Journal

Beethoven at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

An exclusive interview with Jasper Sharp, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna and designer Dani Mileo from Tom Postma Design on the making of the Beethoven Moves exhibition celebrating the composer's 250th birthday anniversary.
2020,  Exhibitions
- 30. December 2020

Among the many exhibitions celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, Beethoven Moves at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (KHM) stands out as a daring experiment: artists as diverse and perhaps unexpected as Francesco de Goya, J. M. W. Turner, Rebecca Horn, Guido van der Werve were brought into dialogue with Beethoven manuscripts and paintings by Caspar David Friedrich; moreover, not a single portrait of the composer was included. Strikingly, there were four distinctive exhibition spaces that completely transformed the interior of the museum. Adding to the surprise, all things considered, is how quickly things have evolved: when we met with Jasper Sharp, curator of modern and contemporary art at the KHM a little over a year ago, the Beethoven project was only at its inception.

So, as 2020 comes to an end, we invited Jasper Sharp and Dani Mileo, the exhibition designer from Tom Postma Design, to share with us some behind-the-scenes stories in the making of Beethoven Moves. You may listen to the full recordings or read the highlights from the transcript below.

Jasper Sharp
is curator for modern and contemporary art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Since taking on the role in 2011, he has put on monographic exhibitions such as Lucian Freud and Joseph Cornell, as well as exhibitions that conversed with the historical collection. Before moving to Austria in 2006, Jasper worked between 1999-2005 at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. He was the commissioner of the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013.
Dani Mileo
is an Australian-born spatial design practitioner with over 10 years’ experience in architectural and exhibition design in Australia, Japan and the Netherlands. In her current role at Tom Postma Design in Amsterdam, Dani specializes in exhibition architecture, focusing predominantly on museum and gallery exhibitions, and individual gallery booths for art fairs.
Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 2. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design.

01/

Yuan Fang: Hello Jasper! What a year it’s been… congratulations on opening Beethoven Moves which I managed to tour with you on Instagram live. I was quite riveted and surprised by how experimental it turned out – both in the selection of works and the installation and set-up. I know when it comes to music and the Kunsthistorisches, it is a trope to bring in Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters: A Comedy (1985) but perhaps now that you have Beethoven on at the museum, it would be a curious starting point for our conversation today. So, let me share with you a quote from early on in the book:

“The Kunsthistorisches Museum does not even have a Goya… They listened to Beethoven but they did not see Goya. They did not want to have Goya. To Beethoven they accorded a fool’s license because music was not dangerous to them, but Goya was not allowed into Austria. Well, the Habsburgs have exactly this dubious taste which is at home in this museum….”
– Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters: A Comedy (1985)

For those of you who are unfamiliar, this is a story about a musicologist named Reger who has visited the KHM every day for over 30 years and developed strong views about the collection. Opinionated as he seems, there may be some truth here. The fact that Goya was suddenly afflicted by a total loss of hearing, and to see his work in the context of Beethoven’s deafness, is a brilliantly apposite choice!

Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 2. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design.
Francisco de Goya, Los Caprichos, 1799, etching, aquatint. Albertina, Vienna; Parquet floor from Beethoven’s apartment in the Schwarzspanierhaus, after 1812.
Jasper Sharp/ Beethoven Moves
Questions 01 – 04

Jasper Sharp: So it’s a really interesting quotation that you’ve selected. It’s fascinating to see Goya in our museum. One of the interesting things about the KHM is that it still remains very much a private collection, or at least the manifestation of several generations of a family dynasties’ collecting – reflecting their tastes, their interests, the political alliances at play during the time that these objects were being assembled. So while we have areas of fantastic depth (Rubens, Bruegel, the extraordinary kunstkamer, for example, Titian), we also have areas of great weakness; artists that were simply not collected – Goya being one of them, but also, the entire British school (English school), almost the entire French school are not represented in the collection.

Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 1. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design
With works by Rebecca Horn, Auguste Rodin, Idris Khan, and Jorinde Voigt.

So, unlike a museum like the National Gallery in London or the Met, which has retrospectively and continuously attempted to plug gaps in their collection so that they can tell the entire history of art, the Kunsthistorisches has never made an attempt to do that for a number of reasons – chief among which is the fact that we simply don’t have the acquisition budget to do so. So, to see Goya is fascinating for us, more than that, for me, it’s interesting just to bring paper into our museum because, as you know, when the great shuffle of Habsburg Treasures was done in the 19th century and they were divided up into different museums, all of the paper went to the Albertina and we don’t have, or rather, we have almost no paper in our collection. We do have a few beautiful Dürer things in a scrapbook belonging to the kunstkamer, but basically all the paper has gone to the Albertina. So to bring paper – prints, drawings – back into our museum in dialogue with paintings is, for us, an absolute treat.

Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 1. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design.

02/

YF: What are some unexpected pairings for you?

JS: I would say pretty much each room has an unexpected pairing. In the first room the pairing of Rodin’s Age of Bronze together with Rebecca Horn’s piano – the Concert for Anarchy – two works created a long time apart, probably have never met before, probably will never meet again, but a fascinating dialogue. Both of them in some ways representing Beethoven himself, who, of course, is present in the exhibition in the form of his music that’s playing and of his manuscripts that he wrote but his appearance, his face, his image doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the exhibition.

And so there are these ‘surrogate figures’, these single isolated figures in each gallery of the exhibition. In the first room Rodin, in the second room Kieffer, in the third room the figure in Guido van der Werve’s wonderful film of the Icebreaker and in the fourth room, Tino Segal’s performance that are almost surrogates for Beethoven. And the piano itself (the Rebecca Horn) is also a form of surrogate in that Beethoven was known for these explosions of rage and temper – these sort of discordant moments in his life – and the piano, by spewing out its keys every half an hour, provides this sort of discordant element within the exhibition.

In the second room the combination of the floor from Beethoven’s apartment with the Capriccios of Goya is a beautiful coming together – something that is very unexpected, an architectural element with some prints, but they’re in wonderful dialogue with each other.

Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 2. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design.
Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above us, and the Moral Law Within, Photograph on paper with overpainting. ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
Exhibition view, Rebecca Horn (b.1944), Concert for Anarchy, 2006, Piano, hydraulic cylinder, compressor 150 × 106 × 155 cm. Photo © KHM-Museumsverband
Guido van der Werve (born in Papendrecht, 1977), Nummer acht, everything is going to be alright, 2007, 16 mm film, 10:10 min., Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 2. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design.
Selected etchings from Francisco de Goya’s Los Caprichos on the left wall and parquet floor from Beethoven’s apartment in the Schwarzspanierhaus.
Ludwig van Beethoven/ Amadeus Quartet / DG 1960
String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59. No.1 – Thème russe (Allegro)

And then in the third Gallery, we have a lovely three-way conversation between Turner, Beethoven and Friedrich. These wonderful expressive fluid sketches of Turner in his sketch books from the collection of Tate, together with Beethoven’s own sketches – little patches of melody that he jotted down in a notebook while he was on his rambles through the countryside. And what’s really interesting is you see that Turner comes from this very expressive emotional school, looking back at artists like Rubens, whereas Friedrich – much more precise, little colder, more forensic, arguably a bit more pedantic – comes more out of the school of Dürer. And these three people never met, we don’t really know anything about their relationships or what they knew of each other. They’re exploring very similar ideas, but in totally different sort of languages, or at least the vocabulary they’re using is very different from one another and it’s fascinating to see them all in in this dialogue in the third gallery of the exhibition.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Sketches for String Quartets (in F major, E minor and C major), op. 59, dedicated to Count Andrei Razumovsky, Autograph, Sign. A 36, 1806 © Vienna, Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien Archiv – Bibliothek – Sammlungen
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London, 1841, Watercolour on paper, 23.5 × 32.5 cm © Tate Britain, London
Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 3. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design.
A selection of landscape paintings by Caspar David Friedrich
Ludwig van Beethoven / Claudio Abbado / Wiener Philharmoniker 2013
The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture

03/

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Overture to the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, op. 43, instrumental parts for the orchestra of Prince Lobkowicz, 1801, paper © Nelahozeves, The Lobkowicz Collections, Nelahozeves Castle

YF: Are there any works that you wish could have been included?

JS: I would say this is perhaps the first exhibition in my entire life, after doing 21 exhibitions at the Kunsthistorisches in the last 10 years, this is the first exhibition in which we received every loan that we requested. We were successful with every loan request, which is very, very unusual. It’s even more unusual given the fact that we assembled the exhibition in one year, which is pretty breakneck speed for a large museum exhibition – we normally have about three years for an exhibition like this, but due to various circumstances, we only had one year and staggeringly from the moment we began conceiving the exhibition to the moment we opened it, we did manage to get every single loan that we requested, which was an absolute joy and I must admit a complete surprise but a very good one.

Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 3. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design.
Jan Cossiers, Prometheus, 1636-38. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

04/

YF: I was intrigued to see you bring in the architects in your introduction of the exhibition. The design of the exhibition space is radical and different from the exhibitions you worked on in the past, such as The Shape of Time (2018) that places Old masters in dialogue with contemporary art. I think of the Kunsthistorisches museum as having monumental works, sometimes covering an entire wall, in the central rooms, whereas the side-rooms tend to have smaller pictures. So, for Beethoven Moves, there is a total disruption of the familiar context. Like how the Met Breuer and soon-to-be Frick Madison could open up new ways of looking at Old masters. Can you talk a bit about how you approached the ‘context’ for these shows differently?

The Shape of Time exhibition installation view © KHM-Museumsverband.
Left: Tullio Lombardo, Young Couple, ca. 1505/10. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Kunstkammer. Right: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, „Untitled“ (Perfect Lovers), 1987-1990. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
The Shape of Time exhibition installation view © KHM-Museumsverband.
Left: Torso: Nackte Aphrodite, 1st or 2nd cent. ad, Roman copy of Greek original, ca. 300 bc, KHM-Museumsverband. Right: Eleanor Antin; Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, 1972. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago, Twentieth Century Discretionary Fund; exhibition copy provided by the artist and Ronald Feldman Arts, Inc.

JS: Over the last years we’ve done a number of different types of exhibitions at the Kunsthistorisches in which we’ve brought modern and contemporary art into dialogue with the collection; some were monographic exhibitions of artists like Lucien Freud, Joseph Cornell, Mark Rothko, in which we presented the works of these great modern masters in conversation with our collection, but in separate galleries. We very rarely hung objects side by side.

Lucien, for example, right at the end of his life he said I would love to do an exhibition of my works, but maybe in the next door galleries rather than literally next door, side by side. And it was fascinating in the last gallery of his exhibition in 2013, when you’d finished with these great paintings of Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley, you could go left to Raphael, who was the artist that Lucien despised more than any other and thought he was a plastic surgeon; or you could go right to Titian, who was the artist that Lucien thought was the greatest artist of all, and the most honest painter. So through the eyes of this modern painter, you could view these historical Old Masters with slightly different gazes.

We then did a series of exhibitions in which we invited interesting creative individuals curate from our own holdings. We did it with Ed Ruscha, Edmund de Waal and most recently with the film director Wes Anderson and his wife Juman Malouf (slideshow above © KHM-Museumsverband) – three fascinating different takes on our historical collections.

Then the exhibition you reference, Shape of Time. That was the first time we really put objects side-by-side. We attempted to bridge the gap between the date that our collection ends around 1800 and the present day. And we brought into the museum around 20 work spanning this period, like steppingstones to the time that we lived today. And we paired them with objects around the collection. A number of the works we brought in were actually new commissions by living artists: some amazing works produced by Kerry James Marshall, Peter Doig, Catherine Opie. And this was a pretty radical exhibition all over the Gemäldegalerie but extremely well received by our public.

The Shape of Time exhibition installation view © KHM-Museumsverband.
Left: Peter Paul Rubens, Helena Fourment (“The little Fur”), ca. 1636/38. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna; Right: Maria Lassnig, Iris Standing, 1972/73. Maria Lassnig Stiftung, Vienna
The Shape of Time exhibition installation view © KHM-Museumsverband.
Left: Tiziano Vecellio (known as Titian), Nymph and Shepherd, ca. 1570–75. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Picture Gallery. Right: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rough Sea, ca.1840–45. Tate: accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.

Beethoven is a very different project. I don’t actually see it as part of the modern and contemporary program, although it does have a very strong constituency of modern contemporary works. I see it as a very different type of project but certainly for our visitors, it’s a continuation of this dialogue between works and makers and creators from different moments in history, how they’re exploring very similar ideas and engaging themselves with similar concerns, similar fears, similar hopes albeit in very different artistic languages across very different times.

Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 3. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design.

05/

Dani Mileo/ Beethoven Moves
Questions 05 – 07

YF: And now moving onto the chief architect responsible for the design, Dani Mileo from Tom Postma Design in Amsterdam, with whom we have worked together in the past for our exhibitions at TEFAF Maastricht. In fact, this March we had the same ‘disco’ floor as the one used in salon III of Beethoven Moves, and it was funny because many visitors thought that we had flooded the floor…(of course, we were also sanitizing it every 30 minutes). Is there an aspect of the exhibition design that you are particularly proud of/ have a personal story to tell?

Dani Mileo: One of the major challenges with this show, and one that we are very proud of, is the fact that we were able to bring together such a diverse array of artworks into three very singular and very cohesive spaces. And when I say singular, I don’t mean that they’re flat, but three singular spaces that both give an immediate sense of the curatorial themes – but are also multi layered: you can have a sort of ‘wow’ moment when you walk in, and then spend intimate moments with each of the artworks.

Each space is so distinct, and this is really down to the materials, color and lighting that we used for each one. Everything from the ‘walls’ in the first room, that are not even walls but hanging pieces of white fabric; to the very soft, carpet that dampens the sound of footsteps so that you hear the music or experience silence as you walk through the space.

Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 1. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design
Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 3. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design.

Through to the second room, where we wanted a really cold, dark feeling, so we’ve turned the lighting right down and lit the individual artworks, with a cold concrete-like material as a backdrop. You have this sort of ghostly sense of the Kunsthistorisches Museum architecture hovering silently above the exhibition walls in darkness.

Then into the third room, which is about Beethoven’s relationship with nature and the Enlightenment. The materiality and form of these big blue walls is very contemporary, but in their color, also very of the time of the Old Masters’ works in the space. The mirrored floor references nature very loosely, a kind of abstract representation that mirrors the room in a warped, reflective double.

All of these things are very simple gestures, but they really help to bring the show together. So, I would also say I’m proud that our exhibition design has the power to assist in creating these atmospheres and that this assists in creating a different reading of the artworks than if they were in a more traditional setting.

Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 2. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design.
Goya, Los Caprichos, 1799, etching, aquatint. Albertina, Vienna; Ear trumpet owned by Ludwig van Beethoven

06/

YF: Is there a particular aspect of the exhibition design that must be experienced in the actual space?

DM: In general, I think this is a show that, although quite photogenic, needs to be physically visited to get the full experience. And that’s because sound, and one’s physical experience of it, really makes quite a major impact on the atmosphere of each room.

In the first room one of Beethoven’s Sonatas are playing, and occasionally you hear Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy spilling its guts from the ceiling down onto you. The second space is totally silent, reflecting Beethoven’s death and going deaf. And the third room plays both one of Beethoven symphonies, while simultaneously the icebreaker in Guido van der Werve’s No. 8 is heard crashing in the background.

So, you have two rooms with very loud soundscapes happening with a room in the middle that is totally silent. This was another one of the challenges of the exhibition – on a technical level, how do you get that room in the middle silent whilst also adhering to all the regular occupational health and safety requirements of the museum. Which meant keeping the doors open and allowing airflow and these kinds of things through.

Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 1 Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design
John Baldessari (1931–2020), Beethoven’s Trumpet (with Ear), Opus # 132, 2007, Resin, fibre glass, bronze, aluminium, electronics, L 179 cm, W 110 cm, H 42 cm (Ear); L 224 cm, W 130 cm (Trumpet) © John Baldessari Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers and Beyer Projects, Photo © KHM-Museumsverband

We worked with some really wonderful Amsterdam-based engineers, called Platform 78. They’re sound specialists and they’re also specialist in air and humidification systems. They were perfect to work with because they understand both the requirements of the artworks in terms of humidity and air flow, but also how that impacts sound. And we worked together to engineer what we’ve called ‘sound tunnels’ which are L shaped spaces that sit in the doorways between each room. They’re highly insulated on the inside and externally covered with grey pyramid foam – the sort of foam that you immediately recognise from its use in sound booths – and this works wonderfully.

You start in one of the sound tunnels as you walk from the first room to the second, and literally, as your head goes around the corner, the sound from the first space immediately disappears. It’s amazing. Sound literally does not return around the corner. And the same thing can be said whilst you’re experiencing the second room. You’re in silence; you might hear almost nothing whilst you’re in that room, except for someone breathing or whispering. And then, as you walk from the second space to the third space – again through a sound tunnel – you suddenly hear one of Beethoven symphonies and van der Werve’s ice breaker. Which is another complete shift in sound.

We also worked with this idea of pyramid foam as a visual signifier. Because all three of these spaces were so different, we wanted something that signified both a change in sound and in atmosphere, so that when people walked through it, they knew something else is coming. And that’s also worked really well. It really is something that is wonderful to experience physically rather than virtually, and although a video of it might give a good idea, it’s really not the same.

Beethoven Moves, Installation of room 3. Photo © Mark Niedermann. Courtesy of Tom Postma Design.
Guido van der Werve, Nummer acht (Everything is going to be alright), 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine

07/

YF: Did you draw inspiration from any particular exhibition or exhibition designer?

DM: For this particular show, I would say, there is no single exhibition, designer or architect that inspired this. You could say that perhaps we took the most inspiration, in a way, from Beethoven and from the curatorial vision, which I think is incredibly important when you’re working with art related spaces.

This is perhaps where exhibition architecture differs the most from traditional architecture. Because with traditional architecture, of course, you are often trying to tell a story, or perhaps a little bit more of yourself goes into it in some way or another. Not that that doesn’t happen at all with exhibition design, but I think if you’re trying to get something across, you really need to be paying attention to what the works are on a number of different levels – both subjective and objective, and what the curatorial vision is, and how you can best communicate that to your audience.

Since opening the show in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s been very interesting to see what else has been going on around the world and how different institutions and galleries have been responding both physically and virtually. I think it’s a really interesting moment in time – a point at which we can consider the collective history of art display, reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t, and look forward taking these things into consideration.

Recently, I was at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam to see their exhibition Art on Display 1949-69. It’s a 1:1 scale exhibition exploring a number of exhibition designs (slideshow above © Johannes Schwartz) from the mid twentieth century, with a focus on works by the likes of Carlo Scarpa, Lina Bo Bardi and the Smithsons.

I’m very positive that whilst perhaps the virtual has allowed us to stay connected during this year and a lot of art has been put into virtual spaces in new ways, that this will not replace the physical display of art. Instead, I think we can now look at the strengths of both realms and learn how to better integrate them alongside one another. And I think my visit to Het Nieuwe Instituut was inspiring in that way, because you were looking at people who were using the technology of that time to present work in new and interesting ways. There was also a focus on democratising the exhibition or the museum space, often as a reaction to war or fascism or other crisis that they’d previously faced within society.

Franco Albini and Franca Helg, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa, 1952-62. Painting Santa Francesca Romana by Giovanni Antonio Galli. Fondazione Franco Albini.
Carlo Scarpa. Museo Correr, Venice, 1957-60. Interior view: painting Two Venetian Ladies by Vittore Carpaccio placed on easel. Photo: Gianantonio Battistella. CISA A. Palladio, Vincenza.

I think now is a really good moment to reconsider how we’re displaying art in new and engaging ways physically, and how the virtual can assist rather than replace that; in other words, how can you have two very rich experiences on two different levels. I get quite a lot of inspiration out of that at the moment – the thought of what is the future of art fairs? What is the future of exhibition design? And I’m proud of being part of Beethoven Moves in that regard because I think, even though the design was completed before the pandemic begun, it really is an exhibition that displays objects of vastly different periods side by side in a way that helps you to reconsider or reframe them.❖

Instagram live-stream with Jasper Sharp

Tour exhibition Beethoven Moves

View of the main entrance to exhibition Beethoven Moves at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wein, 2020. Photography by Mark Niedermann, courtesy of Tom Postma Design
upcoming exhibition
You may also like
NEWSLETTER

Sign up for more