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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

German Art Exhibit Draws Passionate Responses

The current exhibition at the Maly Manezh, "Contemporary German Art From Private Collections in Berlin," is nothing if not controversial. The suggestions book by the exit alone bears witness to its provocative nature. While one visitor enthuses that "this is a necessary exhibition, which forces and helps us to look at the world in a different way," a second viewer is far less complimentary. The exhibition, he fulminates, "bears testimony to the evolution of man into a monkey."

One might wonder what could evoke such admiration on one hand, and violent condemnation on the other? It becomes clear on entering the Maly Manezh, however, that the modern art represented here will inevitably arouse passions. The only unifying thread is that all of the works on show come from private Berlin collections and were produced in the last 30 years. That apart, the viewer is confronted with an extraordinary range of style and media.

No visitor will escape the impact of the first work on show, Thomas Struth's "Feast in the House of Levi" (1992). This exhibit, which is typical of Struth's work, hangs prominently opposite the entrance. It is an enormous photograph of people of all shapes and sizes wandering through an art gallery.

The long exposure used in taking the photograph emphasizes the absorbed concentration of those viewers who stand still, focusing on a single painting and oblivious to their surroundings. In contrast, the visitors who move rapidly from work to work, searching for a reason to stop, are reduced to a mere blur. The photograph as a whole alludes to the huge diversity of aesthetic experience. In this particular context, it offers a witty commentary on the polarized views laid out in the suggestions book.

Turning left, one is faced with the striking "Flight from Paradise" (1982) by Karl Horst Hodicke. Two enormous figures of Adam and Eve throw themselves across the canvas in exaggerated, naked shame. Their awareness of their own sensuality that was brought about by consuming the forbidden fruit is highlighted by the lurid pink hue with which Hodicke paints their bodies. Driving the point home, their screaming, scarlet lips stand out in sharp relief. The paint has been allowed to drip right across the canvas, an effective suggestion of impending ruin and despair. Rarely has the loss of Eden seemed so regrettable. The sense of impending doom that Hodicke evokes so well is echoed across the room in Rainer Fetting's "Van Gogh by the Wall," (1978). Van Gogh stalks menacingly along a gloomy city street, luring the viewer into the painting with a sinister, beckoning, white-gloved hand. In a cruel debunking of mythological status, the artist famed for his innovative use of color is depicted in a hideous green suit. Ominously, the ear that he was later to amputate sticks prominently out from beneath his panama hat. Such disturbing details brilliantly evoke Van Gogh's mental instability.

Up to this point, one's sympathies may well lie with the first contributor to the suggestions book. Whether or not you like them, these paintings do indeed make us look at the world in a different way. Moving on into the second hall, one can see why the second writer likened the works on show to those of a monkey.

To the right of the door hang two huge sheets of metal, about 4 meters high and more than 2 meters wide. One boasts a large area of orange paint, crudely applied and creating nothing more than a separate rectangular block against the background gray. The second has a similar motif, but this time in yellow. Neither work offers anything to challenge, stimulate or enchant the viewer. The artist cannot even be bothered to offer a clue to interpretation in his captions, as each work is predictably labeled "Untitled." The only adjective that sprang to mind as I tried in vain to get to grips with the works was "lazy."

This is not to condemn all abstract painting that reduces its imagery to the bare essentials. On the contrary, Gerhard Richter, one of the more experimental artists on show, demonstrates perfectly the power of a simplified, monotone mass. His work titled "Grey" (1976) is precisely that -- a large area of gray. Looking at the work, however, one becomes increasingly intrigued by the subtle manipulation of paint: a thick impasto buildup of three-dimensional relief will unexpectedly yield to a shimmering, metallic sheen. With a single block of color, Richter, like Rothko, can affect the mood of certain viewers as much as Renoir can affect others with his carefree, peach-skinned beauties.

The right-hand wing of the gallery is dominated by George Baselitz, one of the most famous modern German masters, and his many canvases on display bear witness to the variety of his technique. The "Young Knight" (1992), for example, is an abstract blaze of color behind a black grid, while "Black Mother With Black Child" (1985) is dominated by the figurative image of a sleeping baby. Baselitz's earlier work, "Untitled (Dam)" (1974), remains one of the most emotive: One looks up at a huge, precarious mass of color that seems barely able to contain the force behind it. Though an abstract work, the contrast between blue and flesh-pink gives an idea of real danger.

Several contributors to the suggestions book offered sympathy to the patient gallery attendants who had to sit and look at such rubbish all day. Were the attendants as unimpressed as some of the visitors, I wondered? No, replied one: After all, it had taken a crane to position some of the exhibits. Another advised me to visit the superb bathrooms, newly renovated in the Finnish style, before passing judgment. A third simply turned George Michael's "Careless Whispers" on to full volume as I, the only visitor, left the gallery. Their views on the paintings themselves remained a discreet mystery.

Contemporary German Art From Private Collections in Berlin is on at the Small Manezh, 3/3 Georgiyevsky Pereulok, tel. 292 4459. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., ticket desk open until 7 p.m., closed Mondays.