It takes courage to conceive the reopening of a museum like Hamburger Bahnhof – Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart in Berlin. In 2021, the museum lost the private Flick collection, which had dominated its exhibitions since 2004, and in 2022, it barely avoided eviction. My general impression of these past two decades has been that of a stasis in terms of choosing, collecting, and presenting art spanning the last decades of the last century and the first two of the new. Berlin’s youngest art museum suffered from precocious sclerotization.
Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, the institution’s codirectors since January 2022 – in collaboration with Gabriele Knapstein, head of its collection; Alice Koegel, head of exhibitions; and curator Catherine Nichols – took up the challenge and put together a structure of exhibitions, events, and special interventions that in various ways deflated the white cube fixation of Hamburger Bahnhof. Four solo shows,  as well as the “Forum Hamburger Bahnhof,” a show on the history of the building; the “Endless Exhibition,” a round tour of permanent works inside and outside the building; and the new presentation of the collection “Nationalgalerie: Eine Sammlung für das 21. Jahrhundert” make up a very densely populated neighborhood of shows without fences. This structure is not calculated for sensationalism; it feels like an example of institutional soft power, in opposition to the museal representation of an entrenched canon we are used to and which the so-called educated public is not accustomed to call into question yet.
One bastion of educated expectations which is shaken by the new structure is the so-called quality of art – as of old, this category of judgement was produced by sedimentation, or rather by marching through the institutions of the art system. Canonization finds its pinnacle on the level of national art museums. The public gets used to seeing, for example, Daniel Buren’s stripes or Daniel Spoerri’s after-dinner tables as iconic pieces of contemporary art. As a member of the educated art community, one does not confess to not being able to “see” Joseph Beuys’s Unschlitt/Tallow (Wärmeskulptur, auf Zeit hin angelegt) (1977), possibly the most sanctified artwork of the Hamburger Bahnhof’s collection which, together with his Straßenbahnhaltestelle/Tramstop (1976), sat in more sad than splendid isolation from the rest of the collection for years. Now Unschlitt is integrated in the new display of the collection with the programmatic title “Nationalgalerie: Eine Sammlung für das 21. Jahrhundert” (National Gallery: A Collection for the 21st Century), together with works of younger artists which have recently been or will be acquired. In Unschlitt’s immediate vicinity, for example, an extremely anti-sanctifying base- and capital-less column made exclusively of bubble wrap stands precariously, fixed vertically to floor and ceiling with red gaffer tape (Ayse Erkmen: Hochstapler [Impostor], 2022), and, surprise, the unwieldy Unschlitt begins to resonate. This coupling of the quasi-mythic Unschlitt, which is so heavy and frail it cannot be moved, with Erkmen’s lightweight but tough Hochstapler-impostor finds its counterpart in the pairing of a huge painting by Anselm Kiefer (Leviathan, 1989) with a small cement sculpture by Isa Genzken (Hof, 1990) – two very effective examples of curatorial soft (and also gender) politics.
Strangely, the museum’s collection – that is, those works owned by the tax-financed Hamburger Bahnhof and not by the private collectors who since the 1990s have given their artworks as permanent loans – is somehow unknown to the public. Exhibitions of the post-1945 20th-century canon, even the permanent installations of the collection, consisted mostly of works owned by Friedrich Christian Flick and Erich Marx, until Flick withdrew more than 1,500 works in 2021, though a donation of 268 remained in the collection. Erich Marx and his heirs followed a different strategy: in 2022 his estate donated the Beuys works in their collection to the State Museums of Berlin (to which Hamburger Bahnhof and Neue Nationalgalerie belong). Together with the other works in the Marx collection, by artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Anselm Kiefer, which are still on loan, a majority will go to the Museum of the 20th Century, currently under construction at the Kulturforum.  This much-criticized merging of private and public ownership created an extremely complicated structure which made it impossible for the taxpaying public to know what it owns – another problem the new directors have to deal with, now that the museum is thrown back on its publicly owned collection.
With most of the Marx collection going to the not-yet-built museum, a clear division of competences between Hamburger Bahnhof – Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart, the Neue Nationalgalerie, and the upcoming Museum of the 20th Century, the latter two headed by Klaus Biesenbach – with “modern” art of the 20th century until 1989 at Neue Nationalgalerie and contemporary art from 1989 to the present at Hamburger Bahnhof – seems to be on its way but is not (yet?) implemented, as Monica Bonvicini’s show “I do You,” a furiously contemporary transformation of Mies van der Rohe’s high modernist art temple, and the current exhibition, “Isa Genzken: 75/75” celebrating Genzken’s 75th birthday with 75 of her works, demonstrate. I also doubt Biesenbach will give up his social media prominence linked to recent stardoms in art and fashion for the slow-moving profile of a museum director of art from the past.
Isolation and the white cube belong together when it comes to show the stand-alone value of canonical art, and the national museums of modern and contemporary art in Berlin have staunchly followed this display tradition. Reconstructed by Josef Paul Kleihues, Hamburger Bahnhof has always been a difficult space for art exhibitions. Apart from the gigantic hall in the center, its rooms are relatively small and low-ceilinged, causing a congested spatial feeling. Any major-player art gallery has better rooms for showing the huge and diverse formats of contemporary art.
“Nationalgalerie: Eine Sammlung für das 21. Jahrhundert,” the central statement of the two directors, breaks with the white cube tradition in a way that could be considered a scandal. The exhibition design of aluminum divisions set on a bricked base works well; the public obviously enjoys strolling through the meandering divisions and looking around corners. The show does two things at the same time: constructing a new image of the collection and proposing a concept for future collecting. The curators unearthed works from the collection that had rarely, if ever, been exhibited, which they combined with recent and future acquisitions and loans from two publicly owned collections – those of ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen)  and the Sammlung zeitgenössischer Kunst der Bundesrepublik Deutschland.  These collections travel somewhat under the radar of the art world and the wider public and will be Hamburger Bahnhof’s partners for the exchange of artworks – an interesting way of substituting the works from the Flick collection, because their acquisition policies are less fixated on market value and an established canon.
“Nationalgalerie: Eine Sammlung für das 21. Jahrhundert,” focused on the Berlin art scene since 1989, is absolutely convincing, aesthetically and historically. It shows, and this is another surprise, that the art (sub)cultures of the East and of the global expats who settled in Berlin are very much in tune on many issues – yet another outcome of the concept of Bardaouil and Fellrath which I would describe as glocal. Until now, Berlin hasn’t had an art museum which is de facto contemporary. Bardaouil and Fellrath know of this paradoxical situation and with their show propose a way to make it operable.
Problems can arise when linkages are constructed between young positions and the collection’s heavyweights, as is the case in the show of US painter Christina Quarles, who “explores the experience of living in a racialized, queer body.”  The works of Daniel Buren and Charlotte Posenenske, for example, which Quarles chose from the collection and inserted into her show, looked very lonely and out of place to me – no resonating here. Maybe this is because these young(er) positions are to a high degree concerned with the telling of conflicting stories, identities, biographies, or localities – a trend which could also be seen in the 2022 Lyon Biennale, which Bardaouil and Fellrath curated under the title “Manifesto of Fragility” and which was very successful with the young public.  But narrating brings forth other aesthetics than the rigorous reduction practiced by artists like Buren or Posenenske – mostly colorful deictic practices of showing against the stark ontologies of simply “being.” While Erkmen’s Hochstapler and Genzken’s Hof undermined the authority of the “great” (male) artists’ work by simply being placed next to them, the outcome is not so convincing here. Perhaps it is not enough to have the artist choose their “Wahlverwandschaften” (elective affinities), which in turn says something about the role of the curator as the informed mediating eye between the works combined for an exhibition and the public.
A donation of works by the Fred Sandback Archive was the necessary catalyst for Sandback’s first solo museum show in Berlin,  “Simple Facts,” which is a testament to the limits of the modernist canon according to (West) Berlin before the fall of the Wall, from which, as I recall, conceptual and minimalist art were very much missing. Sandback, who died in 2003, is considered an artist’s artist, and his works, meanwhile, as minimalist classics. It is a modest exhibition, in rooms too small for his works which need space to exist. Only his drawings feel at home in these spatial conditions. Still, people walk around between the fragile threads of his sculptures and investigate how they “work” – proving that his working principles are accessible. However, they are not Instagrammable like Eva Fàbregas’s “Devouring Lovers,” enormous bubbles in colorful gigantic stockings which embrace and devour the iron construction of the huge historic hall. In the contest for the best installations in this space, which is almost as difficult as Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the winners are “bubbles” yet again, following Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud Cities (2011–12) success about ten years earlier.
The new team tries to establish a kind of double-glocalization: reconnecting with the city and its population, while at the same time finding the spaces and formats (and the politics of acquisition) for artists of very different yet specific contexts, regions, and, last but not least, genders. All of a sudden, solo exhibitions of women artists dominate the place. One thing is very obvious already with the combination of exhibitions on view: the canon is indeed if not broken then at least sidestepped – again, a soft power strategy. Perhaps it takes curators coming from the nomadic global circuit of temporary exhibitions – that is, from outside of the classical museum careers focused on the preservation of collections – to open the museum to the present and its public and to bring to new fruition the dialectics of showing and preserving.
“Nationalgalerie: Eine Sammlung für das 21. Jahrhundert,” Hamburger Bahnhof – Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart, Berlin, ongoing since June 16, 2023.
Susanne von Falkenhausen is professor emerita of modern and contemporary art history at Humboldt University, Berlin. Her latest book is Beyond the Mirror: Seeing in Art History and Visual Culture Studies, 2020.
Image credit: 1. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023 (Joseph Beuys), 2. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023 (Thomas Ruff); all images Courtesy of the artists and Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, photos Jacopo La Forgia
|The solo shows are “Zineb Sedira: Dreams Have no Titles,” “Christina Quarles: Collapsed Time,” “Fred Sandback: Simple Facts,” and, in the main hall, “Eva Fàbregas: Devouring Lovers.”
|See “Nationalgalerie erhält großzügige Schenkung von Beuys-Werken aus der Sammlung Marx,” Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, September 9, 2022.
|The ifa collection consists of approximately 23,000 works by artists from the Federal Republic and the GDR; see the ifa Agora.
|The collection of contemporary art of the Federal Republic consists of approximately 1,600 artworks. See “Die Sammlung zeitgenössischer Kunst der Bundesrepublik Deutschland – Eine Sammlung ohne Haus”.
|Quote from the exhibition flyer.
|42 percent of the visitors were younger than 26, see “16e Biennale d’art contemporain de Lyon – Bilan,” La Biennale de Lyon.
|Apart from a 2016 one-room Sandback show as part of a series of small exhibitions presenting the works of minimalist and concept art which Egidio Marzona had donated in 2002 and 2014. See also “Kunstsammlung Marzona bleibt integraler Teil des künftigen Neubaus am Kulturforum, Berlin und Dresden kooperieren zum Archiv des Sammlers,” Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, June 22, 2016.