Opening address, 12 April 2019, 6.30 p.m., East Prussian State Museum
Dr. Rosa v.d. Schulenburg (Akademie der Künste, Berlin)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Hubertus von der Goltz, whose works are presented here under the fitting title “Balance and Perspectives”, is known not only to museum visitors. For three decades, as well as connecting two of the museum’s buildings, his outdoor installation Between Times (now clearly visible against the new extension), has also symbolically bridged the gap – in the form of a person walking a fine line, boldly striding forward across the abyss that opens up below – between the decidedly western location of Lüneburg in Lower Saxony and the East Prussian State Museum that is anchored here as a living place of memory. Even those Lüneburgers who don’t lift their heads high enough to spot the silhouetted figure balancing on its steel construction will most likely know Hubertus von der Goltz’s life-size iron sculpture of his father. Like a walker pausing briefly in the face of wind and weather to lean on his stick, he stands outside the museum.
Having been expelled from his estate in the East Prussian district of Mohrungen at the end of the Second World War, rather than becoming an endless wanderer, Baron Otto von der Goltz-Domhardt found a new home in the west. His son created this memorial to him and gave it the title Alter (Old Man/Age). I’m tempted to add: alter ego. This term coined by Cicero for a “second self”, a person close to oneself, has come to mean a figure of identification who becomes almost part of one’s own identity. An old man, not on a plinth but seeing eye-to-eye with passers-by and those who come to encounter Prussian history at the State Museum, and a father seeing eye-to-eye with his son, born in 1941, who as a child experienced the family’s flight to the west where he made his arrival as a person and an artist, establishing himself and broadening his horizons.
Hubertus von der Goltz was to become an artist with a worldwide reputation. This was not something he was born into, and nor did his early years, which his father might have referred to as his “trials and tribulations,” suggest that he would find his path in spite of all the potential distractions and doubts.
Early on, Hubertus developed a love of the arts, especially music. In 1959 he formed a Dixieland band with some friends and he claims to have attended every jazz concert held in Hamburg both during and after his schooldays. He wanted to study music, much to the dismay of his more nature- than art-loving parents. The compromise they arrived at was a piano-making apprenticeship with the venerable company of Steinway. This revealed his talent as a craftsman, and he was still in touch with music. Moreover, his best friend since childhood, at whose house Hubertus had come into contact with many art monographs, was studying art in Hamburg.
The first pictures Hubertus made himself were travel photographs which – to his own surprise – focussed mainly on architecture and the built urban space. This is something I will come back to later.
Having completed his apprenticeship and commercial training, he worked at Steinway in Hamburg, then in Berlin as a trained salesman and technician and in liaison with musicians. He liked this work but, as he says, the company’s conservative structures made him reluctant to commit. He decided to follow a new path that would take him to the art academy in West Berlin, the Hochschule der Künste, although not yet to a sculpture class (for which he didn’t feel prepared), but to the architecture department. Receiving no financial support from his parents, and having quit his job, he financed the early days of his studies by making architectural models. He knew how to read plans and possessed the necessary skills. But working in architecture offices made him realize they were ruled by dependencies similar to those from which he had fled. Now he knew what he wanted to be: a sculptor.
It was 1968, breaking out of ossified structures was in the air. With two fellow students, Hubertus founded a working group on “variable spaces” in which sculptors were also involved. In 1969 he switched to the fine art department and, after the foundation course, focussed exclusively on modelling the human figure. This time, he financed his studies by casting moulds for sculptures by other students in the plaster workshop. In this way, he not only expanded his repertoire of skills, but also began thinking about the negative space of the mould that holds the positive as an absent form. The absence of the actual object, which is manifest in this void as a negation, as an abstraction, but which remains untouchable, has an ungraspable quality that challenges both the intellect and the emotions. Think, for example, of Rachel Whiteread’s negative forms. Not only on this question of form and space, Hubertus von der Goltz was already considering fundamental issues that went far beyond production technique and aesthetics.
The relationship between static three-dimensional sculptures, their surroundings, and the viewers moving in those surroundings was something he focussed on early – a three-way relationship that is important for sculpture in general, but that is essential here. Public art, and especially art installed in conjunction with architecture, was something he already had an eye for before his studies, as someone taking photographs while hitchhiking across Europe. He was interested in the relationship between viewing subject and the substantial three-dimensionality of urban and rural space, a perceptual link only made possible by the empty space of the surrounding air. His travels took him, among others, to Poland where the masterfully carved altars of the late-Gothic sculptor Veit Stoss with their special approach to and command of space made a lasting impression, as did Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Família in Spain.
The bar was set high when he joined Joachim Schmettau’s master class in 1977. Schmettau’s works around Berlin from the 1970s are still popular today, still catching people’s attention, which cannot be said about many artworks in public spaces. In a piece written in 1927, Robert Musil cuttingly noted: “The remarkable thing about monuments is that one does not notice them. There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.” This bon mot can be applied to public art in general. Even today, art that attempts to assert itself outside the museum or other repositories has a hard time getting noticed. As pedestrians, too many things compete for our attention; even on foot we are mainly people going somewhere, not so often flaneurs.
Almost every day, I walk past Schmettau’s first public sculpture in Berlin, the unusual Hand mit Uhr (Hand With Clock, 1975) and I’m always happy to see that the illuminated time display on the wrist of the downward gripping hand is still working and that this sculpture, installed on the pavement outside a school where many people, most of them schoolchildren, pass by every day, has been neither sprayed with graffiti or damaged. Just once, the hand’s fingernails were (neatly) varnished in red; the rest of the work showed traces of weathering. The varnish was there for a while, then it was gone, together with the signs of time passing, the corrosion of the metal surface. Schmettau’s works are popular because they have a function, acting as a clock or a bench.
Hubertus von der Goltz’s works are often installed high over the heads of passers-by, putting them above the gaze of people in urban space that is mostly aimed straight ahead or downwards. Those who do notice these simple but spectacular high-wire acts, however, immediately understand what they are about: keeping the balance, something of vital importance to each of us, even if we rarely think about it in everyday life, unless we depend on a walking frame to move around. The ensembles with their figures on a narrow path certainly do not belong in the category of aesthetic urban furniture that exists on a level with pedestrians who can sit or walk on it. On the contrary, von der Goltz’s works maintain a spatial distance. One must look up to see them, but rather than being made to feel small, the viewer has the impression of being addressed in a special way. “It is a body in the distance, against a background of vastness and emptiness, a forlorn body, almost ethereal in its smallness, but one that appears natural and unpretentious,” as Katrin Arrieta wrote in her text on the “Gedankenwege” exhibition at Kunstmuseum Ahrenshoop in 2016. The figures balancing on a fine line are out of reach, but not beyond our grasp. It seems as if Hubertus von der Goltz has succeeded in fulfilling his teacher’s belief that art should be for everyone.
But now a few more remarks on the career of the student von der Goltz in the 1970s, whose time was yet to come but who received a DAAD grant to live in Italy where, like many German artists before him, he found a decisive source of inspiration. In his case the family tower houses of San Gimignano that he could see from his studio window. They looked to him like plinths, pillars and stelae for the self-presentation of their wealthy builders. Plinth YES or NO is one of the fundamental questions that occupy all sculptors. As we can see, Hubertus von der Goltz would go on to distance himself in a very particular way from this kind of elevated or exalted importance. A crisis of meaning and production, aggravated by a heavy bout of the flu, prompted a radical rethink, away from individual portrait sculptures towards a different image of humanity, provoked by the question of how to artistically express what applies to every human being in a universally valid way so that everyone can feel that it speaks to them.
With his art, Hubertus von der Goltz engages in nothing less than a philosophy of existence. His visual metaphors of balancing, of walking a thin line, path, detour, crossing, standpoint, perspective and the question of encountering the other, of intersecting life paths, make intuitive sense to the viewer. Indirectly, using visual rhetoric, he asks the big questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? And who are we? His figures have neither individual traits, nor are they types. On the basis of their body outlines and movement patterns, however, they are clearly identifiable as male or female (rather than being unisex pictograms). And these people, who stand for humankind, are in their prime, neither very young nor very old. They are ciphers for the human species. Body volume is of no importance, but body language matters.
They seem slight, dancing, teetering, sometimes almost floating, but they are necessarily subject to gravity, seeking a foothold in the void, always in danger of falling. The dark surface, with striking gestures and clear outlines, aims to make an impact from a distance. These figures appear as two-dimensional shadows, like shadows of ourselves. I am once more reminded of the term “alter ego”. The authors of the Greek tragedies used the term protagonist for the character who plays the main role, later becoming a hero. The protagonists in Hubertus von der Goltz’s work are modest, they are not heroes, or at least they don’t adopt heroic poses. They are airy figures of transcendent corporeality, timeless, placeless, always in transit. They point to the experience of human life itself, acting and reacting, with the upright gait as a key component – a feat of agility rendered more strenuous still by the need to stand, walk, and balance on such a narrow path. If one follows the path of thought laid out by the artist, the questions of whether a destination will be reached and what awaits the traveller on arrival remain open to such an extent that humans appear to be thrown back on their own resources. The hubris of monotheist existential certainty is alien to the artist. His shadow figures appear out of nowhere and move towards an uncertain destination – Each For Himself, as one of the works in the show is titled. They will never be able to really meet, these two figures, even if the fine lines on which they balance were to cross when extended in the viewer’s imagination. They can seek an equilibrium where they are, or they can keep moving forwards. There seems to be no scope for diverging, turning back or lingering – man strives as long as he lives, to paraphrase Goethe. At best, the wishful thinking of Faust: “If ever I to the moment shall say: Beautiful moment, do not pass away!” Mortals are granted no such lasting pause during their lives. With his ensembles of figures, Hubertus von der Goltz has found a fitting artistic expression for a fundamental theme of human existence. With his visual rhetoric, he generates narratives from which those viewers to whom they speak can draw conclusions.
Space is always involved here. Without space there is nothing, nothing exists. In our case one might also say: nothing goes. Space is empty, but full of meanings: as an expression of openness and uncertainty, for example, or of freedom and latitude. It is space that makes movement and perspective possible. The paths, whether as a single fine line or as an intersecting system, seem to make freedom and latitude accessible, but they also restrict such access (limiting and restricting). Straying from the path would mean falling, a fall which – unlike in Max Beckmann’s famous “Falling Man” painting – is inverted here as a floating into the sky. In von der Goltz’s work, the sensation of vertigo is not the same as in Alfred Hitchcock’s eponymous film, for example, where a fear of heights symbolizes a spiritual abyss. It is not just the motif of balancing that speaks to us intuitively in a specific way, but also our wavering between two- and three-dimensional perception of the portrayed act. These sculptures have the lightness and scale of a drawing in space – a quality they share with the work of Fred Sandback, whose works derive their spatial volume from thin metal rods, sometimes with threads stretched between them, but which are actually nothing other than sculptural drawings in space.
The dimensions of the universe are virtually conceived entities, our scope for action within them is limited. Space both facilitates and negates high-flying wishes and abilities. Those who recognize this show humility and concentrate on finding a balance. Which lends them a comforting beauty.
When you go upstairs, step under the artist’s Gedankenbaum (Tree of Thoughts) and look up at the delicate mesh of ideas that form its branches. The form of the tree is abstract; it offers space for your thoughts about what you want in and from life, where you come from, whether you have got to where you wanted to be, whether you still have goals, as well as raising the question “Which way?” – the title of another large mural.
In this work, the paths (in white) appear wider, even opening out into surfaces that might permit encounters. Admittedly, the motif of movement and the positioning of the white silhouette against the dark background reveals that it, too, is not moving on a wide path but balancing along a thin edge. But if only the border between black and white can be walked on, then the white areas, too, become imponderable and impassable.
Looking at Hubertus von der Goltz’s balancing figures, ask yourself: Are things in or out of kilter? And boldly seek out your own inner equilibrium. Whether or not you find it, the artist suggests, is up to no one but yourself.