Works from the Female Impressionists Exhibition

From Left to Right: Works by Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Eva Gonzalez, and Marie Braquemond.

Letter from Berlin

by Michael Nentwich

I


I will never forget my first coast-to-coast trip across the United States. I was no longer a student and was earning a decent income, but I was afraid of overspending and did what I would have done in Europe: I used buses and trains and avoided renting cars, assuming they were too expensive.

I arrived in Albuquerque, NM, bought a map, looked for the city center, and started walking. After an hour I had still not arrived anywhere near a downtown area. But a car stopped, and the driver told me that he had been in Germany as a GI and he thought I could only be a German walking in a strange area like this. When I asked him where downtown was, he pointed behind, and he kindly turned around and drove me there. I had missed it because, for a European, American cities (with few exceptions like New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans) don’t really have centers; they have skyscrapers instead. They are, as the quip has it, suburbs in search of a city. For a European, a city is a place where buildings, usually old, stand very close together and people walk in narrow streets and buy food in open air markets. Oh yes, we have cars, too. But in town, we use public transport, because it is faster and there is nowhere to park.

When I moved to the US, I learned quickly enough that American cities have more or less everything European cities have. But you have to drive there. You can’t study other people in the street, because you drive past them. You have to go somewhere specific to observe them, like a shopping mall. Some of these I found spectacular, but I still missed the sensation of standing in a square and looking at Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings around me and imagining that hundreds of years before, people had already walked and looked at each other there. Americans must share these feelings: they would not have invented Disneyland had they not felt a yearning for those old city centers that are a part of their heritage, too, but were not accessible unless one traveled across an ocean.

I’m certain that Americans have problems stemming from cultural conditioning as well when they travel to the Old World. But surely the American social studies teacher who recently told me that she visited Rome but was disappointed because it was so shabby and full of ruins was not representative!

 

II


So I would expect American art lovers to come to Europe to see old things. Moving to Berlin after twelve years in the US, however, I was surprised to note that visitors come to Berlin because of its reputation of being cutting edge. And it is.

When the European Union was founded, France was the center of it, and (West) Germany was at the edge, along the Iron Curtain, behind which, for all intents and purposes, was nothing. But with the fall of the Wall in 1989, all that changed. Suddenly, the EU includes Poland and the Baltic and some Balkan countries, and reunited Germany is in the middle of it. Especially Berlin, which is now Europe’s number three tourist destination after London and Paris. New York artists are moving to Berlin in droves, because the city is full of creativity and prices are more modest than even in Brooklyn, let alone Manhattan. Even international artist stars like Olafur Eliasson and Mona Hatoum have their studios here. Commercial galleries have been growing like mushrooms in the rain. The Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, the fifth installment of which is currently taking place, is fast becoming Germany’s answer to the Whitney Biennial in New York. The Art Forum has overtaken Art Cologne to become Germany’s number one art fair. Perhaps the most exciting shift is the fact that many Western German collectors are moving, or at least moving their art, to Berlin. The wonderful state art collections on Museum Island and at the Kulturforum are being augmented by a growing number of private museums, the most impressive one surely the Boros Collection, installed in a World War II bunker which the East German authorities never dared take down because the explosion might have destroyed the surrounding buildings. Christian Boros himself, who made his fortune with an advertising agency which counts Coca Cola among its customers, has moved from Wuppertal to Berlin and occupies a splendid penthouse on top of his bunker.

Not everybody is happy. The State Museums are criticized for ignoring the artistic activity in their city in their acquisition and exhibition policies. But as for art production, and as a destination for the traveler interested in contemporary art, Berlin is now with London the top destination in Europe.

 

III


Come to Berlin by all means to see the new. But while you are here, don’t forget that you are still in the Old World. Even if your passion is contemporary art, don’t forget that the good artists usually know the old masters and have learned from them. While Berlin does not rival New York or Washington as a venue for blockbuster exhibitions, there are always important shows on around Germany and in neighboring countries.

If two or more are traveling together, you may find that renting a car can be less costly than taking trains (rental cars are now a lot cheaper than in my youth!). Locally, public transport or walking will get you everywhere you want to go, but if you want to travel around Germany, a rental car is an option. Trains, especially the ICE, are fast and elegant, but expensive. And while Germany has more than eighty million inhabitants, the country is the size of Montana and it is easy to get around in.

 

IV


America’s favorite historical art movement is Impressionism. American museums have the most wonderful collections of Impressionist paintings outside of Paris. The Impressionist collections in German museums are relatively poor, because when this art was being created, nationalism was rampant in Europe, and Germany and France were archenemies. The director of the National Gallery, one of the five museums that make up the Museum Island complex, was Hugo von Tschudi. He appreciated Impressionism and collected it. He even bought the very first picture by Cezanne for a museum. But Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was interested in art but had an extremely reactionary and Germanocentric taste, made life so difficult for Tschudi that he eventually gave up his Berlin post.

Contemporary Germans adore Impressionism as much as Americans do, so at least we get regular temporary exhibitions. One is on in Cologne until late June. On display are 130 pictures by Manet, Monet, Caillebotte, Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, van Gogh and others. The exhibition travels to Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy where it will be from July until September.

More interesting because it is dedicated to a less frequently explored area is the Frankfurt exhibition on female Impressionists, showing 160 works by Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalez, and Marie Braquemond. Morisot’s paintings are gorgeous in a Manet kind of way, with energetic brushstrokes that make colors dance before your eyes. The more sober Mary Cassatt is closer in style to Degas, but the frequency of the mother-and-child theme in her work and the way she alternates between smooth, “realistic” areas of painting and parts where the brushstrokes are clearly visible and create a pointillist effect, amount to a style totally unlike that of any other painter. The numerous paintings by Cassatt in the show are a joy to compare. They are more varied than one expects and make you realize and regret that so many of her works in major American museum collections are not regularly displayed. If Eva Gonzales doesn’t make quite such an impact, it may be because of the selection of the works. To judge by this show, Gonzales was a searcher who see-sawed between “traditional” academic studies and extremely loose oil sketches. But in between, there are also jewels like the “Awaking Girl” from the Bremen Kunsthalle, or the “Loge in the Theatre des Italiens” from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Braquemond simply does not seem to be in the same league as the other three ladies, and the catalogue gives a reason for this. Her husband, who was also a painter, but conservative and second rate, incessantly criticized her for her attraction to Impressionism. He finally discouraged her so severely that she gave up painting altogether. 

“Female Impressionists” is that ideal show, a blockbuster which at the same time gives us new insights into art history. The female Impressionists represent an important stage in the emancipation of women artists, which depend on equal opportunity in training and encouragement.

 

V


Have you ever stood before a masterpiece in a museum and dreamt of being very rich and able to buy it and take it home? If you do, you will enjoy taking part in an auction at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. The most expensive Impressionist and modern paintings are usually sold in New York, but for Old Masters, London remains the preferred venue. And if you want to imagine being richer still, you go to TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair), which brings a large temporary museum together once a year in Maastricht, a Dutch town in the “Three Countries Corner” on the border with Belgium and Germany. This year, it took place from March 7 to16, and it was more sumptuous than ever. Just watching the well dressed, more than well-to-do crowds walk through the aisles or eat lobster (much more expensive in Europe than in the States!) and caviar in the elegant restaurants was enough to make you envious. The first weekend alone, 160 private planes landed at the small local airport. Many of the hotels raised their prices by 100% and were nevertheless fully booked. And the booths! Almost four hundred of the world’s top art dealers were there showing antiques and works of art, paintings, drawings and prints, modern art, classical antiquities and Egyptian works of art. 

Inevitably, one overhears an Arab gentlemen from the Persian Gulf buying a Fragonard, just like that, say: “Now what is your best price again? Can I pay by credit card?” How I would have loved to take Jan Steen’s “Sacrifice of Iphigenia”, van Gogh’s “Child with an Orange” and literally hundreds of other masterpieces home with me to my own private Persian Gulf! Or how about becoming an art dealer and striking it rich that way? One of the dealers I interviewed, Mark Weiss, told me that he inherited a small antiques store from his parents in provincial England and made it into the world class Weiss Gallery in London just by having a good eye. He never studied art history formally, but he once discovered a painting by the Flemish painter Pieter Pourbus in a garage sale and has since become one of THE authorities on the Pourbus dynasty of painters. How I would love to be Mark Weiss!

Exhibitions discussed:

5th Berlin-Biennale für zeitgenoessische Kunst, Berlin (Neue Nationalgalerie, Kunst-Werke, and Skulpturenpark Berlin-Zentrum) until June 15. Tue-Sun 12:00am-7:00pm, Thu -9:00 pm

Kunstbunker Berlin (Boros Collection) by appointment: www.sammlung-boros.de

Impressionism – How Light was Brought to Canvas, Cologne (Wallraf-Richartz-Museum) until June 22. Tue-Fri 10:00am-6:00pm, Thu -10:00pm, Sat-Sun 11:00am-6:00pm. Moves to Florence, Italy (Palazzo Strozzi) July 11-September 28.

Female Impressionists, Frankfurt/Main (Schirn-Kunsthalle) until June 1. Tue-Sun 10:00am-7:00pm, Wed & Thu -10:00pm. Moves to San Francisco Fine Arts Museum from June 21 to September 21.

Dr. Michael Nentwich was director of the Goethe-Institut Atlanta from 2000-2006. He now lives in Berlin.