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  • Christian Hain

Through the Year in Two Rooms and Some Centuries: David Hockney, Würth Collection, Gemäldegalerie

(Berlin.) When one of Germany's top collectors, "Master of Screws" (that's what he does, i.e. sells, for a - very good! - living) Mr. Reinhold Würth, is celebrating his 87th birthday, General, no: President, I mean: Director of the Berlin National Gallery, Mr. Eissenhauer (yes, that is a variant spelling of "Eisenhower", it literally means "beater of iron", and no: they're not related, afaik) is happy to throw the birthday bash in his rooms - he isn't a member of that collection's very prominent advisory panel for nothing.

In case you wonder, which would of course be very indecent, whether there won't be certain taxes to pay in the foreseeable future, and how museum directors who rely on donations might feel thrilled already, and almost impatient - no, not for that! but wouldn't it be nice to get a peek at that will beforehand...? - be told: This is not America and "what happens in a German foundation, stays in a German foundation." There's (almost) no way to get it out again. Not only the Art Collection of roundabout 18,000(!) pieces, among them some coveted treasures but also certain - well, Mr Würth has always loved everything "art" without a strict concept or curatorial guidelines (which is rather refreshing, don't you think?) - but even the company financing it has been owned by such a legal entity for years (don't you worry, the family gets yearly dividends). To sum it up: No gifts to expect.

Whereas Würth Collection operates a handful of exhibition spaces in rather remote areas of Southwestern Germany and even abroad, Gemäldegalerie ("Picture Gallery") belongs to one of the - should we say "gangs"? that rule Berlin's cultural jungle of municipal, regional, and state managed art institutions. This particular conglomerate called "Nationalgalerie" may not be confused with the exhibition spaces called "Nationalgalerie", one of which, the "Neue" (New) "Nationalgalerie" resides in a brandnew building just around the corner from Gemäldegalerie, the other (you guess it: "Alte"/Old "Nationalgalerie") on central Museum Island (somehow, the "SMB", the "Federal Museums of Berlin" are also implicated here - some say, Germany invented bureaucracy, all we know is that there are a lot of paid positions to fill). Anyways, Würth Collection's "plus one" at the boss's party is Sir David Hockney, or in other words: the public gets treated to a small but exquisite show built around a masterpiece series by the British painter (neither artist nor collector who belong almost to the same generation attended the opening).

Only recently, Würth (Collection) bought a piece of Hockney's Woldgate Woods series that was filmed by nine cameras simultaneously, Google Maps style - a technique "invented" by the insect's compound eye - but today, it's all about the Three Trees Near Thixendale (such a lyrical tongue twister!) aka The Four Seasons from 2007/08 (if I were that collector, I knew which hotel chain to buy and put it in the lobby... saying this, they don't even play Vivaldi at Gemäldegalerie). The "family portraits" of a group of trees in the English countryside have last been shown in Berlin in 2019, when Gropius Bau - who, by the way, belongs to a different outfit called Berliner Festspiele and there might be some tensions as today, everybody seems eager to avoid all mention of that event, not least in the extensive takeaway leaflet (a megarich foundation co-hosting your event comes with some benefits!) - dedicated a solo show to - no, not the artist, but: Würth (Collection). Gemäldegalerie not strictly: "surrounds", but rather: "introduces" the cycle with a selection of Old Master paintings from their own and other Berlin ("Nationalgalerie"?) collections.

On the occasion, the museum also introduces their new lighting system (sponsored by - no, this we don't know!), to which the scenography adds differently painted walls for both parts of the show. First, in the "antechamber", there's the old art on pigeon blue walls, then, much better lighted - not least for conservation reasons, I am well aware - follow Hockney's Seasons in the sun on a blood-red background. This seems slightly contraproductive if the aim was to prove constancies and influences, as the changes in colour, light, and resulting ambiance, appear rather abrupt. At least the doorless opening betwen both rooms allows some parallel viewing (and yet distracts from the first part - more on this later). Speaking of conservation issues: One particularly fragile van Gogh drawing could only be shown briefly, as under light (every kind of light, that new system is innocent!), the ink will destroy the paper while also fading itself - isn't it fascinating?

While Sir David painted his series partly "plein air" - doing sketches on site, then executing the final version from memory, in this following one of his idols, Constable -, the rather plain, meaning "flat", images don't capture, and transport, (emotional) impressions. They seem far from all, Realism, Impressionism and Constable's (Realist) Romanticism. Hockney's trees appear rudimentary, skeletized, not completely unrelated to computer prints. Today, about a decade after their creation, he's using much technology in his work, even painting completely digital, and you could see that coming. There are visible breaks, lines, geometric ruptures in the image where individual panels connect - instead of using one huge canvas per Season, the artist painted each on eight rectangular ones (arranged 2x4) - that further evoke vector graphics and computer scans, even a video cube. Neither focusing light nor mood, they seem rather analytical, documenting outer appearance in a peculiar manner, also merging different perspectives into one, "irreal", point of view.

Irreverently spoken, those trees are reminiscent of overgrown mushrooms or cabbage, especially in summertime.

You might call the style "abstractly realist", and the museum stresses a parallel to the Old Dutch Masters who would also work from home after taking sketches outside, yet habitually "rearrange" nature and thus create a vision between sight and fiction, "reality" and "truth". We can verify this (well, not really without timetravelling to the 17th Century Netherlands, but anyway...) in certain of the works, Gemäldegalerie has added. They basically chose (available) works in small format depicting nature and particularly woods, which is a wide approach indeed.

Visitors get treated to a crash course in the history of European landscape painting from the 15th Century onwards. Dutch artists were famously among the first able to show nature for its own sake and not only to fill the background of some scene of moral (i.e. spiritual) value at a time when painters doing the same elsewhere in Europe would get cancelled. There was evolution in this, too: With Sint Jans' John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1480/90 already) it still seems kind of hard to see anything special in that wilderness, whereas at around the same time - yet out of Holland -, Piero della Francesca carefully balanced a St. Jerome with trees (rather undetailed, yet crucial for the composition). Later, we find Meindert Hobbema's Village Road under Trees that is indisputably all about nature and nothing else, overpowering the tiny villagers, Jacob van Ruisdal (1660s) prepared the Barbizon painters (Theodore Rousseau is here!) who paved the way for Monet (not here, nor is Sisley but only his very own precursor as Winter's portraitist, Gijsbrecht Leytens), Richard Wilson's Landscape with River Valley - now we're in the 18th Century - draws the spectator's eye into a central body of water (a painting not for the trypophobe), and if that Constable were a photograph, you'd comment, "too much sky", but of course the master of clouds is known precisely for that - reaching for the sky mattered most to him. Then, there's Claude dit Le Lorrain with - Stop. This is namedropping at its best, meaning worst, and yet it's exactly how many visitors will experience the exhibition, hurrying through the prelude on their way to the main thing: Hockney's series that upon entering is immediately visible in the distant spotlight. That first part feels like an appetizer, or like reading up on your art history, leafing through some art history book in preparation of a museum visit - having mentioned Hockney's fondness for computers, you might call these magnificent Old Master paintings mere add-ons here...

There's hardly any fair comparison possible, also because what they lack in size cannot be replaced by number: Put Hockney's series up against something in its own weight class, meaning size, or compare it to just one, two, maybe three smaller precursors each under a different aspect, but in this exhibition, they appear dwarved beyond size, like a group of admirers buzzing around and paying hommage to the Master.

Lest we forget, Gemäldegalerie is proud to present their "new", i.e.: "reborn", Rembrandt, Landscape with Arch Bridge, that for the past thirty years has been attibuted to the his disciple Govert Flinck before being again recognized for an original Rembrandt™️. That's not merely a defeat for Flinck (and his market, cynically realist spoken), but more importantly a reason to celebrate for the museum, its national and international standing, the value of its collection - which translates into more visitors but also raised insurance fees, &ct.

That small drawing instantly impresses with its effects of light.

Many paintings here would deserve to be the central part of an exhibition

but mark, how Gemäldegalerie's title takes care to mention only one work (series) and its collector - and none of the artists. Obviously, Hockney took something from or has been influenced by most, if not all of them, flying the Dutchmen to the future, but please, take your time: Sometimes, smaller is better.

Dialogue. The Four Seasons from the Würth Collection on Display in Berlin, 9 April-10 July, Gemäldegalerie

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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