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At home with the art guide

Essay | 11 minute read
An art lover is intrigued by the enigmatic pieces in a home-hosted private collection, but far less charmed by the docent who embodies all the pretentiousness of the contemporary art world

We are late. No, we are exactly on time. Its 10:28 a.m. and we have two minutes. Which means, we are late. I am stressed. My husband, Thomas, our daughter, Sam, and Edy, our goddaughter visiting us in Berlin, tell me to dial it down. Reluctant about the outing in the first place, they couldn’t care less. We walk through an old courtyard filled with the low hum of conversation as Berliners enjoy a Saturday breakfast, pass the art bookshop and look up the six storey, nineteenth-century building covered in ivy, which served as a former sewing machine factory in the late 1800s.

It is summer in Berlin – the international hotspot of the art scene hosting more museums, galleries, graffiti, exhibitions, and dedicated public space than you can imagine. And then there are the home-hosted private collections. Many of the owners of these collections have converted old public buildings into combined private homes and public spaces, and offer limited private tours, with bookings available through websites.

We are visiting the city for the summer for work and fun. Climbing the stairs, a neophyte with three reluctant companions, I plead with my husband not to ask rude questions. He assures me he won’t. Research I have done promises facilitated dialogue, as opposed to a guided tour. The artists of the works aren’t identified, keeping in style with a personal collection, perhaps. But it suggests on the website that it is also intentionally meant to encourage our own reactions to the work outside any preconceived notions – a sort of derring do. Contemporary Art with no titles or artist credit. The search will be deep.

Erika Hoffmann-Koenige, who owns this privately-hosted collection, has said in interviews that she and her husband, who died in 1998, began collecting art for fun with no criteria other than they wanted to choose pieces which moved them. They started collecting in the late 1960s in both Europe and the United States. After the fall of the Berlin wall, they spread their interests East to Poland, Russia and Asia, but internationally as well. Hoffmann makes clear that she is not interested in the value of her collection. Her motive for opening her home up to visitors comes from a place of pure love for the artwork itself and a desire to share it. This, in art world code, means she assigns herself to the category of class as opposed to crass, and sees the emotion in art, as opposed to the commodity of art.

We enter the door two minutes later at exactly 10:30 a.m. There is natural light in such high volume that the room almost sings with it: twenty feet high white cement ceilings, immaculately white painted masonry block, glass in all the right places, the floor tinged with tanned wood to warm it all up. The focus quickly moves to the smartly dressed woman behind the desk, who has a corporate American exuberance. She gets up with a smile and comes around to give us a welcoming handshake, then offers to take our bags. It’s the gesture of a high society hostess, or a chief executive.

Meanwhile our docent stands to the left, aggressively uninterested. He could be handsome in a feminine way if it wasn’t for the abstract bitterness which defines his strongest features, the sharp cheek bones, the pointy chin, the thin lips. His buttoned shirt, lightly tinted with a coloured pattern, is tucked neatly into straight legged, tailored trousers without pleats. A belt would be vulgar. His body weight falls on the right side of being too thin. His height is not too tall, nor too short. His blonde hair is neatly coiffed into a side parting. He is a composition himself – all sharp lines and angles. The only thing missing is the glass of champagne.

I try to communicate an apology but as I glance his way, he turns his head. I relax. It is clear we have offended him and he isn’t making up. Or perhaps more likely, after taking one look at us and the two teenagers, he has decided we are a waste of his time. Perhaps we are a little too relaxed.

I will call our docent Pierre, though he is not French. He motions us toward a room where the others wait. As we follow, I feel a familiar tension. I have known several Pierres before, and I have come to love them despite their narcissism. Pierre will not make us comfortable because that would make him uncomfortable and he cannot help himself. It is not looking good for the Socratic dialogue.

We enter a room where those who know how to arrive early are watching an installation film by a Russian artist with subtitles. There are two smart-looking men in their fifties, another younger couple from Italy, and a twenty-something woman from America who, it becomes apparent, is an art historian. Pierre motions for everyone to get up and follow him.

We stop in front of a piece on the way to the first room. ‘Do you know what this is?’ He asks. No one says anything. I move closer to examine it. It is a three foot by three foot metal sheet with multiple layers of wallpaper, paint and rust. Because it is worn in different ways, the texture gives it some sense of dimension and colour. I ask if it is perhaps a Rauschenberg. ‘It was a piece of garbage pulled from a skip,’ he says in a dead pan voice. ‘The person who found it saw beauty, so he called it art.’

‘Was he an artist?’ Thomas asks.

‘Of course he was an artist,’ Pierre answers.

‘Oracle, 196265’ by Robert Rauschenberg (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Pierre asks us to follow him into the next room. We look at what appears to be a five foot banana whose skin has been peeled back to reveal the imprint of two legs. It is lying on the floor. It could be a coffin it if wasn’t for the fact that it was still a banana.

‘What do you think this is?’ Pierre asks again, as if he is setting a quiz for children.

Everyone stands in a circle. Again no one dares to offer an opinion. We are afraid. The silence is excruciating. Not able to stand the tension any further I jump in.

‘Is it made out of wax?’ I ask.

‘No, it is made out of a type of acrylic.’ he says, very slowly.

‘It looks like a banana peel,’ I offer, ‘but it may be deceptive. If you look inside it’s been carved out, which gives it the sense of being a sarcophagus. Bananas compost very quickly so maybe it is about the tenuous existence of life and inevitability of death?’

I was very proud of that one and am rewarded when he tells us that, in fact, I was right in that it was meant to be a sarcophagus. He almost smiles. I want to clap I am so giddy. He asks us if we would like to know about the collection. He tells us the history which is on the website. I ask him if Erika Hoffmann has built any relationships with the artists themselves, or if she works with gallery owners. He shrugs.

We move into another room which hosts several massive canvases. One of the paintings has a chaos of rounded lines which create forms, and darker tinted colours which range from black to red and yellow. A third of it is covered with a light grey film, and a few spaces of fleshy pink which clash.

Thomas stands puzzled, but gives it a hard study. He asks, ‘what am I supposed to see in this work? Am I supposed to feel anything?’

He makes it sound a reasonable question. Thomas is very capable of competing with Pierre in the game of who is more stupid.

‘Well, do you care about this kind of art?’ Pierre asks.

Thomas says, ‘I really know nothing about it. Can you explain the background to it?’

Pierre responds with respect for the question, ‘Well, do you feel anything?’

Thomas says ‘I feel angry that I am meant to feel anything.’ He conveys no anger though. So far, so good.

Pierre’s body language suggests he likes this answer.

‘But yes, this is art. Each of us feels something different when we look at a painting. This painting exists in the Bad Art movement. In it, the artist is self-destructive.’

I am now annoyed.

‘I don’t get angry when I look at this picture,’ I say, and walk up to the canvas. Pierre has now broken his own rules. He has mentioned the artist’s motives and his emotions.

My heart pumps as I continue, now over-concerned by laying myself open but unable to help myself. ‘I see the artists inner world below the misty layer of grey, which though confused and chaotic has form, and the colours used are not depressed, they work together. This could be the artist’s inner world, his unconscious, and he might be looking out into the world through the haze of the grey. This pink fleshy blob of colour here is the only thing that doesn’t work, and perhaps it is the ugliness of reality.’

Pierre ignores me and turns around. The two women clearly feel so sorry for me. They offer kind, compassionate looks.

Pierre then points out what appears to be five ugly dolls. When I say ugly dolls, I’m talking about the dolls which used to sell on the market for £35 called ‘ugly dolls’ when my daughter was younger. They had no real human shape to them and eyes in weird places – when they had eyes. Except these ugly dolls are the size of ponies.

‘What do you see in these ugly dolls? How do they make you feel?’

No one responds.

I decide I am going into a sulk for the rest of the tour and will not offer my feelings to this Pierre. This lame excuse for a Socrates.

‘What do you see with these carpets?’ He asks as we look at throw rugs with lumps underneath them, which could be either decapitated heads or five or six toddlers being smothered.

‘What do you feel when you look at that?’ he asks. Again, no one responds.

‘This artist, he killed himself. And the artist who did those paintings there on that wall, he killed himself too.’

Now Pierre has gone too far. He is showing off, telling us that he knows it is Angry Art no matter what I wanted to say. And to speak of suicide in such a manner. The more Pierre speaks, the more of a piece of work he becomes. As the tour continues he refuses to provide a name, or a context, or a title, or any information he may know which might allow us a glimpse of the artist. If we go for the bait, he yanks the string.

Each art work is introduced with the same questions. ‘What do you see here? What is it made of? How does it make you feel? This is abstract art.’

There are canvases, installation pieces, sculpture, multi-media, photography and crafts. Cutting edge works and installations require large spaces, and the space allotted to each of these pieces is luxurious compared to what you might find in your average exhibition space. The intimacy of a group of ten people adds another dimension. After Pierre had done his job in each room, we are left to view each of the works on our own.

Photo by Anna Kolosyuk/Unsplash

The chances are that an encounter with any modern artwork by its nature will be a challenge, and as this increases the narrower its taste becomes. Museums have appointed professionals to pick pieces suited for public taste, but Erika Hoffmann has the freedom not to worry. The collection is the result of the spirit and passion of a marriage. It is a generous offering and a real privilege to have had access to such a treasure.

Still, a week later, when a friend asks what it was we saw on the tour, I go to describe a piece of the work yet fail to recall anything, even the banana. Granted, this is most likely a symptom of my lack of short-term memory, but any time I tried to conjure an image all I can see is that aggravating ‘Pierre the Docent’.

And then I realise why. Pierre the Docent is the haughty embodiment of what we all love to hate about contemporary art. He provoked us, engaged us, scorned us; he refused to let us into the secret world, so the only thing we were left with was our own emotional experience of the piece in front of us.

Just as we approach the front desk to leave, we see a different hostess waiting to collect our things. She is regal, reserved in a timid way, warm. As she hands me my coat, I thank her for her generosity. Her eyes sparkle as she gives me a knowing smile. Thank you, Erika Hoffmann.

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