If the exhibition in Potsdam could open its doors once again, one would only speak of haystacks again. That would be a great pity.
Installation view Haystack painting from the exhibition "Monet. Places" Photo: David von Becker, Museum Barberini
Three weeks before the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the events in an auction room in New York were of no interest in the then German workers’ and farmers’ state. At Sotheby’s in the Rockefeller Center, the hammer fell on October 18 for "Snow-covered Haystacks in the Evening Light" by Claude Monet (1840-1926) from 1891. The 65 x 100 cm canvas cost the buyer at the time $8.5 million.
In the thirtieth year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and after fourteen international auctions of haystacks by Monet, the time had come. Potsdam got its own haystack. They became the "Haystacks in Summer Evening Light" from 1890. They cost 13 times the price, the buyer paid 111 million US dollars for the painter’s picture of almost the same size.
One might now think, while Potsdam lost its direct connection to the neighboring city of (West) Berlin in 1961 due to the construction of the Wall and East Berlin could only be reached via rural detours, even past fields with haystacks, that today’s Brandenburg state capital, against the background of this history, is the ideal place to which this painting by the French Impressionist should end up.
Through a PR note disguised as a press release by Hasso Plattner, SAP founder, art collector, possibly also art patron as well as elected Potsdam resident, the coup became public. With the reconstruction of the Palais Barberini, Plattner had already created the exhibition venue, financed at great financial expense, since the building was state of the art.
Why is there hay lying there?
Here, until June 1, the exhibition "Monet. Places." was to be presented to a larger audience. Due to Corona, however, the Museum Barberini also had to announce its temporary closure.
In front of the classicist-baroque sandstone façade of the Palais, hay, specially delivered from the village of Stucken in the district of Potsdam-Mittelmark – and how could it be otherwise – piled up in a heap, formed the exhibition center. Steep stairs led to the inner sanctum, where visitors were awestruck by the haystacks hung in rows in the great hall.
The most expensive piece hung centrally in the middle, flanked by other haystacks. It almost had the appearance of a haystack triptych, similar to the altar retables in the Renaissance. Only in the center of the picture a haystack. Standing in front of the painting, the interested family man then immediately explained to his little ones, "And just imagine, this one cost over 100 million!" A murmur. A shrug of the shoulders from the visitors. Still others devoted themselves to the mood in the painting with evening light.
This went on for three weeks. Since the closure, however, there have been hopes of negotiating a contract extension with the lenders, also to make up for the lost income from ticket sales. It is quite possible that, in view of the pandemic, the exhibition will have to be suspended for another month and Monet’s works will only be on view for a short time. More details are not yet available.
The Who’s Who of the Museum World
The collaboration with the Denver Art Museum and other lenders from the Who’s Who of the museum world, such as the Musee d’Orsay and the Musee Marmottan Monet, both in Paris, the National Gallery in London, the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, does not suggest easy talks.
If successful, everyone would then talk about the expensive haystack again. Despite the pictures of Normandy, where the painter grew up, or the morning series of paintings with the fog over the "London Waterloo Bridge" and as a counterpart the afternoon of the "Charing Cross Bridge".
With more than 100 paintings, the Potsdam exhibition is one of the most comprehensive retrospectives for this artist ever organized by a German museum. The numerous exhibits are shown in a sequence of rooms arranged thematically according to location and extending over all three floors of the museum. The curatorial order favors a view of the entire development of the work up to his late serial paintings.
If one had asked before the auction, what do I actually know of Monet? Most would have spoken of his large and famous water lily paintings. These are also on display. An entire room is devoted to them, transporting the visitor to the places where Monet drew inspiration for his Impressionist open-air paintings. In his last creative years, this was above all the elaborately laid-out water garden at his residence in Giverny.
The ever-shimmering water lilies
And so the exhibition forms the image of a traveling painter, for whom Paris was just as interesting as small villages on the Seine or cities like London and Venice, before he settled in the provinces. With numerous key works from various creative phases, Monet’s artistic career is shown right up to his shimmering water surfaces with water lilies, which he captured on canvas with broad brushstrokes.
The dawn of industrialization is part of his work. Monet used ever new connections in the railroad network to expand his radius of action. His new mobility led the painter to tourist destinations, where he met his affluent clientele in the emerging metropolitan bourgeoisie. For this social milieu, tourism and leisure were an expression of their way of life.
Not only pictures with chimneys, but also cityscapes and landscapes with haystacks and water lilies met the taste of the time. Monet’s works also took up the changes brought about by the advent of photography with its striving to capture the world scientifically. A moreover fleeting moment that especially the Impressionists used.