Berlin puts 20 historic art shows under one roof

THE art-world loves looking at itself. And what could be a better way of indulging this narcissism than to re-create a number of key art shows from the past? ``Stationen der Moderne'' (``Stages of Modern Art'') does just that. It's a mammoth, diverse, even rambling exhibition. In fact, it's not just one show, but 20. These ``stages'' take the visitor on a fascinating stroll through the history of modern art as exhibited in Germany from 1910 to 1969.

The central area of the Gropius-Bau, where the exhibition is staged, is given over to the ``Documenta II'' show of 1959. This was the second of a series of large international ``Documentas'' of recent art that regularly occur in Kassel. The series was designed to bring post-war West Germany the full flavor of developments around the world. This meant the 1959 show was dominated by American Abstract Expressionism, particularly by Jackson Pollock.

But here we immediately encounter the difficulties faced by anyone who tries to remake past shows. Not one of the Pollocks was evidently now available. Blown-up black-and-white photographs of the original show do indicate Pollock's imposing presence in 1959. But here, in 1988, only a hint of the original show is possible: Documenta II had one and half thousand works in it; the Gropius-Bau version has 90. Still, something of the tenor, weight, and excitement of that significant exhibition is here.

By contrast, a 1920 Berlin exhibition - the ``First International DADA Fair'' - is replicated here with loving care and great attention to detail. Or rather, one gallery of the original fair is - right down to the actual height of the original room and its lighting. Photographs of that room were studied minutely, and the remarkable result is the nearest one could hope to get to experiencing the atmosphere, the craziness of DADA works, their savage political satire, and even, I'm tempted to think, the very smell that characterized the 1920 show. This ``DADA-Messe'' was a unique attempt to proclaim the DADA movement as international. Like several shows re-created here, it seems more significant in hindsight than it did at the time. There was press interest (pro and con), of course. But with the public at large, ``DADA-Messe'' was something of a damp squib.

One of the re-created shows, however, was vastly popular with the public of the time. This was the so-called ``Degenerate Art'' show that opened in Munich on July 19, 1937. The re-creation here gives just a glimpse of a few of the actual works in it, though documentary photographs fill out the picture.

The Nazis mounted this show to mock such ``demented ignoramuses'' as Kokoshka, Beckmann, and Nolde (who was, ironically, an early convert to the National Socialist Party). Hitler thought such artists ``offended German sentiment'' and ``distorted natural form'' and displayed ``obvious evidence of inadequate craftsmanship.'' Having confiscated their works from public collections, he intended to show them one last time - then banish them forever.

Hitler preferred stylistically academic painting and sculpture, depicting blonde specimens of Germanic female beauty, muscular male athletes, or farmers in traditional dress. One day before the ``degenerate art'' went on view, such Nazi-endorsed works were unveiled at ``The Great German Art Exhibit,'' which was ushered in with a parade through Munich marking ``2,000 years of German culture.'' That show is also re-created here.

What Hitler mocked - and temporarily buried - were most of the artists considered outstandingly modern and stimulating both before and, even more, after the war. They were the artists of the ``Brucke'' group in Dresden; the ``Blaue Reiter'' association of artists; the ``Bauhaus''; and, of course, DADA. More than 2 million Germans came to gape at and ridicule their art. Ironically, these viewers were far more interested in mocking the ``degenerates'' than they were in admiring the art promoted by the Third Reich in the other show: It had low attendance figures by contrast. In the long run, Hitler's repressions probably did their reputations no harm at all.

It's impossible here to describe each of the other shows represented. But they re-create one of the Expressionist ``Brucke'' group's own showings of its art (1910). They also look at a ``Blaue Reiter'' show of 1911-12, dominated by Kandinsky and Marc, with a favored place given to Le Douanier Rousseau, the Parisian naive artist that Kandinsky had just discovered; at an early (1913) exhibition of international modern art; at the introduction of Russian abstract art to Germany in 1922; at the key exhibition of the ``Neue Sachlichkeit'' or New Objectivity trend of the mid 1920s, a kind of dry German realism with suppressed Expressionist undertones.

There are two external shows from the Nazi period, one staged in London, one in Paris. These offered a solidarity with the sort of art Hitler hated. And after the war there was a proliferation of styles - and of shows to promote them. These ranged from German variations of ``pop,'' optical, and kinetic art to staged happenings and performance art, Abstract art and ``Land Art'' events documented on film and shown to gallery-goers on TV screens.

No one could accuse Germany of having been indifferent to modern art. And now this exhibition of past exhibitions is drawing tremendous crowds. Nor do they come to mock. Through Jan. 8.

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