While visiting the current exhibition Kirchner and Nolde – up for discussion at the National Gallery of Denmark, I noticed an unprepossessing postcard sent by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to his colleague, the painter Erich Heckels. It says: “Gorgeous woman, right? Best regards your Ernst.” The front of the postcard is not visible, so it is up to the viewer to imagine the woman depicted. Who is she? Is it South African Sarah Baartman, who also went by the name “Hottentot Venus”? Or is it a portrait of one of the dancers from the Louisiana Amazon Guard troupe, who in the early 20th century toured Europe with their so-called “cakewalk dance”? Indeed, what is the significance of Kirchner’s greeting? And how do we read it today?
Focusing on the importance of Kirchner and Nolde in Germany around the turn of the last century, the exhibition is divided into so-called “contact zones” dealing with the following subjects: museums, anthropology, popular culture, Kirchner’s studio, and Nolde’s expedition to Papua New Guinea. It is all about the encounter between Western artists and the world back when it became truly global, with all that that entails in terms of colonialism, racism, and cultural exchanges on unequal terms.
The term “contact zone” is not a new concept in museum research; it was used by the American historian James Clifford in his book Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (1993) to describe the encounters that take place in anthropological museums when objects of spiritual significance from Indigenous cultures are drawn into a museum setting.
However, the idea of contact zones does not always cover what happens at the museums when cultures meet. As a starting point, it must be accepted that the art museum – and even more so the anthropological museum – is in fact a conflict zone due to its genesis in a Western context. The conflict hails from the fact that the museum arises out of a tradition of positioning itself in relation to other cultures, where the starting point is the collection as a meeting place and a site where a special Western cultural understanding is presented. This conflict raises questions about the museum’s fundamental conditions, such as collection practices and traditions, ownership, and the return of cultural objects.
The role of art museums
As yet, the exhibition at the National Gallery has delivered what it promised in its title: discussion. Among other things, some critical voices believe that the exhibition’s context and set-up gets in the way of the art itself. Opinion makers, mainly right-wing, have loudly problematised the museum’s overly clear-cut stance and loud messages concerning a racist past, claiming that the points are served up by means of moralising communication. While these discussions may at times seem strident and verging on the hysterical, they are much needed because they reflect the fact that art serves an important function for the community today. It is good to see museums like our National Gallery being bold enough to grapple with important discussions, including one of the most culturally significant in recent years – the question of the West’s gaze on its own colonial past. The museum is an ideal setting for presenting the grey zones that come to light through surprising juxtapositions and new perspectives.
In fact, one might well wonder what has previously kept Danish art museums from daring to take on such important and relevant societal discussions. After all, art museums have special access to the past through their collections – and plenty of tools with which to illuminate them. They have an important task ahead in helping to reassess and revise history, exposing all its complicated issues and troubling events.
Of course, there are many reasons why this has not happened until now. A particularly important aspect concerns the museums’ self-image. They have traditionally not believed that their task was to enter public debates on social and societal issues. Rather, their task was to preserve culture – to safeguard what they believe is important to collect for the future. But can one afford to ignore the present when the past needs revision?
Perhaps the most famous example in museum history of failing to read one’s own time happened in 1984 when MoMA in New York presented the extensive show “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, which received a great deal of criticism for the hierarchical way in which the Modernist works were presented up against their sources of inspiration in ‘African art.’
The show prompted an extensive discussion on the role played by African art in the West. What MoMA had failed to register was the shift towards a far more relativistic approach to art and a distancing from Eurocentric thinking. Less well known is the fact that in the wake of the heated discussion, The Center for African Art in New York produced the exhibition Perspectives: Angles on African Art in 1987.
Here, the museum invited ten very different collectors of African art to select works from the museum’s collection and describe their own relationship with African art. Among other things, the Black civil rights activist and author James Baldwin chose a terracotta figural scene depicting a cow and two people, created in Mali at some point between the 14th and 17th centuries, accompanying it with these words: “You don’t realise that you’re asking me very personal questions. You think you’re talking about art. But you’re not! You’re talking about something else. You’re talking about something which the West as a group has done its best to destroy.”
Baldwin’s text hung beside a contribution from David Rockefeller, a former CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank, who had purchased art on his many business trips to Africa. Rockefeller’s exhibits included a wooden twentieth-century Fanti fertility figure from Ghana, and he described his relationship with African art quite honestly:
Perhaps (my) insights are more political and economic than artistic or cultural. There is a lower standard of living, by and large, in Africa than in many parts of the world. I think they have a long way to go, and I think one of the questions that one has to ask is whether it’s possible for African societies to transform themselves into what we like to think of as pluralistic democratic societies – in a meaningful sense – in a matter of decades.
In this way, Perspectives: Angles on African Art facilitated a polyphonic representation of different notions of and relationships with African art. Would it be possible to envision that exhibition happening today? Would an art museum be able to put such different people in the same room? I wish one had the guts to do so.
I believe it is time for art museums to dig out some of the more overlooked and problematic parts of their collections. What stories may be found lurking here, pointing to some of the less fortunate aspects of Western civilisation? Not to make us all feel ashamed of the past, but to help us understand just how extensive and far-reaching the imperialist project has been, and, not least, how the museum constitutes an important part of that development, Museums are not just exalted temples with galleries that can be emptied and filled like blank pieces of paper that can be overwritten time and time again. We need to delve deeper.
A good example of an art museum that accepted this task is the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Norway, which presented the exhibition In Search of Matisse in 2015. The exhibition was prompted by an inquiry from an American lawyer who, on behalf of his client, asked for the return of a painting by Henri Matisse in the museum’s collection. The client was a descendant of a Jewish art collector who had had much of his collection confiscated by the Nazi regime in Germany during the 1930s, including this painting.
While Henie Onstad could not prove the provenance of the work, thereby ensuring its legal affiliation with the art museum, it could easily have chosen to make this a purely legal matter, a court case conducted out of the public eye (as many art museums do and have done over time). Instead, the museum chose to make the case the focal point of an exhibition about provenance and cultural heritage.
Taking a starting point in its own role in collective history writing, the museum dispelled the myth of the art museum as a neutral and autonomous place by highlighting how social and economic structures also underpin art collections. At the same time, the museum opened a gateway to the past, making it feel current and relevant for a much larger target group than the demographic typically seen in Norwegian art museums. The museum’s history became a symbol of a larger, socially relevant issue, and Henie Onstad reinvigorated its role as a communicator of history.
Another excellent example of an exhibition based on a museum’s own collection while using doubt as a vehicle was The Making of Modern Art (2017–2020) at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. It presented a range of different ways of exhibiting art used in art museums in the West, demonstrating how differently this has been done – even up through the 20th century alone. The exhibition queried what we perceive as art, thereby demonstrating how fleeting the concept of art is. Among other things, the point was exemplified through the display of two completely identical paintings, one by the artist Piet Mondrian (Composition en blanc et noir II, 1930), the other a recent imitation. In the texts accompanying the works, the museum asked the question: “Is a copy of an abstract painting in fact an abstract painting?”
Another gallery contained a landscape painting by the German painter Otto Erwin Engelbert Arndt (1879–1963), which Adolf Hitler kept in his private art collection and which is now in storage at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. After Hitler’s death, this painting was no longer considered a work of art, but rather a historical object. The exhibition showed how times change and how not only history writing is ceaselessly negotiable; so too is the very definition of art.
There is plenty of doubt and uncertainty around, both within and without the walls of art museums. Today we face many difficult discussions and issues, and we cannot find answers to all problems of the past by going through the archives. Indeed, Nolde and Kirchner – up for discussion never gave me an answer as to who the woman on the postcard was, or whether Kirchner was joking, derogatory, or affectionate. But I hope that this will be a springboard for many more exhibitions that dare to go toe to toe with the past, to own the conflicts and make them productive, and relinquish their authoritative voice in favour of exposing their doubts and venturing out into unknown territories. In the future, the authority of museums will reside in their ability to explain why they have doubts.
– Johanne Løgstrup is a freelance curator living and working in Copenhagen. She recently defended her PhD thesis on Curatorial negotiations of the role of the art museum under contemporary conditions – Developed through an exhibition about the artist Sonja Ferlov Mancoba at the School of Communication and Culture, Aarhus University, where she was also part of the research project ‘The Contemporary Condition’. The practice-oriented part of the dissertation consisted of an essay offering a room-by-room proposal for a retrospective exhibition featuring Sonja Ferlov Mancoba, presented from global and decolonised perspectives.