Members of the Consular Corps,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to welcome you to today’s event in the Kunsthalle. Some of you have been here before to see the spectacular Edouard Manet exhibition which was opened shortly after the alteration work. Obviously, you enjoyed it enough to come back again, even without Manet. It is a good sign for the gallery, if the men and women who comprise such an important consular corps honour the institution with a second visit. And the visitor numbers are an advertisement in themselves: Hamburg’s Kunsthalle calculates that this year’s visitor total will be half a million art-lovers.
When the Manet exhibition opened, people spoke of the artist’s revolutionary impact; of how he fundamentally altered the way we look at art – simply by his choice of subjects and by lifting ordinary scenes of daily life out of their private obscurity and shining the light of art on them. We think here of paintings such as “Luncheon in the Studio” or the rather more provocative “Nana”. By training his artist’s eye on banal subjects, Manet broke with past traditions and – art historians agree on this point – “invented” the modernist viewpoint.
For that reason one of his most famous admirers, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, declared that Manet’s work had the radiant power of a ‘symbolic revolution’. According to Bourdieu, Manet changed the entire universe of the viewer and established a manner of looking at the world that was so compelling that it became perfectly natural. Radical upheaval of this kind is termed epoch-making.
The decision to hold an exhibition of none other than Manet shortly after the reopening of Hamburg Kunsthalle might be interpreted as a covert message – see here, the modernized museum itself will radically change your familiar habits of perception. And look, the alterations mark an epochal change. Well, perhaps it would be a bit too dramatic to assume such radical intentions. As you know, that’s not my style. And if I consider the topic of the next temporary exhibition, “Surreal Encounters”, perhaps I should not go too far out on a limb to offer theories about the intentions of the museum’s curators.
Without doubt, however, the key idea behind the modernization was to shed new light on the artworks and, indeed, to renew the way we look at art. That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is quite a sizeable step on the way to a symbolic revolution.
But, for the moment, let’s return to the works of art. Against a background of bold colours and with different lighting, they suddenly seem to breathe, even to heave a sigh of relief. We can see a real before and after contrast. In a minute or two, when we take a walk round, we shall have time to experience that ourselves and hear further explanations.
But as far as the effect it has on the way we view art is concerned, I should like to stress two aspects. They both have something to do with how the old and the new are brought together:
firstly, the architects of the alterations have so elegantly and gently merged parts of the museum spanning two centuries of building styles, that the rooms themselves become the picture frames. Art, from medieval altarpieces to contemporary works, becomes a walk-in installation, as it were. Using space as the frame creates a kind of 3-D experience, but without the cinema screen and 3-D glasses. Yes, indeed, we experience the space as a design element, but it is effortless; effective simply through its “clarity and nobility” as the newspaper “Die Zeit” put it. This may not be truly revolutionary in the way Bourdieu meant, but it does alter our relationship with the works of art and thus the way in which we look at them.
However, I do see epochal potential in the second way in which the old and the new are linked: and by this I mean digital access to the Kunsthalle’s treasures. At the beginning of the year the Kunsthalle made 15,000 works available online: drawings and prints from the period 1450 to 1850, including works by old masters such as Dürer and da Vinci. And that is just the first step in the project to make the entire collection of etchings and the art library available to the whole world via a digital platform. In terms of volume of digital copies and the depth of the academic record, this project is unique in Germany.
Having the option of zooming in on the collections in Hamburg Kunsthalle from anywhere in the world not only adds to, but changes the way in which people access art. Being able to see good-quality images of centuries-old pictures on a private computer screen, and obtaining comprehensive information at the click of a mouse create a new reality: a more rapid, intimate access to art is opened up for more people.
This digitalization project is about offering access of a new quality and quantity. It is an important step. Great art is taken out of its museum setting. Access is easier, and perhaps even more natural. We bring art into our own world, as it were. Its presence in our lives will have a different quality than before.
Please don’t get me wrong: this is absolutely not about a choice between a mouseclick or a museum. To stand in front of the original and sense the surrounding space of the museum, especially in one like the modernized Kunsthalle, has a unique value, for which there is no substitute. Art needs space and must have room to breathe.
However, the crucial benefit that I see from the digital fusion of old and new is that it is now possible to make accessible those parts of our cultural heritage and artistic knowledge that tend to be stored in depots and are known only to experts, in other words, works that previously kept themselves to themselves.
This investment is worth it. It is a distinguishing feature of our city, especially in the virtual sphere, and gives it a competitive edge on the global stage. I am especially pleased to note that our city can always rely on its tradition of patronage – a typically Hamburg attitude. I am grateful to the famous and less famous patrons who make this possible.
You are the spiritus rector of this redesign, bringing great skill, artistic aspiration and civic foresight to the project and its realization. In the ten years since you became director of the Kunsthalle, you have achieved much of lasting value. I am sure that many in Hamburg will fully agree when I say that we are fortunate to have you here. Without your personal commitment, your personal inspiration, the fusion of tradition and innovation would not have succeeded as well as it has. Hamburg owes you a debt of gratitude.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have now established a good tradition of meeting once a year for an excursion. It may not be an old tradition yet, but on each of these occasions we have discovered something new. And today will surely be no exception. But before I hand over to Madam Doyenne and Professor Gaßner, I would like to welcome Mr. Vogtherr, the coming director of the Kunsthalle. I wish us all a satisfying fusion of old and new over the next few hours.
Thank you very much.