Udo Kittelmann believes in the ability of art to speak to people. At a recent gathering to mark a new exhibition at the Israel Museum, he exhorted the audience to stroll through the exhibition. Words are nice, but seeing works up close helps do them justice.
The director of Berlin’s National Gallery, which comprises a network of six museums, Kittelmann was in Jerusalem briefly to speak about the “Twilight over Berlin,” which includes works from Germany from the years 1905 to 1945. “To me, it means a lot to commit works here [in Israel] now, and it was a terrific opening – hundreds of people came; it was fantastic.”
The works on display are considered iconic and representative of the influential German art period that spans the years leading up to World War I until World War II.
The keystone of the collection is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1914 painting of prostitutes standing on Potsdamer Platz. Sharp lines, dark colors and other features of German expressionism are evident.
“Titled ‘Twilight over Berlin,’ this exhibition includes a selection of the best works we could gather to give to this show. It is the result of fruitful collaboration between our institution and this institution,” says Kittelmann. It is the first teamwork of its kind, and the first time that a German institution has sent such a large number of works to Israel.
Kittelmann is keen on such cooperation, noting that the Berlin National Gallery recently hosted a solo show of the work of Israeli artist Moshe Gershoni. “We create a dialogue [through these exchanges,]” he notes, adding that he has not faced any pushback or critique from the anti-Israel crowd. “When [Israel Museum director] James Snyder approached me, there was no doubt. I said yes immediately – let’s do it.”
When Kittelmann flew in to inspect the exhibition, which is housed in a large building that overlooks the Israel Museum compound, he was impressed. With stark white walls lined with paintings laid out in several grand rooms, the work is excellently displayed. “I said yesterday that when I first saw the exhibition two days ago, I was emotionally and deeply touched. It made me quiet in a way, and I asked people as they looked at the works to consider them as representative of their time. These paintings have a very understandable language that reflects the experience and the destiny of the artists and the culture that they come from. People should “talk” to the works and listen to what the works can tell them. As witnesses of our times, the works are connected with the most barbaric actions that a person can imagine, Nazi terror,” says Kittelmann.
The Nazi connection is particularly interesting, because many of the works and their artists were considered “degenerate” by the Nazi authorities. Emil Nolde, for instance, was a member of the Nazi party, and even though he painted Christian themes, such as Jesus meeting sinners, he was censored by the authorities.
For Kittelmann, it is important to show these paintings in relation to this “transparent” history. What happened to the artists during the war is a part of German history, and the suppression of this “degenerate” art that dared to explore themes such as nudity and non-Aryan peoples is part of its story. “When I started to work as director of the Berlin National Gallery [one thing I did] was to consider the collection in a different way. I began with a trilogy. The first part was ‘modern times,’ which is 1900-1945. With this presentation, for the first time, we made very transparent the provenances – the true origins – of every work, which is not the regular way we display. That is the long-term approach, to do the research on the provenance and to determine how they fit into the history of their time. It is not just about aesthetics, but also about history. This is important to me; we want to tell the people the background,” he says.
These works were saved from the dustbin of history.
Found after the war, after having been recovered from various galleries, they were brought back to the National Gallery. “I hope that a lot of people will see this exhibition, and will be reminded that when the voices of art and culture are silenced for an ideological reason, then the world is in danger. This is part of what this exhibition tells us,” Kittelmann concludes.
“Twilight over Berlin” will be exhibited at the Israel Museum until January 30, 2016.