The exhibition Anecdotes of Destiny presents artists and works of art from the collection of Kunstmuseum Bern that have rarely or hardly ever been presented to a larger public. By showing – often achronologically – these forgotten, omitted, or neglected voices in dialogue with “masterpieces” from the collection, the exhibition proposes that the collection cannot remain stable and given in perpetuity. On the contrary: it is full of unknown stories waiting only to be discovered and told.
The notion of “story” is crucial to this exhibition. “Storytelling,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” In her essay devoted to the Danish writer Isak Dinesen (also known as Karen Blixen), storytelling is opposed to conceptual thought because it involves imagination. A storyteller, by repeating the past (a “story” is by no means a pure fantasy) not only unveils its marginalized or unnoted aspects, but is also able to transfigure them, providing brand new meaning.
The title of the show is borrowed from the last collection of stories published by Dinesen in 1958. The concept of destiny does not mean the same thing to Dinesen as it does to most people: “I don’t see destiny as a God without face, to whom one has to submit in fear and trembling,” she said in 1959. “For me one’s destiny exists in the interaction between one’s nature and the surroundings.” Indeed, almost all of Dinesen’s heroes (or rather, heroines) manage, through storytelling, to overcome predicaments and develop into strong and proud human beings.
This is exactly the aim of Anecdotes of Destiny. By shedding new light on its own lost stories, and transgressing the given chronology, the exhibition demonstrates that the collection of Kunstmuseum Bern is an unlimited source of stories. By inviting renowned writers to contribute with their own texts, it also shows that the writing of (art) history has to start with telling a story. Isn’t it also the case that any community in order to exist and prevail needs to share songs, poems, and stories it has in common?
The exhibition Anecdotes of Destiny is structured as a collection of stories. Since the political function of the storyteller – art historian or novelist – consists for Arendt of providing other perspectives, in the main space of the exhibition we follow the gaze: Who is watching whom, from what perspective, and who is included (or not) in the represented interactions? What is visible in the painting, what remains merely suggested, and what is hidden? The exhibition is an invitation to (re)discover the collection of Kunstmuseum Bern and to see it as multilayered and dynamic constellation which – when looked at closely (and poetically) – constantly reveals new meanings.
Gaze | Melinda Nadj Abonji
Chapter 1 – Hazy Borders
Discussions about the muse usually center on the artist first, with the painter as active creator and the muse (usually young, attractive, and female) as a passive sitter. But such a division is not clear-cut. Let’s take Gertrud Dübi-Müller (1888-1980) who Ferdinand Hodler met as a young woman, portrayed in numerous drawings, and painted a total of 17 times. She wasn’t a mute model. On the contrary, art history that studies Hodler’s life would be poorer today without her expressive photographs, showing him both at work and in his private life. Dübi-Müller’s photographs (taken between 1911 and 1918) undermine the relationship between the artist and his muse: Hodler is painting Dübi-Müller but, looking at her photographs, it is not unfair to ask, is it her or is it him that is actually the muse here?
This unstable boundary invites us to interrogate and look at those who are so often left outside the frame: the poor, old, or criminal. By casting light on them, we might ask what it means when the so-called margins intrude into the frame? It is interesting to note that artists themselves occupy a paradoxical position in such a division. According to Pierre Bourdieu, they can be called “the dominated part of the dominant class”: they can simultaneously “flirt” with those who are in the so-called center as well as those on the edge of society. This specific “bipolarity” provokes reflection on how artists emphasize belonging, identification, but also emancipation and the ways they expose the organization (and stratification) of social space.
Another way to address and question the instability of borders is to look at the representations of hybrids. It is a recurring topic in art history invariably connected with attempts at conveying messages which elude language, remain outside the rational, and beyond existing norms and standards. Such representations merging human, animal, and plant features hint at the elusive, uncontrolled, and often instinctive aspects of humanity that cannot be expressed using existing, clear-cut categories.
Chapter 2 – Dimensions of Self
The basic fascination with capturing and studying images of ourselves and of others – for what they say about us, as individuals and as a people – is what makes portraiture so compelling. The self-portrait, as an aspect of portraiture, would seem to be what artists want to share with others, how they would like to be seen and perceived. It is frequently a means of critically examining themselves, fantasizing, and reinventing themselves. The resulting image is subsequently filtered by circumstances, desires, fears, and dreams. (Self-)Portraits are especially interesting when looking at female artists. They are a gesture of claiming control: a weapon to fight against imposed images, enforced roles, muteness, and subjugation. It is also an expression of individual agency and power to become oneself, a re-appropriation of the individual’s own image and offering it to the world according to the artist’s own needs and rules.
A telling example here is a group of sculptures by Adèle d’Affry an artist from Fribourg who created her sculptures and paintings under the male pseudonym “Marcello.” Born in 1836, she was an artist whose identity lies halfway between the femininity exhibited in the outfits she chose for her portraits and the monumentality, often androgenic, of the heroines she sculpted. Her early portrait (created under her birth name) is confronted here with the later, more daring, sculptures representing witches and female warriors, Pythia and Gorgon – we could ask if she is projecting herself in these unapologetic women? Is her art a means of self-reinvention for her?
The fragile border between art and life is indisputable when looking at the enormous pictorial, literary, and musical oeuvre of Adolf Wölfli (1864 – 1930). His art is a sprawling account of his experiences, memories, and projections: a counter-world that he created to escape a burdened present. Across more than 25,000 sheets he provides an account of a spectacular childhood and a glorious future: an alternative rich and multilayered life that, for him, was more real than the one he actually lived. We are presenting his works in an impossible dialogue with Esther Altorfer (1936 – 1988) another Bernese artist whose life is indistinguishable from her art.
Chapter 3 – Being Connected
The traditional genre of still life was a site of dialogue between the living and the non-living, between life and death, the human and the non-human. Artists were, in fact, the first to take ordinary, everyday things seriously. They recognized their presence, animated them, and made them interesting by exalting their form, their meaning, their power. This is why, since antiquity, still lifes have provided an intriguing observatory of sensibilities. The works on exhibition address things in a non-judgmental way, they invite us to pause and see the surrounding world in all its everyday richness and secrecy. The inquisitive gaze is striking in the works by Maria Sybille Merian (1647 – 1717). She was the first to ever illustrate and describe the interaction between species, food chains, and the struggle for survival, making her a pioneer in the study of nature.
Is it possible to paint landscapes as thoughtfully? To observe it with admiration for its mystery, richness, and silent monumentality? The works selected in this section depict nature and its atmospheric spectacle as being independent of human presence. There’s no need to animate it: the human figure, earlier a brave warrior and conqueror, is now portrayed from a distance, almost invisible, or completely absent and unnecessary.
«Making kin» is a maxim coined by the philosopher of science and feminist Donna Haraway who writes about the urgent need for responsibility and communality, and the necessity to create new, more respectful and hybrid forms of kinships between humans and their environment, the so called more-than-human relations. Haraway explores concepts of community that, rather than adopting an anthropocentric view, underscore equality within a diversity of species. The works selected in this section inspire us to reflect upon an overall ecological principle of connectivity.
Chapter 4 – Being Together
In her famous The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt recalls Aristotle’s distinction between zoé (biological life) and bios (human life). Obviously, this human life is such because it is – via communication – shared with others. The realm of the home, the domestic, and the family is synonymous with the world of the interior. Rather than depictions of “perfect” families, relationships or interiors however, the works assembled in this section display what is one of our most shared and universal experiences. When, in 1938, solicited to write the entry on “family” for the French Encyclopedia, Jacques Lacan substituted the given title with “family complexes.” It was clear that he was referring to the psychic reality, indeed complex, that is masked by the term “family.” This basic cell – so common and so individual at the same time – is our point of departure to others and to the world.
And then there is school and also the coded, and often highly hierarchical, relationship between teacher and student. The example of two artists, direct students of Paul Klee, complicates this bond and shows how much the teacher relies on his students who not only keep his work alive, but dare to take steps that he, for various reasons, did not dare to take. Petra Petitpierre (1905 – 1959) joined Klee’s painting class at Bauhaus Dessau in 1930, and followed him to the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1930 to 1932. She took notes of her teacher's theoretical considerations and thanks to her we have access to his didactic thought from the years 1930 – 1932. As for Marguerite Frey-Surbek (1886 – 1981), she was Klee’s private pupil between 1904 and 1906. In 1914 she founded a private painting school in Bern, the first to admit women artists.
The last section of the exhibition is devoted to various ways of being together. How do we establish our place in the world? How do we consider that world? Is it rather a small world of like-minded people, or maybe a large one where we feel like perpetual guests, ones of many and of different species? How are these worlds created? Hannah Arendt used to say that “by storytelling we recuperate the tales of history, and these make sense of what surrounds us.” Does this mean that we need stories not only to remember and establish a community but also to understand the world changing around us and hope for a (better) future? An open question.
Dimanche 27 août 2023, 11:00
Avec Magnus von Wistinghausen (membre Fondation Marcello) et Etienne Wismer (médiateur culturel Kunstmuseum Bern) sur la peintre et sculptrice Adèle d’Affry, connue sous le pseudonyme Marcello, et sur la réinvention de soi-même.
Dienstag, 17. Oktober 2023, 19:00
Mit Katrin Steffen (Direktorin Kunstmuseum Solothurn) und Nadine Franci (Leiterin Graphische Sammlung Kunstmuseum Bern) über die Fotografin, Sammlerin und Mäzenin Gertrud Dübi-Müller.
Dienstag, 7. November 2023, 19:00
Mit Steffi Göber-Moldenhauer (Geschäftsführerin ArchivArte, Archiv und Galerie) und Magdalena Schindler (Leiterin Kunstvermittlung Kunstmuseum Bern) über Künstlerinnen der Zeit um 1900.
Sonntag, 12. November 2023, 11:00
Mit Frédéric Zwicker (Autor, Musiker) und Noëlle Gogniat (Fachspezialistin Marketing Kunstmuseum Bern, Autorin) über die Notwendigkeit, neue Geschichten zu (er)finden.
Dienstag, 12. Dezember 2023, 19:00
Mit Kate Whitebread (wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin Galerie DuflonRacz) und Livia Wermuth (kuratorische Assistentin Kunstmuseum Bern) über die Berner Künstlerin Esther Altorfer und ihr Umfeld.
Sonntag, 15. Oktober 2023, 14:00 / 15:00 / 16:00
Geschichten der Restaurierung
Mit Katja Friese (Restauratorin Kunstmuseum Bern) und den Studierenden des Fachbereichs Konservierung und Restaurierung, Alésia Barthoulot, Penelope Erny und Renata Monnier.
Sonntag, 19. November 2023, 15:00
Kunst und Religion im Dialog
Mit Jan Straub (Christkatholische Kirche Bern) und Michael Krethlow (Kunstmuseum Bern).
Dienstag, 19:00: 28.11.23
Sonntag, 11:00: 8.10.23 / 7.1.24*
*in English with the curator Marta Dziewańska
Anecdotes of Destiny
28.07.2023 – 07.01.2024
Curator: Marta Dziewańska
Curatorial assistant: Livia Wermuth
Stories to the exhibition: Melinda Nadj Abonji, Frédéric Zwicker, Friederike Kretzen, Eva Leuenberger, Dorothee Elmiger
Translations into French: Camille Logoz (Melinda Nadj Abonji), Benjamin Pécoud (Frédéric Zwicker), Raphaëlle Lacord (Friederike Kretzen), Alexandre Pateau (Eva Leuenberger), Camille Luscher (Dorothee Elmiger)
Translations into English: Ayça Türkoğlu
Artist biographies: Magdalena Schindler, Livia Wermuth
Design: Salzmann Gertsch
Adaptation Digital Guide: NETNODE AG
With the support of:
Team Kunstmuseum Bern:
Director: Nina Zimmer
Managing Director: Thomas Soraperra
Head of Facility Management: Bernhard Spycher
Sponsoring: Birgit Achatz
Registrars: Franziska Vassella, Rebecca Birrer
Head of Exhibition Management: René Wochner
Technical Services: Roman Studer, Martin Schnidrig, Raphael Frey, Mike Carol, Andres Metscher
Head of Conservation & Restoration: Nathalie Bäschlin
Restoration: Philine Claussen, Dorothea Spitza, Katja Friese, Katharina Sautter, Jan Bukacek, in cooperation with the Division of Conservation and Restoration at the Hochschule der Künste Bern, with Renata Monnier, Penelope Erny, Alésia Barthoulot
Head of Provenance Research: Nikola Doll
Research Associate: Renato Moser, with the support of Anne-Christine Strobel
Head of Communication &: Marketing: Anne-Cécile Foulon
Graphic Design: Jeannine Moser
Marketing: Noëlle Gogniat, Stefania Mazzamuto
Digital Communication: Katrina Weissenborn, David Oester, Andriu Deflorin, Martin Stadelmann
Communication & Media Relations: Louisa Dittli, Cédric Zubler
Heads of Art Education: Magdalena Schindler, Anina Büschlen
Art Education: Etienne Wismer and the team of freelancers
Events: Nadja Imhof
Shop: Magali Cirasa and team
Safety & Security: Tiana Kriwanek and team