Enfilade

Exhibition | Beethoven Moves

Posted in anniversaries, books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on December 27, 2020

Installation view of the exhibition Beethoven Moves, with John Baldessari’s Beethoven’s Trumpet (with Ear) Opus #132, 2007, resin, fiberglass, bronze, aluminum, electronics. Photo by Mark Niedermann for Tom Postma Design.

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Press release, via Art Daily (26 December 2020) for the exhibition:

Beethoven Moves / Beethoven Bewegt
Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, 29 September 2020 — 24 January 2021

Curated by Andreas Kugler, Jasper Sharp, Stefan Weppelmann, and Andreas Zimmerman

The Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, in cooperation with the Archive of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, presents Beethoven Moves, an unusual homage to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), the great representative of the First Viennese School. Beethoven’s popularity remains unbroken, even 250 years after his birth. Beyond the music, his humanistic messages have influenced the history of art and culture. His early deafness shaped his image as a tragic genius.

Beethoven’s universal and unique reception, the epochal significance of his music, and the perception of his deified persona create numerous points of entry. High and popular culture, commerce, and politics all form an inexhaustible reserve of inspiration and appropriation. The exhibition brings together paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, sketchbooks by William Turner, graphic works by Francisco de Goya, Anselm Kiefer and Jorinde Voigt, sculptures by Auguste Rodin, Rebecca Horn and John Baldessari, a video by Guido van der Werve, and a new work developed for the exhibition by Tino Sehgal—all of which are brought into dialogue with the music and persona of Beethoven. The exhibition thus provides a poetic reflection of the composer and his work, as masterpieces of fine art form connections with music and silence.

The elaborately staged exhibition does not present any artworks from the Kunsthistorisches Museum collection. However, it is shown in the Picture Gallery in the context of the art and culture of many centuries, hundreds of works that precede Beethoven’s lifetime and in some ways also lead up to it.

Beethoven is one of the great influential figures in the history of music and culture, not only in Vienna but also internationally. As the largest museum in Austria, the Kunsthistorisches Museum addresses the anniversary of his 250th birthday. Museums are treasure houses, part of the cultural consciousness and tourist magnets; but beyond that, they are also discursive spaces for reflection and confrontation, laboratories for fantasy and the connection of ideas. These aspects become particularly clear in this exhibition project curated by Andreas Kugler, Jasper Sharp, Stefan Weppelmann, and Andreas Zimmerman.

The sequence of rooms in the exhibition relates to Beethoven’s life only in a very general sense. Divided according to themes, they are conceived as a series of tableaux, each based on distinct compositional principles. Indeed, the interplay between the various architectural settings is rather like that between the movements of an orchestral work. And this diversity in the rooms is matched by the variety of the listening experiences on offer, the media of the artworks, and the approaches taken by the artists. Accordingly, visitors will not find any directions telling them how they should move through each room. For a true experience of Beethoven depends on paying heed to one’s inner voice—as when listening to music in general. As we strive to emotionally relive the relations between music, words, imagery, and movement, we should just let our body find its place within the surrounding space. Beethoven Moves is thus intended as an invitation to enter into a very personal encounter with the great composer.

In Room 1 Beethoven’s powerful music immediately captures the imagination of visitors to the exhibition: they hear two of the piano sonatas written by the composer, himself an accomplished concert pianist until he lost his hearing: the Waldstein Sonata (C major, op. 53) and his final Piano Sonata in C minor, op. 111. Beethoven’s original autographs of these compositions are also on show. All of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas are present in this room, albeit in two very different artworks; in her thirty-two complex drawings, Jorinde Voigt analyzes Beethoven’s compositions, while Idris Khan’s monumental work compiles the scores of all his piano sonatas to create a menacing block-like structure. In the centre of the room, two more contrary sculptures have entered into an equivocal dialogue: Auguste Rodin’s human figure (The Bronze Age in plaster) and Rebecca Horn’s enigmatic grand piano (Concert for Anarchy). The composer’s character, too, was contradictory and highly complex, something that clearly functioned as a source of his creativity: his temperament allowed him to produce works that continue to move people from all parts of the world.

Room 2 is dedicated to silence and stillness, Beethoven’s increasing hearing loss and the associated pain, isolation and reflectiveness. However, we also learn about his admirable ability not to resign himself to his fate but through his art to triumph over his affliction. Los Caprichos, the engravings by Francisco de Goya (1746–1828)—another great artist who lost his hearing—are like pictorial equivalents of the inner fragmentation experienced by the ailing Beethoven. Strictly speaking, all that remains of Beethoven’s thoughts and his art are pages covered with scores and words. Other objects can only serve a superficial cult of remembrance, things like his ear trumpet or a piece of the parquet floor from the house in which he died in 1827. This plain surface, however, also resembles a stage, reminding us that Beethoven and his music have been used for the most varied ends.

To this day, his personality and oeuvre continue to be reinterpreted in politics and propaganda; some worship Beethoven as a revolutionary innovator while for others he is a genius in whose reflected glory nationalist mindsets of all kinds may bask. A work by Anselm Kiefer bears witness to the fact that cultural achievements are still prone to be injected with political content. The reception of Beethoven ranges from the banning of his music to the numerous quotations from his works in popular culture.

In Room 3 we look at Beethoven and his attitude towards nature, which for him was a source of inspiration and strength, offering an escape from his cramped lodgings and the freedom of long country walks regardless of the weather. He would often stop abruptly to jot down some musical idea in one of the sketchbooks he always carried in his pocket. In this room, the colour tones of Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner engage with Beethoven’s tonal colours. They all belong to a generation who witnessed the French Revolution, a radical new awakening whose promises and hopes were quickly scotched by the subsequent Restoration period.

Two symphonies can be heard in this room, both of which are linked in contrasting ways to Napoleon. Beethoven’s anger at Napoleon crowning himself Emperor of the French in 1804 led the composer to scratch out Bonaparte’s name from the title page of his Third Symphony (Eroica). His Seventh Symphony premiered in 1813, just a few weeks after the Battle of Leipzig in which the allied armies of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Sweden had decisively defeated the emperor. Contemporaries often associated Napoleon with the mythical Prometheus, and Beethoven too was frequently linked with the titan who brought fire to mankind. Prometheus is very much present in a painting by Jan Cossiers, but Guido van der Werve’s video can be read as a complementary reflection of this figure prepared to take a high risk to liberate man: it is the artist himself who walks towards us across the ice, a huge icebreaker in his wake. Threatened with failure, his solitary and heroic actions nonetheless bring forth beauty.

Room 4 brings us full circle to individual, personal encounters with Beethoven. A new work by Tino Seghal, created especially for this exhibition, is permanently installed and on show in this room.

Andreas Kugler, ed., Beethoven Moves (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2020), 224 pages, ISBN: 978-3775747493 (Engish edition), $55.

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