The Fascination of the Original

Interview with the art historian Prof. Bénédicte Savoy

13. 6. 2012 | The French-German art historian Bénédicte Savoy on Napoleon in Bonn, Nefertiti in Berlin, the Arab Spring, and on the art of communicating art to teenagers.
AcademiaNet: Your research has been closely connected with two outstanding historic figures: Napoleon and Nefertiti. You were the curator of last year's Napoleon exhibition in Bonn, labelled "Dream and Trauma", and you wrote the book "A German-French Affair" on the history of the Nefertiti bust. How did you find these topics – or did they find you?

Prof. Savoy: The Napoleon subject almost obtruded itself upon me. Let me explain: I wrote my PhD thesis on the looting of art in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars, and of the consequences for Europe. Honestly, I am not particularly interested in Napoleon, neither as a person and nor as a ruler, but in the historic time around the year 1800. These were very exciting times in Europe, characterised by radical changes, accelerations, plus intense exchanges across borders. But hardly a museum gets excited about an exhibition termed "Europe around 1800". And Napoleon has mesmerised his contemporaries and historians, so I think it is legitimate to use his name as a symbol for his time.
Prof. Bénédicte Savoy
Bild vergrößern
(© David Ertl / Bundeskunsthalle Bonn)

Prof. Bénédicte Savoy | explaining her 2011 Napoleon exhibition in Bonn

Your topics tend to have a political dimension – how did you manage to garner support for the Napoleon exhibition in France and Germany alike, since both countries have a very different view on Napoleon. Was it a huge effort, or mostly political skill?

When I prepared this exhibition for the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany), I thought it would turn out to be an "Exhibition: Impossible". Since 1969, there has been no major Napoleon exhibition in France, and when we started, it was still inconceivable that a large national museum would tackle this topic – French sentiments about Napoleon are very ambivalent. Interestingly enough, the French institutions and my French colleagues were very willing to cooperate. I got the impression that they were delighted about the idea of a large Napoleon exhibition – and about the fact that they did not have to plan it themselves. The Musée de l’Armée was immediately willing to become the official French partner for the Bonn exhibition, despite the fact that our concept did not follow the traditional approach of Napoleon worship. Furthermore, the Musée de l’Armée is located right inside Les Invalides, where Napoleon lies buried as well – and this happens to be the central memorial site of Napoleon worshippers. But our French partners understood that an external perspective could shed new light on the habitual historiography. In 2013, the exhibition will open in Paris, but with a profoundly different concept.

When you wrote your book on the Nefertiti bust, did it feel like breaking a taboo – restitution of cultural property from colonial times – or has the time come for this important discourse?

The time should have come, this is a pressing issue, but politics don't seem to be ready yet. In this sense, my Nefertiti booklet was truly "operative science", as someone wrote to me, meaning "science put to work" – this remark made me very proud. I had unearthed my material at precisely the moment when the Arab Spring started, and I see my work as part of this new transparency, as part of this wind of change. Personally, I don't have a fixed opinion concerning the restitution of cultural property. But I advocate a complete clarification of each case: As long as the public does not know where these works of art come from, does not know their history, nobody can form an honest opinion. And this knowledge is usually lacking. Even the museums are often not interested in clarifying the histories of their exhibits, they focus instead on the "aesthetic debate". But sometime in the future, the glossing over of the artworks' origins will backfire.

You introduce antique exhibits to school children in a special way. Young people are challenged to question habitual approaches and are asked to find a story behind history through research. Has this special audience caught fire?

You are referring to the wonderful initiative "Zukunftsportal Antike", i.e. future portal to antiquity by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. A conference for school students on antiquity was organised, together with the Excellence Cluster Topoi, a research network focusing on the study of the ancient world. And for the students to have something to present at the conference, they participated in various scientific and practical workshops. I gladly agreed to give a one-day workshop. This proved to be a very intensive and instructive day. It was the first time I tried to inspire enthusiasm for science in school children.

Did you get the impression that you could awaken a lasting interest?

That was the whole point! But I cannot tell whether any of these young people will develop a long term, serious interest. The least I can hope for is that some will return to this particular museum. Most of the students had never been at the Neues Museum (new museum) on the Museum Island Berlin before the workshop, so this first visit was a deeply moving experience for them. The sheer beauty of the originals and their intensity touched every single one. After three hours of discussion, they were totally exhausted. This proved to be a very instructive teaching experience, for the students and me alike.

Are you willing to reveal what you are currently working on?

When you called, I was just discussing our latest book project with an involved student. The book will be published next fall, so we are working with full speed. It will be about the Museum Island Berlin, particularly about its impressions on international visitors between 1830 and 1989. We have searched for diary entries, letters and articles in various languages. Next, we have evaluated them, translated and commented some. Besides renowned writers like Hans Christian Andersen, Mary Shelley, Ivan Turgenev, Guillaume Apollinaire and Samuel Beckett, we will also feature writings by normal travellers like journalists, art historians or museum staff from other cities or abroad.

You have been concerned with museum history for some time – how can a museum best communicate art? Are there exhibition concepts that communicate the organiser's agenda better than others?

Nowadays, any work of art can be reproduced manifold: Any painting, sculpture, Napoleon's hat or Nefertiti's profile can be shown either on a cell phone display or by gigantic beamer projections on facades. Digital art reproduction has become ubiquitous. In this context, museums have an increasingly important role: They are the custodians of the authentic original, of the unique object in its original size and material. They are the only place that offers four dimensional aesthetic experiences. Here, proportions, perspectives and lighting create an individual experience – beyond the standardised computer screen. In museums, you can appreciate works of art or historical objects not only in their contours and approximate colouring, but you can also witness their uneven surfaces, the transparency of their materials, their subtle colouring: Everything that lets an object vibrate, that lets it come to life.

Social media are a universal challenge. Should cultural mediators use them for their purposes?

Digital communication and social media are irreversible trends, we have no choice but to try to integrate them as sensibly as possible. In my educational work, I utilise them as bait: "Go to the museum, take a picture of your favourite painting with your cell phone, upload this picture by midnight – but next, we will discuss it in person, in front of the original." Or I ask them: "What does Google Books explain about the disinterment of Raffael's remains in Rome in 1833? And why is the National Library right around the corner the natural extension and pleasant supplement of Google Books?" Or I ask: "What is the difference between reading Napoleon's last will with a zoom factor of 200 percent in your own kitchen, and travelling to Paris and holding it in your own hands in the Archives Nationales?" Time and again, I see how excited students become when they are introduced to the authentic originals.

You put heart and soul into your research and its communication, and as a reward for your commitment, you receive numerous academic honours. Could you have imagined this career as a child?

When I was a child, I did not have any clear vision about my future. And I certainly did not plan to be a university professor! It just happened this way, and I am very happy about it.

How would you explain your work to a child?

I don't know how I would explain it to any child, but I told my own children once: "Whatever has been, what is, what will be – and we are in its midst. Isn't that wonderful?" The answer was: "Yeah, that's sort of neat."

Dear Prof. Savoy, thank you very much for this interview.

Interview: Stephanie Hanel
Translation: Susanne Dambeck
  (© AcademiaNet)

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