Review of "Pontus Hulten, Hon och Moderna" by Andreas Gedin. Langenskiölds förlag, 2016

Published in LEAP 4, 2016


In a new biography on legendary Swedish museum director Pontus Hultén which comes out in Swedish this month, Andreas Gedin paints a vivid picture of one of the most important people in the development of post-war European modernism. As the founding director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Centre Georges Pompidou and several other major art institutions from the late 1950's into the 1990's, Hultén played a key role in the formation of a new type of museum with an open, experimental and multidisciplinary perspective. Although he himself was not the first to propose such an institution – his main mentor was Willem Sandberg, director of Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam which already had emerged as an important cultural centre – Hultén's panoramic surveys and collaborative projects over four decades now serve as models for how museums can stimulate interaction across otherwise distinct pools of knowledge and engaging with wide audiences. His Paris-New York, Paris-Berlin, Paris-Paris shows in the 1970's at the Centre Pompidou are widely recognized as revolutionary shows that activated the entire institution and emphasized the ecologies in which art is produced and artists communicate, such as Gertrude Stein's 1920's apartment in Paris or Piet Mondriaan's New York studio.

The book presents not only Hultén himself and his major projects, centring on the iconic 1966 exhibition “She – A Cathedral”, but also the wider circle of artists, critics, collaborators and officials whom had a very important influence on the cultural scene in Stockholm in the 1960's. In 1963 Hultén and art critic Ulf Linde put together “Önskemuseet” (“The Museum of Wishes”), an exhibition for which Moderna Museet through the lobbying of Hultén could make many significant acquisitions of modern and contemporary works by Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Piet Mondrian and Pablo Picasso, essentially building the foundations of one of Europe's most important public art collections. In an interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist from 1997 Hultén again emphasizes that the collection is the backbone of an art institution which can save it from getting shut down from political pressure or economic cut-downs. But also a source of its ability to put things into context and provide links to recent history: “A collection isn't a shelter into which to retreat, it's a source of energy for the curator as much as for the visitor.”

As both an artist and researcher who earned his PhD with a dissertation on Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of 'Carnival' – originally a temporary state during medieval times in Europe when the societal hierarchies are turned upside down – the book's author Andreas Gedin has since long been fascinated with “She – A Cathedral” as an immersive art-architecture that combined sculpture with playful interactivity and poetic slogans. A large section of the book is dedicated to this groundbreaking exhibition which took the form of a 25 m long lying female body, a giant version of Niki de Saint-Phalle's 'Nana' figures. Visitors entered through an opening between the woman's legs and inside there was a milk bar in one of the breasts, a planetorium in the other, there was a screening room showing Greta Garbo's first film, and a slide through one of the legs. After the exhibition the entire sculpture was “slaughtered”, a way of securing its legacy as a temporary cathedral, something that could not be repeated. Or as Christo (of Christo and Jeanne-Claude) once put it: “I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain." It was also a reaction to the then emerging influence of the speculative art market which Hultén despised.

The show was a big hit in 1966 with people lining up outside the museum to be devoured in this carnivalesque experience. The timing was perfect for a project like this – two years later the leftist political dogmas would have made it impossible to propose such a playful and ambiguous work which was not explicitly feminist and not political enough for the Maoists and Marxists now in charge of many of the established media channels in Sweden.

The 1960's was an era when the role of the curator-as-auteur became evident through a number of ground-breaking exhibitions, effectively shifting the focus from individual artworks to exhibitions as the main medium through which art becomes know and art history written. In parallel tracks, curators such as Harald Szeemann, Jean Leering and Pontus Hultén produced exhibitions that were collective, collaborative and multimedia, opening up the profession of the curator from being mainly a caretaker of collections to an artistic producer and author of exhibitions – nowadays understood as standard curatorial practice.

The fact that Pontus Hultén made an international career after his tenure at Moderna can be traced to his lack of interest in the local art scene in Sweden. After his studies in Stockholm he spent his formative years in Paris writing his licentiate on Spinoza and Vermeer and building a formidable network in the sphere of Galerie Denise René. In the 1950's he curated exhibitions for a small experimental gallery in Stockholm called Blandaren ('The Mixer'), often inviting friends from Paris. His interest in Swedish art of the time was more or less limited to a small group of artists (such as Eyvind Fahlström and PO Ultvedt) who themselves had an international following. Instead Pontus Hultén constantly directed his view towards the outside, to artists who eventually became “larger than life” simply by bringing art and life together in a colourful, playful and seemingly effortless fashion. The 1968 exhibition with Andy Warhol in Moderna Museet was Warhol's first solo show in a museum, a fact that confirms the curator Hultén's instinctive grasp of the contemporary.