Kunsthalle in new design: deep blue and outrageously golden

Hamburg’s Kunsthalle reopens after 17 months of renovation. And presents itself both stately and popular at the same time

And Immanuel Kant is waiting at the center: the Kunsthalle’s sunny yellow Kuupelsaal. Photo: dpa

Spacious, flooded with light, Alster view: Hamburg’s Kunsthalle director Hubertus Gabner uses the vocabulary of the real estate industry to praise his newly renovated building. Indeed, the museum, which is reopening after 17 months of renovation, breathes the spirit of the upper middle class that founded it in 1869 and which now paid for the renovation: Otto-Versand entrepreneur’s son and ECE shopping center boss Alexander Otto and his wife Dorit made the renovation possible with 15 million euros. They want to feel a bit at home there, too.

Art historian Dorit Otto says she has always disliked the cramped entrance at the main station, which does not suit such an important collection with 700 years of art history. Since 1919, the collection had to be entered through a side entrance of the classicist rotunda, which Fritz Schumacher had placed next to the founding building.

The extension was initiated by the first Kunsthalle director Alfred Lichtwark, and the coyness of the "suppliers’ entrance" was no coincidence: the reformist pedagogue and popular educator Lichtwark must have had a lifelong quarrel with the upper-middle-class neo-Renaissance foundation building and its opulent domed hall, which intimidated the people.

This is probably why he commissioned the neoclassical rotunda as a counter-design, as a "dome for the people." For Lichtwark did not want a museum "that stands and waits" but one "that actively intervenes in the artistic education of our population. He wanted to bring art to the people, and for that it should come along at eye level: matter-of-factly cool, grassroots democratic, participatory.

That seems to be over now, because the relocation of the entrance back into the founding building means a sociopolitical step backwards: toward representation, perhaps also toward an increased inhibition threshold. After all, who would walk unabashedly into a foyer that looks like the Hotel Adlon?

Quite apart from the fact that the old, new entrance is not located on a generous square, but at the foot of the massive granite pedestal that Oswald Mathias Ungers had placed in front of the white-square Gallery of the Present, which opened in 2007. At that time, the old entrance had literally disappeared into oblivion, and not even Otto’s Renovage could make up for that: This part of the building’s history cannot be clipped, and so from the new foyer one can see not only the Alster, but above all the base and the Ungers Building.

It is also true, however, that now you no longer have to squeeze through a narrow checkroom tube at the entrance before you get to the box office – if you can find it at all. This has now been straightened out and – like all the departments – clearly signposted. The ultra-modern, minimalist pictograms contrast oddly with the gloomy 1869 stairwell, whose depressing pomp the renovators made bearable by whitewashing the first room that follows and hanging it full of 1950s colorfulness.

A shrill prelude; it is also strange that Hans Makart’s huge, theatrical battle painting "The Entry of Emperor Charles V into Antwerp" from 1878, which Hamburg citizens once proudly acquired, is no longer there. The answer is as simple as it is irritating: because it was too large to hang, it was walled in and this icon of the Grunderzeit was hidden behind the wall. A decision that was controversial, because here, right at the beginning of the – otherwise chronological – tour, art hall history is glossed over.

And this is not even consistent, because the reconstruction itself already breathes the pathos of previous centuries. So why not acknowledge this relic? One does not know, and of course there is still a wallpaper door to the Makart; perhaps one day it will be staged again.

Apropos: "Staging" is the Kunsthalle patron’s favorite vocabulary. And since Otto usually designs shopping malls, one quickly gets scared, thinking of advantageously illuminated merchandise that is supposed to seduce people into buying.

On the other hand, would the seduction of art be so bad? Or does it go against the purism of the art connoisseur who wants art to be appreciated for its own sake?

Black-and-white painting doesn’t go far; it’s more a matter of dosage, and that wasn’t easy in the Kunsthalle: the blue walls seem a touch too garish, against which the medieval altars gleam outrageously golden. And as if to take that back, the 19th century was immersed in a bravura, inconspicuous turquoise, including the Romantics Philipp Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich.

But between these two: the sunflower-yellow domed hall for the 18th century. Right in the middle stands Carl Friedrich Hagemann’s classicist bust of Immanuel Kant, the "God of the Enlightenment. All of this is arranged to great effect; Kant and other busts reside in a kind of screen octagon.

Unfortunately, this presentation in the separee reminds one of the cosmetics department of a posh department store. Apparently, they wanted to squeeze the hall and fill it with things, but to what end? The Kunsthalle has gained 500 square meters of exhibition space through the renovation, and can exhibit 80 additional works from the depot, which was renovated by the Senate at a cost of four million euros. Couldn’t the domed hall have been left with the spaciousness it has been praised for elsewhere?

The renovators did a better job in the classicist rotunda by turning it into a sculpture playground where you can stroll around freely, at ground level and with a view of Hamburg’s main train station.

In the Galerie der Gegenwart, too, art has become ground-level and approaches the people in a pedagogically valuable way: its foyer is no longer an entrance, but an area for annually changing exhibitions of contemporary art, the first of which is by the Korean "documenta 13" participant Haegue Yang.

In general, contemporary art: how can it be distinguished from "past art"; isn’t yesterday’s work already old? And don’t the 1960s, where the gallery of the present begins, already count as "classical modernism"? Expressionism, accordingly, already old iron?

The boundaries are fluid, the transitions between the old and new Kunsthalle buildings are more fluid than ever. And that is a real merit of the Renovage, whose main problem was to bind together this built-up museum from three buildings of different epochs: that there are no longer two entrances – one for "old" art and one for "new". Now, all visitors have to enter together and more easily end up en passant in the respective other department. This osmosis would be – like the museum educational cabinets that inform about restoration and provenance research – an act of popular education that Alfred Lichtwark would have appreciated.

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