PRINT Summer 1994


Ingrid Rein

IT WAS MUNICH’S NAME as an art town, a sort of Athens on the Isar, that drew the young Adolph Hitler there in 1913. Over twenty years later, in 1935, he drafted a vision of Munich as a modern “city of the Hellenes”—the “capital of German art,”and the future “capital of the [Nazi] movement.” Even earlier, in 1933, at the foundation-stone ceremony for Munich’s Haus der Deutschen Kunst (the house of German art, the first representative building of Nazi architecture), Hitler had proclaimed, in his peculiar staccato, “I want to make Munich a city so honoring Germany that none shall know Germany without having seen Munich.” Lifting this language from the 19th-century Bavarian king Ludwig I, the man primarily responsible for Munich’s cultural reputation, Hitler had also invoked the “great Ludovican heritage.” (Actually Ludwig’s heirs, the Wittelsbacher family, shunned Nazism, and they ultimately emigrated and later were interned in a concentration camp.)

I rehearse this history because the most important cultural event of the last year in this city has surely been “München und der Nationalsozialismus” (Munich and National Socialism), a study of Munich’s “Brown” past-26 exhibitions at different institutions, along with lectures, seminars, and debates. The pretext for the event was not the increasingly professionalized and international phenomenon of neo-Nazism. It did, however, coincide with three Munich anniversaries: the 75th anniversary of the November Revolution, and of the birth of Bavarian democracy; the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s bloody 1923 beer-hall putsch; and the 60th anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power.

Three central exhibitions in the Stadtmuseum investigated the conditions and causes of Nazism in Munich (the movement’s birthplace) and elsewhere in Bavaria. “München—Haupstadt der Bewegung” (Munich—capital of the movement) was a dusky marathon, two kilometers of exhibits that moved from the trenches of World War I to the liberation by American troops in 1945. “Barren im Nationalsozialismus—Bayern 1933–45” (Building in National Socialism—Bavaria 1933-45) catalogued the region’s Nazi architecture with photographs of municipal buildings, Hitler Youth hostels, residential complexes, and even death camps to explore the interplay of architecture, politics, and ideology, and the discrepancy between rhetoric and reality—the many unrealized projects, and the predominance of rather ordinary, generic architecture (as opposed to the heavy neoclassicism one associates with the period). It also touched on the lunacy of everyday life under Nazism, and on the drive for racial “purity”: a sign in a Hitler Youth camp proclaimed “We are born to die for Germany”; another, outside a tourist site near Munich, read, “Jews enter this village at their own risk.”

The third exhibition, “Hoffmann und Hitler—Fotografie als medium des Führer mythos” (Hoffman and Hitler—photography as medium of the Führer myth), analyzed Hitler as simulacrum, a figure staged by propaganda to answer the public’s yearning for a strongman to save the country from chaos. The motto Ein Volk, ein Führer (One people, one leader) styled the Führer as emblem of the nation, an idol embodying the system. And the photographs—the court reporting—of Heinrich Hoffmann cast him in set roles: heroic and alone, or jovial and human, or statesmanlike; here in the mountains above the populace, there down among them; here in lederhosen, there in a trench coat. The cliches are familiar: do they still work? Does the charisma come across? Rarely. Didn’t Hitler know that the photographs he circulated as postcards in 1927 were self-caricature? Today, these exaggerated gestures more than anything evoke Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. What was a ’20s audience thinking when it took this accidental comedian seriously?

In other ways, though, we haven’t learned much from the past. “München und der Nationalsozialismus” seldom touched on fascism’s new resurgence; for the most part, history remained history, safely over. The organizers presumably wanted to treat the Third Reich’s propaganda apparatus unemotionally, exploring its manipulative methods and rhetorics while avoiding any duplication of them. The facts were to speak for themselves. Yet current events surely change things: a synagogue burned, public meetings broken up by neo-Nazis, immigrants and the homeless unsafe in the streets.

The security from which, even in the early ’80s, it was possible to discuss Germany’s past no longer exists. Suddenly we find ourselves in our parents’ and grandparents’ roles, passively attending to our private lives, guilty over our diminished political involvement, powerless as voters, feeling we have no way to halt the “inception.” Once again, a militant minority precisely targets terror to destabilize the state, which reacts conspicuously sluggishly. Once again, cryptic rituals and irrational enemy-lists cement the unity of militant groups that claim to embody the “normal.” Once again, the middle class is largely indifferent. Though most people oppose neo-Nazism, many feel a desire to rehabilitate their fathers and grandfathers. The reunified Germany, integrated in the European Community, is in some ways nothing like the isolated Weimar Republic, hut in others there are continuities—unemployment, economic anxiety, lack of faith in the system. “München und der Nationalsozialismus” ignored most of this.

Munich was lenient on Nazi crimes even in the ’20s, and its 10,000 or so Jews were oppressed in various ways even before Hitler came to power. Germany’s first concentration camp, Dachau, is near Munich; it opened in 1933. In 1937, the inflammatory exhibition “Der ewige Jude” (The eternal Jew) was tremendously popular here. Of the Munich Jews, a fraction survived.

The city’s mayor and cultural minister are candid about this history in the “München und der Nationalsozialismus” program, admitting that Munich’s “specific mixture, in those days, of reactionary tradition, bourgeois opportunism, antimodern resentment, and susceptibility to the propaganda and the violence of National Socialist activists was the ground for Hitler’s success.” Yet “München—Haupstadt der Bewegung” was remarkably partial in its picture of Jewish life. Germany’s Jewish community today is small, and young people in particular may not have much ordinary, everyday experience of Jews to identify with. Yet the exhibition presented the Jews almost exclusively as a community of suffering, and for the most part described them only from the outside. Actually they were members of the volunteer fire brigade, colleagues, neighbors, veterans of a world war in which they had fought for Germany—like many of the exhibition’s visitors. Did Munich’s Jews found self-help organizations to support emigration, aid programs, welfare, and educational and cultural affairs, like those of Berlin and Cologne after 1933? The exhibition didn’t tell us. It gave us no view of ordinary Jewish life in Munich under the Third Reich, nor any suggestion of the Jews’ will to survive, their cultural and civic sense, their feelings of responsibility to each other, and their inability to think their fellow countrymen capable of the worst.

To this day, none of Munich’s cultural institutions consistently documents Munich’s history as the “capital of the movement”—though some of them are housed in Nazi architecture. After the war, the city resurrected itself as “Germany’s secret capital”—close to the Alps, near Italy and the lakes. This thoroughly sensual Residenzstadt is one of Germany’s most beautiful, visibly affluent towns.

Despite two universities and significant private enterprise, the pulse of a contemporary multicultural metropolis is barely felt here. An intellectually sharp critical culture would inevitably have to violate the city’s deeply rooted desire for consensus and absolution. Clearly Munich’s climate is not ideal for living art and artists. The city may want to restore its cultural reputation, but it lacks the courage to unravel its homegrown notions of what contemporary art should be. The only Munich artists to reach an international audience in the ’80s, Gerhard Merz and Gunther Förg, have both moved elsewhere.

It’s not economic depression that has brought gallery closings to Munich: the losses come from lack of interest. Late in 1993 the nonprofit K-Raum Daxer closed; it had specialized in younger artists. After 25 years in Munich, the print publisher Galerie Schellmann has moved to Cologne. Tschechow und Mosel, which used to show younger artists, has reduced its activities. At the same time, some attempts to migrate have been corrected: this summer, Galerie Tanit is moving to new, larger quarters in the Kirchenstrasse, and may close its Cologne branch. Young galleries such as Daniel Blau, Binder und Rid, and Daniel Fusban are becoming profitable. These three spaces all try to survive by combining established artists with new discoveries. At the nonprofit Balanstrasse, Oliver Camerer and Marco Wiest are breaking with the usual gallery program, as for example in “Künstliche Tiere—Geregelte Welten” (Artificial animals—regulated worlds), an exhibition of Lego-brick animals with moving parts, made by the mathematician Thomas Nitsche.

There is also an “other” Munich that continues to surprise. There are dealers who—like artists—sketch out alternative worlds (Rüdiger Shöttle, for example, in his “Theatergarden” exhibition); who inspire artists, not necessarily from their own galleries, with an idea (as Bernd Kluser did with “Der gefrorene Leopard” [The frozen leopard]); or who address current conditions with quite uncommercial exhibitions (“Eine mißlungene Ausstellung” [A failed show], at Tanit). Yet these activities often get more response outside Munich than in the city itself. Munich’s ministry of culture maintains exhibition and studio spaces; it’s not that art isn’t encouraged here. The problem liesin the city’s tendency to cut itself from the international discourse. Located in Germany’s far south, Munich risks becoming a backwater.

In Munich, it takes a member of the old aristocracy, Prinz Franz von Bayern, a knowledgeable collector (and a Wittelsbacher), to try to get a museum of contemporary art off the ground, along with Johann Georg Prinz von Hohenzollern, the director of the Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen (the Bavarian state art collections). And it’s the state government that holds up the process, reluctant to allocate funds for art in an election year. This new Pinakothek der Modeme would house the Staatsgalerie moderner Kunst, the Neue Sammlung (a museum of design), the Architekturmuseum, and the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung. The Munich architect Stephan Braunfels has designed a substantial three-floor structure for the complex.

Barely ten minutes’ walk from the Pinakothek’s future site is the Städtische Galerie, which itself has just given Munich a new art space—the Kunstbau, which opened in April with a Dan Flavin installation. Just across the street from the museum’s main building, the Kunstbau is sited in the mezzanine of a subway station—one can see into it, through its glass walls, from the subway escalators. The space is slightly curved, and is divided by heavy concrete pillars. The Munich architect Uwe Kiessler has accepted the wall’s curve and the raw concrete of pillars and ceiling, but has hidden the concrete walls behind white ones, and put in parquet floors of light maple. An entrance ramp reaches into the room, easing the height difference from the foyer to the exhibition space. The space is self-contained and beautiful. Flavin’s green-, blue-, yellow-, and pink-fluorescent bands mark the room’s longitudinal axes, and follow its curvature. Creating a space out of light, with multiple reflections and zones of color, the installation temporarily distracts one from the room’s difficulty for more conventional exhibitions.

Another new museum project—the smallest of the three, but an exceptional one for this city—opened a year and a half ago. In consultation with the artist Helmut Federle, the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have built a private museum, the Sammlung Goetz, for the 600-work collection of former dealer Ingvild Goetz. Goetz wanted a space as sparse as a monastery—an austere “container,” reduced in form, media, and even volume. The museum is designed in concrete, light birch, and shimmering glass. On the two floors of exhibition space, diffuse light slants down from high windows. The wall are meticulously plastered but unpainted. The space is small, so the collection is exhibited in a rotation that begins with Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman, Alan Charlton, Michael Heizer, arte povera, and other artists from the late ’60s and ’70s. From the ’80s the collection includes Federle, John Armleder, Gerwald Rockenschaub, and Rosemarie Trockel, as well as Michael Krebber, Cindy Sherman, and Haim Steinbach.

A recent show here included several artists rarely seen before in Munich: Peter Halley, Philip Taaffe, Jonathan Lasker, Ross Bleckner, Christopher Wool, and Donald Baechler. Though outside the city center and open only by appointment, the museum drew streams of visitors; for a symposium featuring Halley, Bleckner, and David Reed, it had to turn people away at the door. This is exactly what Ingvild and Stephan Goetz wanted: a forum to look at the immediate present, which Munich has kept at a safe distance for years.

Ingrid Rein is a writer who lives in Munich.

Translated from the German by Isabelle Moffat.