In a series of essays published in Artforum in 1976, Brian O'Doherty was the first to analyze the phenomenon of the ‘white cube,’ the most widespread display practice in the field of contemporary art. Nine years earlier, though, in 1967, James Stevenson, a caricaturist for The New Yorker, had already made the subject the butt of a joke.
O'Doherty examined the strange and unreal qualities of the gallery ‘cube’, and the interaction between artists and the minimally articulated white exhibition space: conditions they had hadto deal with since the 1960s at the latest, and to which they still respond with various strategies today. The book edition of O'Doherty's influential essays appeared ten years later, in 1986.1 Since then, the expression ‘white cube’ has had an unprecedented international career as a synonym for a specific aesthetic formula. Not even the often-evoked notion of theindispensability of commentary in modern art, derived from Arnold Gehlen and popular since the 1950s, was as pervasive. Central questions regarding the origins of the white exhibitionspace and modern hanging methods remained unaddressed in O'Doherty's work, and since then art historians have looked at the issue only sporadically. Since the mid 1980s, however,serious attention has begun to be paid to the history of exhibitions; today, any monograph on a modern artist would be incomplete without at least some examination of thephotographs of his or her early shows. Several publications have even been devoted to an overview of the developments and shifts in modern display practice, documenting its mostimportant phases. As yet, though, these have only led to conclusions based on individual examples; they cannot therefore be regarded as providing a thorough and serious investigationof the historical background of the ‘white cube’ phenomenon.2 Many questions have had to remain unanswered, and will continue to do so in the future, since the most importantsources have one decisive and irremediable drawback: they are black and white photographs. One can deduct a certain amount of information from them, of course, but they can neveroffer any certainty regarding the colour of the walls or even the material composition of the surfaces. A light grey colour in a photograph may suggest white, but the nature of themedium makes it impossible to rule out yellow or even a pastel tone. The exact material of the wall- coverings is also difficult to determine. Contemporary written accounts aredispersed or inaccessible, while the known ones rarely mention colour. We might thus never know when exactly walls became truly and definitively white. The same is true of the second important subject O'Doherty touches upon, the question of when paintings stopped being displayed above and next to one another, filling the whole wall, and arranged in asingle straight line instead. The slow but sure triumph of the single-row hanging can again only be reconstructed through photographs, which commonly show the details of individualrooms, but never the entire exhibition at once.
In the past, the material related to this theme could be found only in the most diverse sources; since 2001, however, Alexis Joachimides' dissertation and well-illustrated book haveprovided answers to many of the aforementioned questions for the years between 1880 and 1940.3 His work deals with the museum reform movement in Germany and the origins ofthe modern institution in this period, and comes to a perhaps somewhat surprising conclusion, namely that it was German museums that prepared the way for the ‘white cube’ practice.His fascinating and well-researched volume treats a decisive chapter in the history of the ‘white cube,’ one that had previously been ignored by a whole generation of doctoralcandidates in the field of art history. All aspects of the development are discussed, with a central focus on the German museum reform from the Wilhelminian period to the Nazi era, when many earlier ideas for improvement were actually implemented.
Joachimides investigates the impact of living spaces and studios on the museum, as well as of provisional solutions and economizing measures, while the role of galleries is onlytouched upon. The book references the leading role played by the French Impressionists, for many years marginalized by German scholars, while at the same time neglecting the radicalprototypes found in artists' exhibitions in Russia and Italy. The book’s focus on Berlin, Munich and Dresden is plausible, and perhaps even unavoidable in such an enterprise, but as aresult little attention is paid to the simultaneous developments at the Kunstvereine (art associations) and museums of the Rhine and Ruhr regions, which easily rivalled themetropolitan centres in the reception of modern art and the transformation of exhibition practice during these years. There is thus no mention of Karl Ernst Osthaus, probably the moststrong-willed collector and museum reformer of the years in question, who installed his Museum Folkwang in Hagen in the modern manner at the turn of the century, nor of hisinterior designer, the architect Henry van de Velde. The influence of Jugendstil (particularly in its Berlin and Vienna Secession manifestations) on modern exhibition techniques is treated in depth, but not in its wider European context. The internationalism of the art world in this period is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the development towards what we now consider the modern style of display took such an erratic course.
The book traces the roots of our modern notions to the museums of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when paintings were separated from both sculpture and the decorative arts, and painting galleries became the showcases for new presentation techniques. With colourful wall-coverings, sumptuous carpets and elaborate furniture, these galleries initially took their inspiration from aristocratic or royal settings, soon shifting increasingly towards the upper middle-class interiors of the Gründerzeit. Donors and patrons were courted with ‘domestic’ collection arrangements, where the various media were reunited in exuberant ‘period rooms’. Wilhelm von Bode installed the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Berlin in this manner, arranging the pictures, furniture and objets d'art as the art collectors he advised did in their own homes.4 While commercial gallery owners clearly continued to take theircues from the homes of their clients until far into the twentieth century, artists themselves had abandoned the model of the overloaded collector's apartment for their sales exhibitions asearly as 1870. Here the Impressionists led the way. Their installations were inspired by the studio or workshop, with the pictures hung in just two rows and with greater distancebetween them. The movement's spokesman, Degas, was content with twenty to thirty centimetres, but Paul Signac already appears to have demanded his paintings be hung in one rowonly in 1888.
Even at the Impressionist shows, however, the walls were still covered with coloured fabrics, although the latter were increasingly monochrome. Grey seems to have been tone of choiceas early as 1888, but in 1895 dark blue was also still considered.5 Collectors and galleries of modern art may have worked to retard developments, continuing to rely on the modelof the luxuriant Wilhelminian interior, but artists sought to free themselves of precisely this style of presentation. From 1870 onwards, modern principles of display can be said tohave been generated from five specific arenas: exhibitions organized by artists, based on, among others, the model of the studio showing and the continuing presentation practice of galleries and museums, as well as private collectors. Later, a sixth was added: the highly influential trade-fair installation. These spheres naturally overlapped, and the evolution wasnon-linear. Museum presentations of certain artists could seem modern in comparison to general institutional praxis, even when they lagged behind what the artists themselves were doingin their own shows. And studios were not always the paradigms of sobriety and clarity one might expect, but could be even more overstuffed than many a Gründerzeit villa, asdemonstrated by the studio of Hans Makart, whose working space was for a brief time even regarded as a model for domestic interiors. Recapitulating this chapter in the prehistory of the ‘white cube’ we can now see that there were several fundamental elements at stake in the debate: the wall and its material composition, i.e. covering, colour, and articulation; the floor and ceiling, as horizontal and connecting surfaces; lighting, both natural and artificial; the decoration of the space, from flower arrangements to armchairs to carpets; and finally the artworks themselves and their various dispositions, as well as their frames.
The exhibition spaces of the nineteenth century were ornate, colourful and luxuriant almost beyond belief; in any case, to today's eyes they seem more or less unbearable. A strikingexample of how the displays of the Gründerzeit must have looked is undoubtedly the Kaisersaal of the Internationale Kunstausstellung des Vereins Berliner Künstler (International ArtExhibition of the Berlin Artists' Association) as photographed on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary in 1891.6 The art museums of the era were decorated with wall-coverings in velvetand other fabrics, and frequently with lively wallpaper as well; the most popular colour was a deep, strong red known as Galerierot (gallery red). Such decorative schemes arefound even at the sober applied-arts exhibitions later in the century. At the same time, as in the Baroque period, the walls were entirely filled with pictures, with the larger formatshung above and the smaller works crammed together below, as if every square centimetre had to be used. The single-row hanging, with the works arranged at average height and theframes aligned along the bottom (or, more rarely, along the top) began to come into fashion between 1870 and 1900. By 1940 this style had become the norm, with the viewer's eyelevel marking the standard height. At the same time, the museum wall began to shed its decorative elements: monochrome coverings in grey or yellow slowly gave way to white;fabrics were eventually abandoned all together and the works hung directly on the ‘naked’ plaster. These phenomena are linked, although they did not originate in the same historicalspaces and indeed need to be examined separately. The single-row hanging grew out of commercial and institutional display practice; the white wall, on the other hand, had itsroots in interior design in general, not merely the design of exhibitions. It seems, in fact, that the most important impulse came not from museums and galleries, but rather from earlier and parallel advances in the design of private homes, factories and public buildings such as clinics, schools and, not to be forgotten, art academies. Although the two developments have different historical roots, it seems that the beginning and acme of their common triumph can be dated more or less exactly to the years around the turn of the twentieth century. In this period we find the first German examples of monochrome exhibition spaces in which thepictures were hung in a single row. Initially, the various Secession movements took up the Parisian example. In Munich, for instance, the new linear hanging system made it possiblefor low ceilings to be installed in the Secession's new building, as high ones were no longer necessary. Although embroidered Indian and Japanese silk wall-coverings continued to beused here, Berlin began to employ rough, coloured sacking in 1899, alternating per room between matt blue, matt green and dark red. The public, however, had little appreciation of these innovations, as can be gauged by the remark of one visitor, who saw in them a kind of ‘harsh logicality’.7
The earliest example of the use of pure white walls in an art space (i.e. in a programmatically planned exhibition venue) is generally believed to have been at the Vienna Secession building,designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich (which he begun in1897).8 Even there, however, the roughly plastered walls could not be left entirely unadorned, but were articulated with scattered butnonetheless rather domineering gold ornaments. Most of the rooms still exuded the opulence so typical of the late nineteenth century, if now in modernized form. The lingua francawas that of the modern applied arts, with the exhibition spaces designed not only to sell pictures, but also to attract potential clients interested in interior decoration and architecture. It was only around the turn of the century that the installations became more sober. At the Vienna Secession exhibitions of 1903 and 1904, for example, we find the walls simply framed withwooden slats, the floor to ceiling spaces in between left white, and the pictures hung in a single row. A new clarity had entered the exhibition space.9 The new Viennese style conquerednot only Germany but impressed also the rest of the world, thanks in large part to the Venice Biennale. It was here, at Gustav Klimt's 1910 one-man show, that these modern display principles were first introduced to an international public.10 The Vienna Secession building had already garnered a Europe-wide reputation, and the Biennale, founded in 1895 and thus, atthat time, rather young and without tradition, played an important part in spreading its message. The works of art on display came from around the world, as did the audience, who then took the innovations back to their own countries.
The only known photograph of the Klimt room, often reprinted, shows, in addition to the restrained ornamentation of a linear wall painting, the recognizable form of the single-row hang, with the works aligned along the top; only one picture is incorporated into the wall, a decorative constellation reminiscent of the exhibition spaces of the ViennaSecession. Even if the sparely articulated wall, separated from the floor and ceiling and along the joins with nothing but dark wood, was not pure white, the room indicates that within adecade the light-coloured monochrome wall and the single-row hang had been inexorably joined in the circles around the Vienna Secession. We do not know if any of the other rooms at the Biennale were installed in a similar way, although there is evidence of such arrangements in the following decades. It would be easy to assume, then, that all the earliest examples of this new display style were linked in one way or another with modern and contemporary art. Between the gold-and-white exhibition spaces of the ViennaSecession and the discretely ornamented Klimt installation of 1910, however, there was another, equally important station in Berlin: the famous and influential Jahrhundertausstellungdeutscher Kunst (Centennial exhibition of German Art), which took place in the Nationalgalerie and included works of the period 1775-1875. The show was designed by the Jugendstil architect Peter Behrens, who displayed the works (at least partly) on plain white boards installed over the museum's own walls.11 The display surfaces were decorated with graphic elements slightly more elaborate than those found later in the Klimt room at the Biennale; the rooms were accented by a draped ceiling; and the pictures were not yet hung in a single row.
Following the closure of the exhibition, the director of the Nationalgalerie, Hugo von Tschudi, retained the installation for part of the permanent collection, appropriately enough for theImpressionist pictures, which were shown on the upper floor.12 This was an important revision; ten years earlier, just after being appointed, Tschudi had envisioned theNationalgalerie in a very different way. At that time, he covered the walls of each room with coloured fabrics, alternating (among others) between dark red and gray, and had hungthe Impressionists in the style of a domestic interior:
"While the works of the French Impressionists were hung over red wooden panels on walls covered in a striped fabric of pinkish yellow and light green, its upper edges concealed by a band of gold-tooled leather, the early nineteenth-century French landscapes and the Belgian history paintings in the connecting corridor were shown against alternating patterned andplain green, the fabric lengths separated from one another by a narrow yellow trim."13 Given these backgrounds, it is no surprise the pictures needed conventional massive frames, if forno other reason than to separate them from the busy and colorful surroundings. In 1906, then, Tschudi seized the opportunity to preserve Behrens's design for the Impressionist installation, making the National galerie “the first museum to present its permanent collection against a white background” (Joachimides). Some of the wall-coverings on the lower floors were removed immediately; the rest remained until as late as1922.14 The innovation of the Impressionist rooms should not, however, necessarily be understood as a declaration in favour of a new display aesthetic; it seems it was adopted mainly for reasons of time and money, as Joachimides stresses. It is impossible to tell from Tschudi's own comments whether he conceived of the installation as merely provisory or asa kind of statement; whatever the case, it met with great resistance. It set the precedent for a debate on exhibition installation that would rage on into the 1930s and flame up againin the 1950s, and led to a clearer articulation of the positions for and against the modern style. While the Jahrhundertausstellung was so controversial that Emperor Wilhelm II hesitated long and publicly before even visiting it, the use of white walls for the display of parts of the permanent collection was rejected even by such artists as Lovis Corinth andprogressive museum directors like Alfred Lichtwark.15 Tschudi, whose collecting policies had been shamefully blocked by both the emperor and his court painter Anton von Werner,soon took up a post in Munich, where he installed the Alte Pinakothek in a rather traditional way using coloured wall-coverings. The use of different tones in accordance with the style ofthe works on display was regarded as particularly tasteful and elegant; nonetheless, here, too, there seems to have been a certain arbitrariness to the overall arrangement.
The first exhibition after the Vienna Secession and the Jahrhundertausstellung to employ white walls was the 1912 Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, which was pioneering inmany other ways as well. Installation photographs of the works of van Gogh and Edvard Munch show a loose single-row hang on walls covered in white: the colour confirmed bycontemporary accounts.16 Even here, however, the modern precept white wall/single-row hanging is not found in its purest form. Instead, we encounter a graphic and decorativecombination of white walls and sparse dark lines, which mark the divide with the ceiling. Other installation photographs show that the works were still also sometimes hung oneabove the other.17 Nonetheless, it appears that the new exhibition aesthetic began to take hold in the Rhine and Ruhr districts, areas extraordinary rich in Kunstvereine, modern art collectors, and museums, almost as quickly as in the metropolises. A useful source for the study of this phenomenon is the six-volume catalogue Der westdeutsche Impuls 1900-1914, withits numerous photographs of workshops, factories, schools, department stores, and trade-fair and museum displays.18 Like Berlin, Vienna and Venice, this region contributed significantly tothe triumph of the white wall and single-row hanging. Photographs of the Städtische Museum in Elberfeld, for example, where modern art from the von der Heydt collection was shown at a very early date, demonstrate that by 1913 works were hung in a single row, though on monochrome walls.19 By comparison, the New York Armory Show of the same year was positively conventional, despite having made known to the world such avant-garde works as Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase: The show's pompous interior design was still clearly indebted to the nineteenth century.20
Reviewing this first phase in the development of our modern concept of exhibition installation with the help of known and verifiable examples, we may conclude the following: Preparedby the Impressionist critique of the nineteenth-century display practices, there emerged from the Vienna Secession the notion of the graphically articulated white wall. Combined,however, with decorative elements in gold and ornaments set into the walls, this did not yet represent a radical turning point. In Berlin, the Jahrhundertausstellung, with its rooms lit fromabove, became the springboard for a new aesthetic in museum practice. In the Klimt room at the Biennale and the Sonderbund show in Cologne, in contrast to the Jahrhundertausstellung, we find the graphically accentuated wall combined with the single-row hanging Tschudi had introduced in the Impressionist installation at the Nationalgalerie at the end of 1906. There could not as yet have been any question of mounting the pictures directly on the wall, and fabric and wallpaper continued to be used. Presenting the wall as it wouldhave looked underneath such covering, as the pure plaster surface that would later become standard, would not only have been seen as impoverished and provisory, but also regardedas a provocation. It is no accident that the architects and artists of the ‘modernist’ movement (known perhaps somewhat confusingly in German as Jugendstil) were pioneers in theuse of white walls in exhibitions.21 Its protagonists, namely Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Henry van de Velde and Peter Behrens, as well as (somewhat later) Antonio Gaudi, had employed monochrome and white walls even earlier, not for the display of art but in various other kinds of interiors. In the United States, architects like Frank Lloyd Wright were already blazing the same trail, although their efforts remained relatively unknown in Europe, where the traditional architecture of Japan, with its empty surfaces and clear articulations, continued to exercise more influence than that of modernizing America.
In the search for the roots of the white rooms that finally put an end to the stultifying mania for decoration that had dominated the bourgeois living spaces of the nineteenthcentury, one must of course look to the Glasgow School of Art. Mackintosh had won the competition for its design in October 1896, and the building was completed around the turn of the century (the east wing already in 1899). The rooms reserved for the director and teaching staff were entirely white. It is certainly no coincidence that the innovationwas applied to precisely these spaces, which had previously been decorated as if they were drawing rooms, the walls covered in fabric or paper and articulated with wood panelling.In fact, the walls of the director's office were panelled, but the panels were painted white, as were the plaster walls of the staff rooms.22 It seems, then, that before the new aesthetic began to prevail in exhibitions (which would have made more sense), it first conquered offices and meeting rooms. In the case of Glasgow, incidentally, the staff found their facilitiesless than entirely comfortable.23 Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art created a sensation throughout Europe, and in 1900 the architect and his wife and collaborator Margaret wereinvited to exhibit at the Vienna Secession. Henry van de Velde in particular admired the Scottish innovator, and so it was no accident that, from the very beginning, he designed white hallways, stairwells and rooms for the Folkwang Museum in Hagen and also for the Großherzoglichen Kunsthochschule (Grand Ducal Academy of Art) in Weimar (from 1904).24 The latter was highly unusual; barely ten years earlier, Gottfried von Neureuther had proposed colourful historicist-style ornaments to cover the hallways and staircases of his new buildingfor the Munich art academy. It was only for lack of funds that these designs were never realized. This circumstance once again illustrates that a modern-looking wall is not alwaysand necessarily a demonstrative statement, but may be the result of practical or economic considerations. Mackintosh, on the other hand, worked with monochrome, light-coloured wallseven in private buildings following his work on the School of Art. These walls appear white in photographs, although not as harshly white as the cabinets and doors (Windyhill,1900; Hill House, 1902-1904). As noted above, we need to be especially careful when drawing conclusions based on photographic evidence, even the most recent; one contemporary, for example, characterized Mackintosh's interiors as follows: “The cabinets are white, all other colors are pale, as if washed out.”25 Still, one has the impression that here, in cloudyScotland, bright and white walls triumphed not only in the hallways and corridors but also in the living rooms and bedrooms for the same reason we may assume they were so welcome in the School of Art, namely for their capacity to increase the amount of daylight.26
If one follows this particular lead, then the academy is not the only source to which one might trace the use of the white wall. Around this time as well, workshops and factoriesbegan to utilize white plaster or whitewashed walls, not only in order to take full advantage of the daylight, but also due to the increasing importance of artificial light for theindustrialization process, which was beginning to conquer the night for the purposes of work.27 Both academies and factories are therefore potential sources for the migration of thewhite wall into the domestic interior, but so are other functional buildings such as post offices, hospitals and schools. The fact that critics of the white exhibition wall occasionally spokeof a kind of ‘Lazarett-Ästhetik’ (military-hospital aesthetic) indicates that contemporaries perceived and understood the transposition. The development of the use of white walls in thedomestic interior is, however, just as haphazard as that of the white wall used for the display of art. Many progressive architects continued to decorate their Jugendstil ensembles withwallpaper and wall paintings. Even in the work of one and the same designer we find white and dark-panelled, wallpapered and painted interiors nearly in tandem. Even van de Velde,and later many Bauhaus protagonists, tended towards the use of colour in private spaces, for example employing blue in the bedroom of the magnificent villa in Hagen belonging to MuseumFolkwang founder Karl Ernst Osthaus. The desires of the patron undoubtedly played a role here, as they did in department stores and bank buildings, which continued to utilize massivewood or stone facings. If the studio aesthetic of the academy was Mackintosh's source of inspiration, it seems plausible that Peter Behrens's commission for the factory and officesof the AEG might have influenced his choice of white for the walls of the Jahrhundertausstellung. His installation, however, is more a late echo of the Neo-classical style, just as Jugendstilin general is more indebted to the historical fashions of the nineteenth century than scholars are often willing to admit. In any case, there was no attempt at a rapprochement between the exhibition and the studio or academy here; Behrens was clearly far more concerned that the rooms should appear chic and elegant.
In the second decade of the twentieth century, though, the ‘studio aesthetic’ increasingly became the norm, particularly in museum display. This aesthetic was of course not thebombastic one of Gründerzeit painters like Hans Makart, who sought to recreate the opulent and sumptuous ambience of the museum in his working environment; even Franz von Stuckregarded visually exuberant interiors as an entrepreneurial necessity and an integral part of the highly distinguished air of his villa. Clearly, if the look of the studio corresponded tothat of the museum in this period, it was also because works created in such an over-decorated atmosphere could better hold their own in over-decorated exhibition spaces. By comparison,one can easily imagine that works created in a studio like that of Caspar David Friedrich at the beginning of the nineteenth century, depicted several times by his friend GeorgFriedrich Kersting, could barely be ‘read’ in the lavish surroundings of the typical Gründerzeit museum. It was perhaps no coincidence, then, that Friedrich, like his friend Kersting, was one of the great ‘rediscoveries’ of the 1906 Jahrhundertausstellung. Even if we can never be one hundred percent sure that their pictures were actually displayed on white walls, this example demonstrates that it does do works good to be presented under the same optical conditions as those under which they were executed.
Simultaneous to and following the demise of the Makart-style studio aesthetic around the turn of the century, a radical move towards monochrome walls began to take place.These were probably not invariably white, light gray is often mentioned, and Max Liebermann's studio was bright yellow, but the new trend attracted much attention. Already in 1914 Karl Scheffler came to the conclusion “that the studio of the modern painter has unarticulated and plain, whitewashed walls.”28 The in-situ work photographs Constantin Brancusimade in the early 1920s were intended to point out the conditions under which his sculptures were to be viewed, and are further proof of the avant-garde's efforts to evadetraditional display methods and to assert a more modern aesthetic of the studio.29 Often mentioned in this context are the early exhibitions staged by the Russian Futurists andConstructivists, which featured light coloured and seemingly even pure white walls.
An important example was the last Futurist exhibition, 0,10, held in St. Petersburg in 1915, where the works were hung on greyish wallpaper, as would later be the case at shows of Malevich's abstract pictures.30 There is no doubt, however, that the Russian Constructivist movement, with its preference for rhythmic, all-over hangings was the earliest among the variousavant-gardes to entirely reject the principle of the single- row hang. At Ivan Puni's first Berlin exhibition, for example, the paintings were installed on doors, windows, the ceiling and floor.31 These early Futurist and Constructivist exhibitions also represent an important stage in the abandonment of the picture frame. Here, the works were often hung diagonally,even in places where there was no question of accommodating a viewer standing at a lower level. These frameless abstract pictures quickly developed into spatial works, the so-calledprounen, in which the canvas square dissolves only to reconstitute itself in three-dimensional form. This is the earliest instance of which it might be claimed that the conditions of the exhibition actually transformed the appearance of the work of art. This development became more radicalized as the efforts of the Constructivists and Futurists, as well as, later, many Bauhausand De Stijl, artists began to tend towards freeing the wall of displayed paintings entirely in favour of understanding the pure or painted wall as a constructive element. Already in1929, Wassily Kandinsky felt compelled to defend ‘the bare wall’ as an exhibition space for paintings.32
The extent to which the Russian rejection of the frame was a conscious aesthetic or an economic choice, and to which factories, workshops and other functional spaces played arole in the introduction of the monochrome wall, remains an open question. Here, too, one is tempted to assert that economics and time pressure had a hand in the decisions taken.Still, in the years leading up to the First World War, these manifestations were among the most radical in their promotion of a new aesthetic for artists' exhibitions: a development themuseum could hardly afford to ignore. It was only under Tschudi's successor in Berlin, Ludwig Justi, and after the end of the Empire, that it became possible to work permanently withwhite walls at the Nationalgalerie, although initially only in a subsidiary location. In 1919 Justi succeeded in securing the former Kronprinzenpalais (Crown Prince's Palace) for the display of the contemporary collection. On the lower floors he hung the Impressionist pictures against the rather conventional existing tapestries, with the works arranged in several rows. On the third floor, however, reserved, among others, for the Expressionists and an impressive suite of pictures by Max Beckmann, the visitor was confronted with a pure white room and asingle row of works, their bottom edges aligned. There can be no doubt that this was one of the first permanent museum displays to conform entirely to modern expectations.33 Here,too, though, it remains unclear whether the installation should be understood as a true avowal of the new aesthetic or whether it was in fact undertaken merely as a temporary measure;temporariness being one of the conditions Justi was forced to work under until he was dismissed in 1933. After all, it was only shortly before his dismissal that the modern installation tookon its definitive form. Later statements indicate that Justi was somewhat sceptical about the white wall, which he viewed as rather ‘functional’.34 Like Tschudi's Impressionistinstallation before, even otherwise well-meaning contemporaries criticized Justi's prototype of the modern exhibition space. In 1919, for example, Curt Glaser describes the uppergalleries, with their “painted floors and paper wall-coverings (…)”, as “modest (…)”, a sharp contrast to the “more distinguished rooms below.”35 Oddly enough, Glaser fails to mention themost obvious reason for the introduction of the white wall: Although it was certainly possible to display framed Impressionist works against a colourful backdrop, there could be noquestion of such a setting for the Expressionist or abstract pictures, which could tolerate nothing but the most neutral mise en scène. Such incompatibility was undoubtedly one ofthe major reasons for the spread of the white wall in exhibitions and museum installations, as, inversely, this dissemination encouraged a more autonomous use of colour in modern painting, which no longer had to take into account the interference caused by busy environments. In any case, the white museum wall was also a prerequisite for the abandonment of the frame, once so indispensable forcreating a separation between picture and décor. No research has yet been undertaken to discover when exactly this occurred. It was only once pictures had lost their frames that they couldenter into the intimate symbiosis with the ‘white cube’ O'Doherty has described.
Even after 1919, the advance of the white exhibition space continued to be slow and erratic. In addition to El Lissitzky's Kabinett der Abstrakten (Abstract Cabinet), installed in theProvinzialmuseum (Provincial Museum) in Hanover, forming with its various wall-coverings an elegant presentation arrangement, and a stark contrast to the rest of the museum, which remained conservatively hung.36 The year 1927 saw the exhibition Wege und Richtungen der abstrakten Malerei in Europa (Paths and Directions in European Abstract Painting) at theKunsthalle Mannheim, which celebrated the white wall and the academy's white frame.37 Outside the museum, too, development was gradual.
Installation photographs of modern art exhibitions in conventional gallery spaces reveal the competition facing the light-coloured monochrome wall of the 1920s. Groundbreaking showssuch as the legendary Dada-Messe (Dada Fair) of 1920 took place in rooms with darkly covered walls. In this case, the space belonged to a commercial gallery whose character washardly exceptional. Galleries of modern art continued to follow the traditional pattern, among them that of the avant-garde dealer Alfred Flechtheim, whom Otto Dix painted in 1926against a backdrop of green fabric, one of the few indicators of colour in the age of black-and-white photography. At the first exhibitions of the artists’ groups Brücke (Bridge) andthe Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), which took place in 1910 and 1912 at Galerie Arnold (Dresden) and Galerie Thannhauser (Munich), respectively, the works were hung against a dark,although monochrome, wall-covering. Another Munich establishment, the Moderne Galerie, on the other hand, was lit from above and by 1911 seems to have been aware of both thebrightness and single-row hanging of the Klimt room at Venice.38
The conflict between traditional museum presentation and modern display principles continued to occupy European professionals until well into the 1930s. Particularly interesting inthis regard are the recently translated essays of Georges Salles, in which he pokes fun at an exhibition on French museology.39 The debate intensified as books and magazinesbegan to print works of art of all periods on white paper, ‘framed’ by nothing but a broad white margin. André Malraux's musée imaginaire increasingly competed with the real. Atan international conference on museums that took place in Madrid in 1934 discussions arose around the concept of simplicité de rigueur.40 One might have expected a conservativereaction to these developments on the part of the National Socialists; the opposite, however, was true. On the one hand, it is true that the installation of the Kronprinzenpalais was still considered so provocative that in 1933, when numerous paintings were confiscated, it was immediately altered. The new director, Schardt, appointed by the Nazis, painted the walls in“lacquered pastel tones or silver, using a method he himself had invented and tested (…) The pictures were hung a good distance apart against this fabric-like shimmering background.” Installation photographs indicate that the single-row hang was very likely preserved throughout; by 1933 it was thus already considered standard.41 On the other hand,the white wall likewise now became generally accepted: In both the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum and the main building of the Nationalgalerie the new directors, appointed by the NationalSocialists in 1933 and 1935 respectively, introduced the colour white.42 Above all, however, it was the 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition and the Große deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great Exhibition of German Art), held in the newly built Haus der deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), which in fact represent the final triumph of thewhite exhibition space.
One can hardly imagine a more different usage of the white wall than in these two shows. The ‘degenerate’ works were displayed in a rather provisional looking installation in thebuildings facing the Hofgarten, hung against a light background, together with the large, headline-style ‘labels’ that were used to denounce them, transferring a modern pamphlet and newspaper aesthetic to the walls of an exhibition.43 In the Haus der deutschen Kunst, on the other hand, the white halls and stone-clad corridors created an almost sacred feel, combining sober classicism with a modern museum aesthetic. Even today these spaces have proved their usefulness, surprisingly even for an exhibition of works by Frank Stella, the artist who, according to O'Doherty, helped give artistic definition to the ‘white cube’ idea. There are several factors that may explain the continued use of thewhite wall under these changed political circumstances. Joachimides sees in it an attempt by museum reformers to entice the new regime, assuring them that this style ofpresentation was more suited to the sorts of visitors they hoped to attract, not all of them members of the educated bourgeoisie. Even before the advent of National Socialism, thepolitical spectrum of these men had been extremely broad, stretching from the ‘völkisch’ national-romanticist inclinations of Karl Ernst Osthaus through the intellectual elitism ofWilhelm von Bode to the social-democratic aspirations of Alfred Lichtwark. Perhaps there was also, however, a more specific circumstance responsible for the Nazi adoption of the white wall, whose use the Italian Futurists had secured for themselves under the Fascist regime. Having abandoned their exhibition experiments with themethods and means of advertising and propaganda, the Futurists had already converted to the white exhibition aesthetic in the 1920s. Hitler had seen the both artistically modernand politically reactionary display of ‘white’ Futurism in 1934, when he visited the Venice Biennale, where, incidentally, the German pavilion had just been transformed into a new and sober exhibition space.44 In any case, it corresponded to the functionalist, and thus also National Socialist, reinterpretation of Classicism to use white wherever, while in earlierphases, even that of Classicism itself, coloured walls had been the norm.
It seems unlikely that political considerations played a decisive role in the assimilation of the white wall by the Italian Fascists or National Socialists, however. For some time already there had been a more compelling argument to justify the use of monochrome colours and, eventually, pure white: It was considered the most neutral solution, the one that allowed maximum flexibility for hanging and re-hanging.45 Once a provisional measure, the white wall now became a playing field for the museum, which increasingly came to see its installations as temporary. New acquisitions, new attributions and new attitudes towards art had devalued the static museum praxis of the nineteenth century, in which the coordinated presentation of paintings and colored wall-coverings had been viewed as more or less permanent. Now the museum was forced to capitulate to its own dynamism; the unrest of modernity had reached its precincts.Only twenty years after visitors, critics, museum professionals and above all modern artists had definitively rejected the white wall, it had nonetheless established itself andbecome standard, even, and especially, in Nazi Germany.
Internationally, too, the 1930s saw the triumph of the white exhibition space, particularly at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where in 1939 Philip Johnson designed theopening show in what came to be known as the International Style, following a positive response to the German reform movement by the museum's founders after 1929.46 In the1940s, Frederick J. Kiesler continued to experiment at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of this Century gallery with various installation techniques reminiscent of the Surrealist efforts of theturbulent thirties, but most, although not all, leading American museums began to follow the modernist trend.47 In post-war Germany, the white wall/single-row hanging constellationappears to have been standard, even in galleries, from the very beginning. Although undoubtedly an emergency measure directly following the cessation of hostilities, it soon became the universally accepted language of the commercial exhibition space. The first large-scale contemporary art exhibition of the time, Deutsche Malerei undPlastik der Gegenwart (Contemporary German Painting and Sculpture), organized by the Cologne Kunstverein in 1949 and held in one of the buildings on the city's trade- fairgrounds, already followed the modernist trend. The choice of venue was no accident, as trade-fair architecture had made yet another important contribution to the triumph of thewhite wall, having inspired other kinds of experimentation in the 1920s, such as the Soviet press pavilion in Cologne, designed by El Lissitzky in 1928. This architectural typology also played a decisive role at Documenta I in Kassel, designed by Arnold Bode in 1955. Bode, an experienced fair architect, installed the reconstructed Museum Fridericianum in a manner that transformed what had been a provisory solution into a further manifesto of modern exhibition principles that was as trend-setting as the Venice Biennale had been at the turn of the century.48 Whitewashed brick walls and lightweight building boards made of wood wool dominated, while sheer sheets of plastic foil covered the windows or offered further surfaces for hanging.
Bode was so committed to the idea of the ‘white cube’ avant la lettre that at Documenta II (1959) he even surrounded the outdoor sculptures in front of the ruins of the orangerywith white walls open at the top, ‘open-air white cubes’, as it were. On the other hand, in 1956 the very same Bode hung parts of the historical collection of the HessischesLandesmuseum (Hessian State Museum) in Kassel against light-coloured linen, a contro- versial decision that was later revised.49 Covering the walls with fabric or wallpaper is ofcourse a reference to the courtly past, but in museums it also has the advantage of absorbing sound, creating an unreal atmosphere still thought to be beneficial to the contemplation of art.The unfavourable acoustic conditions created by hanging pictures directly on plaster walls can be experienced in Oswald Mathias Ungers's Wallraf-Richartz- Museum in Cologne. In thepost-war period, German museums continued to employ coloured wall-coverings and painted plaster in some areas, even while making use of the white wall for the display of modernart. The two presentation forms were seen as an excellent means of distinguishing older from more recent artistic trends. This was also true of the few museums that returned tocoloured walls at a later date, a decision that prompted much debate, for example in Kassel in the early 1970s, in the Lenbachhaus in Munich and the Suermondt-Museum in Aachen in the 1990s, as well as in Ungers's Wallraf-Richartz-Museum at the turn of the millennium. The triumphal advance of the white wall in museums, exhibition venues and galleries in thepostwar period remains a little-researched field.
The white wall no longer corresponded to functional spaces as in the past but rather increasingly to the domestic interior, creating the impression that what we are dealing with is aspecifically modernist phenomenon. Even if it remains unclear which type played the pioneering role, the domestic space or the art space, the ‘white cube’ always had its own historical momentum; it is intimately related to the general history of the display of pictures in interiors, even, and especially, when these were not (yet) understood as places for art. One may think,for example, of the bright and often white interiors of Protestant churches as represented by Pieter Saenredam and other Dutch painters of the seventeenth century. Spaces which, thanks to theReformation, had lost their paintings and sculptures, but in which the few remaining decorative elements stood out in splendid, and very modern, isolation. Still more suggestive are thechurch interiors of the late Rococo, in which the formerly colourful plaster decorations were painted a neutral white, and paintings were surrounded by white plaster frames, therebysubduing the illusionistic effects so popular in the Baroque era. Whichever precursor one chooses to accept in church architecture, it seems obvious that the ‘white cube’ shouldlikewise be understood as a sacred space, an outgrowth of the religion of art. Its ideological influence had significantly diminished since the Romantic era, but its influence on the presentation of its ‘cult objects’ clearly remains.
Within the history of the white wall, the reaction of artists to the new preconditions for the presentation of their works bears special significance. In this narrative, Yves Klein'sexhibition at Iris Clert in 1958 is considered pioneering, although it is often forgotten that the artist's aim was to create a resonating space for the ‘immaterial’ International Yves Klein Blue thatdominated the exterior wall and baldachin over the entrance and radiated into the room. A more nuanced history of the ‘white cube’ in artists' exhibitions thus also still awaits writing.O'Doherty's initial essay may have catapulted the subject into the limelight, but that was not the end of the story: In the same year, at the Venice Biennale, Germano Celant created another early historical overview with his section Ambiente/Arte. From Yves Klein to Gerhard Merz, the ‘white cube’, with its virtually emblematic components, has always beenilluminated in a variety of ways; one of the last Turner Prize winner’s restricted himself to simply flipping the light switch on and off. The influence meanwhile gained by the experiments of contemporary artists with the conditions of the ‘white cube’ is evidenced by the way young art historians use the expression ‘Petersburg hanging’ as if it was a traditional term referring to a certain type of presentation in one of the Russian city's famous museums: the Hermitage, for example. In fact, the term was introduced by MartinKippenberger, who coined it in the 1980s to describe his own exhibition praxis and in homage to the St. Petersburg Futurist exhibition 0,10 of 1915. His aim was neither to signal areturn to Baroque hanging principles, nor to link himself demonstratively to the experiments of the Russian avant-garde, but rather to indicate the way he intended to use the galleryfor the presentation of his entire new creative output. This would naturally entail a tightly packed hanging covering the entire wall, a stark contrast to the purism of the ‘whitecube’. Kippenberger's coinage was also connected to his idiomatic use of the name ‘Peter’: A synonym for a brand of cigarettes (Peter Stuyvesant), Kippenberger used the name as aprivate and disrespectful suffix for those involved in the art world (‘Collector-Peter’, ‘Museum-Peter’), finally transposing it to his spatial sculpture installations.50 These ‘Peter-Exhibitions’ were as turbulent as they were precisely staged parades according to the principle of the ‘flood’, which Fischli and Weiss had already used in their legendary showPlötzlich diese Übersicht (Suddenly This Overview). Kippenberger's ‘Petersburg hanging’ was also perhaps already a commentary on the ethereal notion of ‘contextual art’, which at the time had just begun its research into the conditions of modern ‘white cube’ exhibition practice, without, however, being able to escape it.
Translated from the German by Rachel Esner
2 See in particular: Lawrence Alloway The Venice Biennale 1895-1968: From Salon to Goldfish Bowl, New York 1968; Germano Celant Ambiente/ Arte: Dal Futurismo alla Body Art, Venice 1977; Germano Celant "Einevisuelle Maschine:Kunstinstal- lation und ihre modernen Archetypen", in exhibition cata- logue Documenta 7,Kassel 1982, vol. 2, p. 19-24; Ekkehard Mai Expositionen: Geschichte und Kritik des Ausstel-lungswesens,Munich 1986; Nicolas Teeuwisse Vom Salon zur Secession: Berliner Kunstleben zwischen Tradition undAufbruch zur Moderne 1871-1900, Berlin 1986; exhibition catalogue Museum der Gegenwart: Kunst in öffentlichenSammlungen bis 1937, Kunstsam- mlung Nordrhein- Westfalen 1987; exhibition catalogue Stationen derModerne: Die bedeutendsten Kunstaus- stellungen des 20. Jahrhunderts in Deutschland, Berlinische Galerie1988; Walter Grasskamp Die unbewältigte Moderne: Kunst und Öffentlichkeit, Munich 1989, 2nd edition 1992;Bernd Klüser and Katharina Hegewisch (eds.) Die Kunst der Ausstellung: Eine Dokumentation dreißigexemplarischer Kunstaus- stellungen dieses Jahrhunderts, Frankfurt/Main & Leipzig 1991, 2nd edition 1995; Reesa Greenberg, Bruce Ferguson and Sandy Nairne (eds.) Thinking About Exhibitions, London1996, 2nd edition 1999
4 Thomas W.Gaehtgens "Wilhelm von Bode und seine Sammler" in Ekkehard Mai and Peter Paret (eds.) Sammler,Stifter und Museen: Kunstförderung in Deutschland im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Cologne, Weimar & Vienna 1993, 153-172
16 A. Fortlage "Die internationale Ausstellung des Sonderbundes in Köln," in Die Kunst 28 (1913), p. 84, quoted inEkkehard Mai Expositionen: Geschichte und Kritik des Ausstel- lungswesens; Wulf Herzogenrath "InternationaleKunstausstellung des Sonderbundes Westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler zu Köln 1912" in Klüser/Hegewisch Die Kunst der Ausstellung, p. 40-47. According to the same account, the walls were hidden behind a modern trade-fair installation system made of metal tubes, which was later used for other exhibitions as well.
17 In Herzogenrath's essay (see note 16), the photograph, reproduced on page 46, is captioned ‘Prominenz imRaum 5 (van Gogh)’; In the catalogue Alfred Flechtheim: Sammler. Kunst- händler. Verleger (WestfälischesLandesmuseum Münster, 1987), however, the caption reads ‘Jury der Sonderbund- Ausstellung.’ It thus remains unclear whether the image illustrates the actual installation or a special hanging used only for the judging.
18 Exhibition catalogue Der westdeutsche Impuls 1900-1914, 6 vols., Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf, KölnischerKunstverein Köln, Von der Heydt- Museum Wuppertal, Museum Folkwang Essen, Karl Ernst Osthaus MuseumHagen, & Kaiser Wilhelm Museum Krefeld 1984
23 William Buchanan (ed.) Mackintosh's Masterwork: The Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow 1989, p. 102;Buchanan also makes a claim for the interiors of Scottish castles as a possible model. Also of interest in theBritish context was the London exhibition site in Shepherd's Bush known as The White City, where in 1908 the works in the Franco- British Exhibition were displayed in pure white spaces; see Paul Greenhalg "Education,Entertainment and Politics: Lessons from the Great International Exhibitions" in Peter Vergo (ed.) The NewMuseology, London 1989, p.74-98, fig. p. 85
24 Already in 1903 Karl Ernst Osthaus stated that he had “kept the majority of the wall and especially the ceilingwhite, in order to create more light.” The recent removal of later layers of paint at the museum in Hagen,however, seem to indicate that the original colour was rather yellow (with thanks to the director of the BremerKunstsammlungen Böttcherstrasse, Rainer Stamm, editor and annotator of Karl Ernst Osthaus: Reden undSchriften. Folkwang, Werk- bund, Arbeitsrat, Cologne 2002; see p. 43).
30 Noemi Smolik "Letzte futuristische Ausstellung 0,10, Petrograd 1915 – das Ende einer Entwicklung" in Klüser/Hegewisch Die Kunst der Ausstellung; exhibition catalogue Kazimir Malevich 1878-1935, Russian Museum Leningrad, Tretyakov Galerij Moscow & StedelijkMuseum Amsterdam 1988/1989
33 On the basis of the photographs, it is impossible to tell conclusively whether all the walls were white or onlythose in the rooms displaying the works of Beckmann and Feininger. While Joachimides (Die Museums-reformbewegung in Deutschland und die Entstehung des modernen Museums 1880-1940, p. 207) believes thelatter is unclear; the numerous photo- graphs in Janda seem to indicate the opposite: see Annegret Janda "DieGemälde und Bildwerke der Expressionisten im ehemaligen Kronprinzenpalais" in exhibition catalogue DasSchicksal einer Sammlung: Aufbau und Zerstörung der neuen Abteilung der National- galerie im ehemaligenKronprinzenpalais Unter den Linden 1918-1945, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/DDR, Nationalgalerie/ NeueGesellschaft für bildende Kunst (West-Berlin) 1988
37 Monika Flacke-Knoch Museums- konzeptionen in der Weimarer Republik. Die Tätigkeit Alexander Dorners imProvinzial- museum Hannover, Marburg 1985; Beatrix Nobis "El Lissitzky 'Der Raum der Abstrakten' für dasProvinzial- museum Hannover 1927/ 28" in Klüser/Hegewisch: Die Kunst der Ausstellung; ill. in Museum derGegenwart, p. 43
38 Helen Adkins "Erste Internationale Dada-Messe, Berlin 1920"; Mario- Andreas von Lüttichau "Der blaueReiter, München 1911"and "Künstler- gemeinschaft Brücke, Dresden 1910" in exhibition catalogue Stationen derModerne; exhibition catalogue Alfred Flechtheim; Rupert Walser and Bernhard Wittenbrink (eds.) Ohne Auftrag:Zur Geschichte des Kunsthandels. Band I, München, Munich 1989, fig. p. 46 (Moderne Galerie, Munich).
42 Joachimides Die Museums- reformbewegung in Deutschland und die Entstehung des modernen Museums1880-1940, p. 228, 234; it is impossible to tell from the photographs, though, whether the colour used at theNational- galerie was actually white.
43 Mario-Andreas von Lüttichau "Deutsche Kunst und Entartete Kunst: Die Münchner Ausstellungen 1937" inPeter-Klaus Schuster (ed.) National- sozialismus und "Entartete Kunst": Die "Kunststadt" München 1937, Munich 1987, p. 83-181, esp. p. 103; it is unclear why Joachimides (Die Museums-reformbewegung inDeutschland und die Entstehung des modernen Museums 1880-1940, p. 237) believes the walls of the EntarteteKunst show were dark coloured.
47 Thomas Messer "Peggy Guggenheim Art of this Century – New York, 57th Street, Oktober 1942 bis Mai1947" and Uwe M. Schneede "Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, Paris 1938" in Klüser/ Hegewisch Die Kunst der Ausstellung
48 Walter Grasskamp "documenta. Kunst des XX. jahrhunderts. internationale ausstellung im museum fridericianum in kassel, 15. Juli bis 18. September 1955" in Klüser/ Hegewisch Die Kunst der Ausstellung; Harald KimpelDocumenta. Mythos und Wirklichkeit, Cologne 1997; Harald Kimpel and Karin Stengel Documenta 1955: Ersteinternationale Kunstausstellung – eine fotografische Rekonstruktion (Schriftenreihe des Documenta- Archivs), vol. 3, Bremen 1995
49 Peter M. Bode "Arnold Bode und die Kunst der Räume" in Arnold Bode: Documenta Kassel – Essays," ed.Stadtsparkasse Kassel 1987, p. 121, 125-129; Harald Kimpel "'Fest des Geistes' oder 'Sünde wider den Geist'? Arnold Bode und derRahmenstreit von Kassel" in Marianne Heinz (ed.) Arnold Bode: Leben und Werk (1900-1977), Kassel &Wolfratshausen 2000, p. 68-77