Shining Light on the Dark

Shining Light on the Dark

The Hermitage puts on an epic show of major German artists.

Published: May 22, 2013 (Issue # 1760)

Ben Westoby, Courtesy White Cube

Anselm Kiefer’s 2011 ‘Tempelhof’ is the exhibition’s focal point.

20th century German art brings an illuminating beginning to a five-year run of contemporary art to be exhibited at the newly-renovated General Staff Building of the Hermitage.

The General Staff Building of the Hermitage, which most people know for its grand archway leading on to Palace Square, welcomes visitors to its newly-renovated, ultra-modern wing with the first of a series of exhibitions of 20th and 21st century art. Given to the Hermitage by the State in 1988, the most recent restoration of the Eastern Wing of the General Staff Building began in 2008, a project that maintained the building’s neo-classical exterior while creating a sleek interior fitting for the exhibitions it would later display.

The General Staff Building’s newest exhibition, “Against the Light: German Art of the 20th Century from the Collection of George Economou,” presents viewers with a range of German art, featuring the likes of Georg Baselitz, Otto Dix and Anselm Kiefer. Economou, an Athens-based private collector, began amassing works of contemporary European art, with a focus on German Post Expressionism and New Objectivity, in 1990.

“Against the Light” brings together the most important works from that part of the Economou collection, taking a turn through the turbulent history of German dissident art. The earliest works on show are the fruits of the post-World War I New Objectivity movement. The canvases, by major figures such as Otto Dix and George Grosz, portray the abject misery and social unease that pervaded Germany during and after the Great War. Works of German Expressionists, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Heckel — artists who, along with their New Objectivist precursors — would be termed degenerates under the Nazi regime.

Major works from post-war German Neo-expressionists further the story, with artists of the “Neue Wilden” (New Wild Ones), Georg Baselitz, Jorg Immendorff and others painting fraught, figurative canvases true to their Expressionist label, including Baselitz’ major 1982 painting, “Eagle in Bed.” Works by Neo Rauch and Anselm Kiefer, German artists working today, show German art of the present day in dialogue with the works that precede it.

The most recent piece in the exhibit is Anselm Kiefer’s 2011’s “Tempelhof,” the exhibit’s focal point. A room-length work of acrylic, terracotta and salt on canvas, “Tempelhof” takes its title from the recurring subject of Kiefer’s work, the Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany. The massive, sprawling structure built under Hitler as the so-called gateway to Europe once served as a testing ground for the world’s first airplanes, and long before that as the domain of the Medieval Knights Templar. For the past five years German citizens have enjoyed its mile-long terminal in its new guise as a public park. The painting presents a metallic-toned, barren indoor landscape, while its vast scale allows no escape from the tension of such a loaded territory.

The exhibition is a part of the five-year series called “Hermitage 20/21 Project for Contemporary Art,” — an initiative by Hermitage director, Mikhail Piotrovsky. The aim of the series is to bring some of the most important works of contemporary art to St. Petersburg — a significant development considering the lack of contemporary art held in the Hermitage’s permanent collection.

“Against the Light” is the first of several exhibitions that are planned for the General Staff Building. The next in the series, “Masterpieces of 20th Century Art from the Albertina,” will arrive in October and feature works of modern and contemporary art from the Austrian gallery.

‘Against the Light: German Art of the 20th century from the Collection of George Economou’ will be on view from May 25 to January 19, 2014 in the General Staff Building at the State Hermitage Museum.

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