Internationaler Kunstkritikerverband, Sektion der BRD

Pioneer of the Contemporary / In Memory of Helmut R. Leppien


Just how much detractors and custodians of museums depend on each other, is illustrated by the example of Helmut R. Leppien. Leppien, who passed away in Hamburg on 23 October at the age of 74, was one of the most important players in the prevailing German "Museumswunder." After 1960, this had its absolute center in Cologne, something largely forgotten today. At that time everything happened in the Rhineland. One first saw Beuys, Richter, Polke and the most important American artists in Düsseldorf galleries. With the elegant, sumptuous former Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, and with major collector Peter Ludwig, Cologne instantly and successfully lent this contemporary art a museum-like dignity of perpetuity.

Born on 8 September 1933 in Homburg, Saarland, Leppien had just finished his doctorate on Quattrocento sculpture in Naples, and was fascinated by all that was new in the arts when he found his niche as a volunteer at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in 1960. He witnessed and promoted the acceptance of the thrillingly contemporary through one of the most important German museums for old and modern painting. But Leppien, then carefully instructed by his senior colleague at the museum, Horst Vey, writes in a 1962 Cologne museum bulletin (in view of Cologne's Sonderbund exhibition of 1912): "The idolatrous adoration of everything new, once again in vogue, the conviction that ‘contemporary' is that which is ‘current' today, is seen in a different light when one considers how much of the art from 1912 has remained after fifty years. Doesn't topicality prove itself to be a very questionable criterion? It is in fact the very diversity of the 'life-stage-styles,' of the temperament and forms of expression, which gives this exhibition its charm."

To make this point clear for the art scene of the 1960s was the goal of an exhibition Leppien organized in 1970 under the programmatic title "Jetzt: Künste in Deutschland - heute" ("Now: Arts in Germany - Today"). Leppien was director of the Kunsthalle Köln in 1970, after having worked the five previous years in the Hamburger Kunsthalle as the right hand man to Alfred Hentzen, whom he greatly revered. "Jetzt" would become one of the most fiercely criticized exhibitions. In hindsight, it was perhaps one of the best-informed representations of the visual arts including film, performance and music in Germany directly after the student revolution. Serving neither the conformity of the art market nor the conservative faction, artists as rich in contrast as Antes, Beuys, Rosa von Praunheim, Wim Wenders, and ephemeral groups like Karlsruhe's Puyk or the project-commune Kunst am Bau under Hamburg's Klaus Geldmacher, found themselves joined together

"Jetzt" was too much for Cologne! Leppien went to Hanover as head of the Kunstverein, to the city of Kurt Schwitters, where he showed contemporary work as well as exhibitions on the "Neuen Sachlichkeit" ("New Objectivity"), which thanks to Leppien, found a renewed center in Hanover. Leppien's other favorite artistic fields were Dada and Surrealism, and with it, Max Ernst. Leppien compiled the comprehensive catalog of his graphic creations. It was during his time in Hanover that the German AICA admitted him, and he remained a member for 33 years.

In 1975 Werner Hofmann brought Leppien back to the Hamburger Kunsthalle as assistant director and main curator of the picture gallery. In Hamburg, one tried to compensate with an abundance of ideas that which museums elsewhere already had, thanks to the generosity of their collectors and patrons (and the reason they finally imploded). In any case, the German "Museumswunder" relocated from the Rhineland to Hamburg where the museum, following the example of Alfred Lichtwark, became a veritable public school of demonstrative meditation on art and art history. Werner Hofmann's major series "Kunst um 1800" ("Art around 1800") was dialogistically accompanied by the capacious artists' installations from Rinke, Beuys, Kounellis and Kabakov, curated by Leppien. Leppien was also constantly reconfiguring the permanent collection under new leitmotifs.

In the 1981 exhibition "Der zerbrochene Kopf" ("The Deconstructed Head"), in honor of Picasso's 100th birthday, Leppien again implemented, at the highest level, his aesthetic ideal of a concordia discors. In the rotunda of the Hamburger Kunsthalle (on the suggestion of Werner Hofmann), he took Picasso's Cubist masterpiece, the 1909 portrait of Clovis Sagot, and grouped around it 40 European artworks, all of which show heads and all of which were created in 1909, the same year in which Picasso first deconstructed the human head in Cubist style. And Leppien again argued: "The particular appeal of a chronological cross-section lies in the recognition of the non-contemporaneousness of the concurrent. And from the distance of 72 years, the question of artistic persuasiveness becomes more important than the degree of innovation."

With this physiognomic and artistic labyrinth at the start of the 20th century, the position of the museum as a custodian of diversity became clear. "Das Museum hat einen Januskopf" ("The Museum has a Janus Face"), stated Leppien in the title of his contribution to the now-famous 1970 collection of essays on the subject of the "museum," edited by Gerhard Bott. Because of its mission to collect witnesses of history, the museum looks to the past. According to Leppien, "With the relaying of historical dispatches to contemporary society," the museum has an "influence on the future. Therefore, the museum has a Janus face." The witnesses of history are by no means bygones but rather means for shaping the future, just as conversely, the view of history changes under the gaze of the present. Therefore the museum, as a connection between these two opposing directions, is for Leppien the ideal "laboratory and research institute for artists." "They, who consistently redefine art through their work, also change the character and role of the museum in contemporary art. The museum as forum plays the role of stimulator, giving incentives, encouraging new developments, allocating assignments." Leppien concludes this vision of museums as spheres of action, even as muse of the contemporary artist, with the downright defiant defense against all possible skeptics, in order to place himself once again on the unsecured side of the artists: "How many of the inspired processes lead to results, to the enrichment of the collection, this question may play no role in the considerations of the museum."

At the same time, the longer he served as the assistant director at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, the more Leppien respected the great wisdom of the Alfred Lichtwark maxim: "A museum, luckily, has nothing to do with the tastes of the day." While in his exhibition for the Baron J. H. von Schröder Foundation, which included bourgeois and mainly English art from the second half of the 19th century (all of which had all been donated to the Hamburger Kunsthalle), Leppien reasoned humbly vis à vis the timelessness of the museum, which puts all of our good-intentioned efforts into perspective: "Can we hold it against the Baron von Schröder that he was a child of his time, that he appreciated the illustrious virtuosos more than the mavericks who often opened new artistic channels? Is it reasonable or superfluous to observe that there are no pictures by Courbet or Manet to be found in his collection? One must at least add that he also owned no works by Frederick Leighton or Adolphe William Bouguereau - demigods in his time." And Leppien hoped at the same time, not without modesty, "that the artworks which we acquire of our time will one day pass with integrity. We collect today that which seems to us to be important. In doing so we hear the words of Lichtwark: 'We can't write a bank draft for the future.'"


Berlin, November 2007
Peter-Klaus Schuster

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