Das Moma in Berlin Neue Nationalgalerie,
20th February to 19th September 2004
Guardian/Modern Painters Award for Writing on Art, 2004
It was the middle of June and we were in a pub in Berlin - a basement dive decked out like a Seventies' living room replete with TV, fish tank and plastic leather sofas. A girl in an Eskimo costume kept coming round with more drink. I was sitting in the corner with an Irishman, a Dane and an Indonesian woman from Holland. It was late. I had already had one too many daiquiris when the conversation rolled round inevitably to the United States' temporary cultural invasion of the capital.
Two hundred 'Meisterwerkes' from New York's collection of modern art are on show at Mies van der Rohe's glass and girders building, the new national gallery, at Postdamer Platz, in the centre of Berlin until nineteenth September. The collection left in the States is denuded, provisionally housed in an unprepossessing block at Queens, amid garages and office blocks, a penitentiary looming sullenly round the corner, before returning to its revamped home in Manhattan.
I had gone to see Das MoMA the previous evening, already three months into the exhibition. And yet even at this late hour the building was still skirted by a dense queue of determined Berliners waiting their turn to enter, all intent on catching a glimpse of The Big Apple's artistic core. Posters for the exhibition are ubiquitous throughout the city, announcing the appearance of the collection in film star lettering against a shocking pink ground; public curiosity tangible.
'But there was just too much,' said Niall, the Irishman. 'You couldn't take it in. They would have been better to choose, say, just six pieces, and show only them. That way you would look properly.'
'Ah, but which six?' the rest of us chimed.
Fuelled by daiquiri, I launched in first. 'James Ensor's Masks Confronting Death,' I said.
'Why?' demanded Niall.
'1888,' interrupted Bruno. 'That's when he completed it. Obsessed with painting death, Ensor.'
'Because it's so tentative and questioning and understated. And because Ensor was a Belgian. And I'd have that goat…'
'The She-Goat,' said Niall.
'Picasso,' said Anique. 'Cast in 1952. Did you see the tube at the back for its pee-hole?'
'For its balls,' I went on. 'And I'd have Monet's Water Lilies. I've wanted to see that all of my life. I cried when I saw it.' I was slurring now. 'And for number four, I'd have Brancusi's Bird in Space because he's the most daring sculptor of the twentieth century and it is an object of sublime beauty and power and lyric…liri..'
'Lyricism,' interjected Bruno.
'Thank you. Just what I would have said,' I said. 'Number five…'
'Where was it?' said Anique. 'I didn't see it.'
'Bird in Space?' said Bruno. 'A slim bright bronze wing pointing into the future next to the door of the second gallery.'
'Number five,' I said loudly, 'would be Balzac. In fact he should be number four because Rodin's earlier than Brancusi. '
'Did you see his erection?' asked Niall.
'Did you look?'
'Yep. And number six would be the one of the suspended chairs and girders on the first floor. Don't know who it was by…' No one volunteered an answer. 'Because it perfectly balanced and complemented the Neugallerie itself.'
'So you wouldn't have any of the Klees?' asked Anique.
'Ah, well, yes. Maybe I'd have to drop…'
'Or what about the Gerhard Richters?' said Bruno.
'Well, yes. I could trade…'
'Duchamp? ' said Niall.
'OK, someone else's turn,' I said.