The Baroque in West Germany: Creating Regional Identity in the Post-National Federal State. Exhibitions as Mass Media 'For a Wide Audience'

By Engelberg, Meinrad v. | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2016 | Go to article overview

The Baroque in West Germany: Creating Regional Identity in the Post-National Federal State. Exhibitions as Mass Media 'For a Wide Audience'


Engelberg, Meinrad v., Journal of Art Historiography


Do individual countries and states develop an 'image of the Baroque' that is specific, typical of its era, clearly defined and visibly distinct from that of other nations? Is it thus possible to make a statement about the rather numerous and diverse Baroque exhibitions in West Germany - the 'old' Federal Republic of Germany prior to 1990 - that meaningfully integrates the individual case into an overall context? The following essay advocates the thesis that a common 'meta-narrative' is hidden behind this diversity, integrating the art of the Baroque affirmatively into the simultaneously forming self-image of the young 'Bonn Republic', namely, that of a post-nationalist, European-networked, historically rooted, profoundly federalist 'Kulturnation'.

Surely more than any other form of presentation, the (thematic) exhibition may be considered the most typical medium for conveying art to the public, at least since the second half of the twentieth century.1 The ceremonial queue through elaborately promoted events, which for some time have been given the booming epithet 'blockbuster', manifest their success today and provide evidence of their unbroken acceptance in the 'event' society .2

Unfortunately, by nature the exhibition, unlike the film or the book, is an ephemeral, fleeting medium: the temporary spatial disposition of this form of presentation usually disappears without a trace after the closing party and is in essence more poorly documented, and less thoroughly discussed in the press, than, for example, the stage sets of theatre productions.3 For that reason, I am taking programmatic statements from catalogues and accompanying publications, even though I am quite conscious of the problems of this shiftin medium and genre. Such written evidence does indeed document the programme and intention of the organizers, but unfortunately not the original medium itself, namely, the disposition and presentation in a designed space, that is, that what the visitor sees, not what the reader reads.

I understand the medium of the 'exhibition' as a complex form of narrative. Its title nearly always conceals a thesis, an experimental setup, an assertion, which is certainly supposed to be made plausible by the selection and assembly of the objects, their arrangement according to criteria that guide us to knowledge, by means of accompanying publications and explanatory wall texts. Curatorially ambitious exhibitions do not convey a pre-existing message; rather, they produce it, by defining a theme, declaring it to be worthy of an exhibition, and directing attention to certain readings of the works presented therein. They are, in the words of Jochen Schulte-Sasse, 'strong media'.4 For example, the same exhibit - a drawing of a plan for the Würzburg Residence -, can be presented in different contexts and used as a contribution to the themes Balthasar Neumann, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, fresco painting, Lower Franconia, Friedrich Carl von Schönborn, prince-bishopric, absolutism, Rococo, architectural drawing, the history of the German Reich, reconstruction or world heritage. The exhibits are, as Marcel Wouters has rightly said, integrated into very different stories as arguments and in the process change their message.5 The activities of curators and of authors coincide here. The architectonic shell, which in exhibitions of the German Baroque is often an important architectural work of that epoch, serves as a stage set, a magnet for the public, and at the same time a frame story.6

Just how influential and susceptible to controversy this medium of social discourse in the Federal Republic of Germany was and is can be demonstrated by three examples from the 1990s: the Körperwelten (Body Worlds) show by Gunter von Hagens,7 which has been touring Germany since 1997 and presented for the first time human corpses as aesthetically stated sculptural arrangements, and was in the process doubtless not without influence on the pathology boom in the popular medium of the police procedural and the newly revived discussion of the end of life; the two hotly debated but also self-reflexive so-called 'Wehrmacht' exhibitions of 1995 and 2001 by the Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung;8 and finally the show organized by the Förderverein Berliner Schloss (Berlin Palace Association) in 1993, which has since become famous, with its mock-up of the palace on a lifesize sheet of plastic,9 which can justifiably claim to be the crucial initial spark for that real building project, which celebrated its topping-out ceremony on 12 June 2015. …

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