Beethoven at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
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.
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:
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!
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 dynasty’s 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 Kunstkammer, 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.
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 kunstkamner, 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.
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.
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 Lucian 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.
Lucian, 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 Lucian despised more than any other and thought he was a plastic surgeon; or you could go right to Titian, who was the artist that Lucian 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.
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.
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.
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.❖