed in her beauties and superior calm: Peaceful mornings on the Seine, that’s how we know, and love, our good ole’ “Père Claude”. Even if this beauty is achieved by – or with the help of – human instruments: His famous garden at Giverny, an explosion of blossoming colours – once again without any inhabitants. The exhibition closes with contemporary film images of the genius loci, Monet himself, in this earthly paradise.

Monet, Places, 22 February-1 June, 2020, Barberini Museum

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism

P.S.: If like me you have a soft spot for the creativity and shameless sell-out of museum shops: The Barberini is offering bouquets of straw flowers, and socks. That’s right: socks with Impressionism printed upon. Talk about treading on art.



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