Thursday, August 2, 2018

Villa Hügel hosts Josef Albers

A canvas by Josef Albers, 1954

Should you be near Essen (the Ruhr Valley) this summer …

don’t miss the Josef Albers exhibition “Interaction” at the Villa Hügel, running until 7 October 2018.

Villa Hügel
One could hardly imagine a more dramatic contrast than the abstract, geometrical work of Josef Albers (1888–1976) and the backdrop of his first retrospective in thirty years, the neoclassical Villa Hügel. The villa, home of the Krupp family from 1873 until long after WWII, is today owned by the Foundation Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach and is open to the public.

Portrait of Alfred Krupp by Julius Grun

Commissioned by Alfred Krupp (1812–1887) and—despite the ongoing Franco-Prussian war—finished in 1873, the villa was one of the largest private houses in the world. Overlooking the artificial lake Baldeney, the house is the center of a meticulously maintained landscape park of 28 hectares. The estate's scale and picturesque beauty rival the grandest English country houses, and it even boasts its own railway station. Alfred Krupp, one of the richest men in Germany, was a perfectionist; he believed in technology and wanted his house to showcase state-of-the-art construction features, including double-pane windows, hot and cold running water and a sophisticated air conditioning system which—to his chagrin—never functioned properly during his lifetime. 

The cozy (gemütlich) reception hall
Among the main building's almost 270 rooms are two great reception halls, each measuring 4300 sq. ft., a challenge even for today’s heating technologies. The original villa was as austere as Alfred Krupp, who in 1865 refused to be ennobled by the king of Prussia, saying that being a Krupp was sufficient. Later generations of Krupps would turn, among others, to Ernst von Ihne, one of the most accomplished German architects active before the Great War, to render the house more livable. 

The Krupp family by George Harcourt, 1930

During the Kaiserreich, Villa Hügel was the backdrop of grand scandals and even grander receptions. In 1902 Friedrich Krupp, Alfred Krupp’s son, committed suicide after having been accused of homosexuality. After inheriting the company, he had shifted the firm’s activity to arms manufacture, further enlarging the family's vast fortune and creating intimate links between the company and the government. Upon his death his daughter took over the reign and received Wilhelm II various times.

Josef Albers

That Villa Hügel serves as the scenic and impressive backdrop for a retrospective of Josef Albers' work is a wonderful occasion to reacquaint oneself with one of the twentieth century’s most important artists. From 1923 to 1933 Albers taught at the Bauhaus and was among the first artists to leave Hitler's Germany in 1933. In the United States he first taught at Black Mountain College and in 1950 became director of the Design Department at Yale. 170 items are on exhibit, from paintings to works on glass, photos, drawings and furniture designs. 

A small portion of the exhibition
The most important part of the exhibition is of course the encounter with Albers’ lifelong obsession, the square (a thoroughly Teutonic preoccupation, truth be told). He painted almost 2000 canvases of stunningly lyrical precision, constantly re-evaluating the impact and meaning of color's optical effects, making him an important precursor of kinetic, op and American Pop Art. His paintings—austere yet rich, minimalist yet seductively decorative—stand in marked contrast to the villa, yet each represented and distilled modernity and the avant-garde of their respective times. A wonderful dialogue!

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