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Untitled "World Best" or "Beauty in Decline"? The success of the MoMA exhibition in Berlin and the initial response in the national and foreign press


It's an exhibition in superlative terms. Ever since the opening of the MoMA in Berlin in The New National Gallery, visitors have begun lining up at nine o'clock in the morning to see over two hundred 20th-century art treasures from New York on loan in Berlin - from Picasso and Matisse to Georgia O'Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and Gerhard Richter. Over 15,000 visitors came on the first weekend alone, and the exhibition, scheduled to run until September 19, promises to become the event of the year.

This enthusiasm is also reflected in the large number of articles already written about the show. Prior to the opening, however, certain commentators were somewhat skeptical. In the Zeit, for instance, Hanno Rauterberg predicted that "the ideas of the avant-garde are turning into a spectacle for art gourmets - and a vehicle for polishing up the transatlantic relations," while Niklas Maak in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung somewhat mockingly commented on the "odd feeling" of "discovering your own stuff inside a Care package." It was only at the preview, which drew over 500 journalists to Berlin, that the initial polemics over the high cost of the mammoth project subsided. In view of the masterpieces, Bernhard Schulz of the Tagesspiegel joyfully announced: "look forward to a feast, not an intellectual test," in which an encounter with the works themselves, "complete with all their aura," forms the central experience.

On the other hand, the departments that made the Museum of Modern Art so unique in its early history - film, photography, design, and architecture - are sorely missed, having found no real echo in Berlin. For Brigitte Werneburg of the taz, this prevents the "true MoMA feeling from emerging." On the other hand, she finds consolation in the extensive american season program accompanying the exhibition, which "helps to create a somewhat more complex picture of the 'MoMA in Berlin.'" But everyone agrees that the presentation, particularly of the paintings, has found a kindred context that even the Museum of Modern Art itself can't offer some of its works. Following his tour of the exhibition, Bernhard Schulz summed it up thus in the Tagesspiegel: "In New York, great attention will be paid to the fact that Mies van der Rohe's art temple does more justice to the treasures than they have ever before experienced in their own museum."

According to the foreign press, the matter is abundantly clear: it was well worth it. For the Austrian Standard, the MoMA in Berlin is already "the mother of all blockbuster exhibitions." In addition to artistic excellence, Bert Rebhandl detects cultural connections at work "thankfully carried on" between Germany and the U.S. According to Rebhandl, the Museum of Modern Art has developed into a "unique bourgeois institution," while German museums "were subjected to half a century of continuous political turmoil following 1933."

In the Viennese Kurier, Reinhard Frauscher already sounds a bit melancholy in the face of the show's enormous variety when he writes that an exhibition of this kind will "never take place in Europe again," where "one shining example follows the next … almost without a single gap" in Mies van der Rohe's construction of steel and glass. This is why he's hoping the exhibition will reach the 500,000 visitor mark it's shooting for: "that would be a record for Berlin and further proof of the fact that a museum can be world best, even without state funding."

Paolo Valentino visited the exhibition for the Italian Corriere della Sera to write about the works from, as he put it, the "collection of modern art celebrated most in the entire world." He was particularly enchanted by Edward Hopper's painting House by the Railroad, for him an icon from the time of the American Great Depression. On the evening of the opening, his colleague Francesca Sforza from La Stampa was just as impressed by Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit, who celebrated the MoMA's arrival in Berlin "with a Cuba Libre." Sforza, too, sees the show as a successful symbol of "cultural and political rapprochement" and as an "important gathering together of Modernism" on one of its original sites, from which the art emigrated to New York during Hitler's dictatorship. She was also favorably impressed by the young "MoMAnizers" there to assist the public as tour guides providing information about the works.

According to Sandra Ellegiers from the Spanish paper El Pais, the artworks, which "without a doubt define the canon of Classic Modernism," find their appropriate historical context in Berlin's New National Gallery. She is, however, slightly troubled by the fact that certain areas so characteristic for the New York museum are completely left out: in favor of the "classically art historical presentation of the exhibition," "film, photography, books, even radios and vacuum cleaners - in other words, all areas in the visual arts of aesthetic-historical interest" have been entirely omitted.

On the other hand, Claudia Schwartz from the Neue Züricher Zeitung prefers to distill a few ironic aspects from the MoMA exhibition. For her, Roy Lichtenstein's Drowning Girl, the "proud beauty in decline," becomes a symbol for the event: "In a mixture of cliché and over-identification, Berlin, which as we all know is up to its neck in water, passes itself off as the American comic-book heroine." In spite of this, "the minute one is standing in front of the masterpieces," Schwartz quickly forgets all the hubbub over VIP invitations and queues. Because then, situated between Cézanne's The Bather and Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse, one can catch a glimpse of that time again, which knew "that from now on, nothing would go on being the way it was." The exhibition tour, which leads from the beginnings of Modernism up through Philip Guston and Gerhard Richter, is, as Schwartz sums it up, a pure "master narrative" in which Richter's 1988 RAF Series forms a "disturbing echo chamber of history."

The MoMA in Berlin, through September 19; New National Gallery, Berlin, Potsdamer Straße 50. Tues./Weds./Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thurs./Fri./Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m.