Green Modernism: The New View of Plants

Septem­ber 17, 2022 – Jan­uary 22, 2023

What do plants mean to hu­man be­ings? The ex­hi­bi­tion Green Mod­er­nism: The New View of Plants takes us back to the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and ex­amines the de­pic­tion of plants in the vi­su­al arts and how they were viewed in bo­tany and so­ci­e­ty in gen­er­al. Af­ter all, as plain as pott­ed plants in pic­tures may ap­pear at first glance, and as mat­ter-of-fact as bo­tan­i­cal re­ports read, they al­ways al­so attest to the con­tra­dic­tions, fears, long­ings, and ide­olo­gies of the mod­ern age.

The ex­hi­bi­tion fo­cus­es on this top­ic with around 130 ex­hibits in four chapters.

I. The Plant as the Other

The Co­me­dian Har­mon­ists sang about a plant that was ex­traor­d­i­nar­i­ly pop­u­lar at the be­gin­n­ing of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Cac­tus­es were “hunt­ed” in the Amer­i­cas in or­der to be grown and sold on the Ger­man mar­ket. Like a big game hun­ter, the plant col­lec­tor Curt Backe­berg had a por­trait of him­self tak­en in white cloth­ing with a las­so in his arm next to a me­ter-high cac­tus. In this re­spect, in­door gar­dens, which were cul­ti­vat­ed, sung about, pho­to­graphed, and paint­ed, were colo­nial gar­dens, and thus the pri­vate cont­in­u­a­tion of the palm hous­es that had be­come pop­u­lar in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Those who want­ed to be mod­ern filled their homes with cac­tus­es, rub­ber trees, and other plants that grew out­doors on­ly in warmer cli­mates, but could flour­ish in­doors thanks to coal heat­ing and large win­dows. Aenne Bier­mann pho­to­graphed her own col­lec­tion of cac­tus­es, Al­bert Renger-Patzsch made re­c­om­men­da­tions about pho­to­graph­ing cac­tus­es for am­a­teur pho­to­g­ra­phers, and the art his­to­rian and col­lec­tor Rosa Schapire had Karl Sch­midt-Rottluff de­sign a “cac­tus home” for her. Mean­while, tubu­lar-steel fur­ni­ture was shown next to cac­tus­es in in­te­ri­or de­sign mag­azines as a mat­ter of course.

III. The Plant as Form and Col­or

The pho­to­g­ra­pher Karl Bloss­feldt was not in­ter­est­ed in the names and func­tions of plants. What in­trigued him was their form, which he re­vealed by prun­ing the plants he pho­to­graphed—often to the point of non­recog­ni­tion so they could be used by ar­ti­sans as ref­er­ence ma­te­rial for their de­signs. Plants even served as “build­ing ma­te­rial” for pro­fes­sio­n­al florists. Others, such as the artist Karl Sch­midt-Rottluff, used flow­ers, in­clud­ing the poi­so­nous lark­spur, to add an ac­cent of col­or to a paint­ing.

II. The Ap­pro­pri­at­ed Plant

Af­ter 1918, the New Wo­m­an, wear­ing flo­ral dress­es, cont­in­ued to pay ho­mage to Flo­ra, the god­dess of flow­ers. In a time of in­creas­ing “gen­der di­s­or­der,” when short hair no longer marked a wo­m­an’s sex­u­al iden­ti­ty and Mag­nus Hirsch­feld con­duct­ed gen­der re­as­sign­ment surg­eries, flow­ers re­mained promi­nent in fashion: Au­gust San­der’s smok­ing garçonne An­neli Stro­hal wore flow­ers on her dress, as did Lili Elbe even be­fore her op­er­a­tions. And Mar­lene Di­et­rich wore a giant flow­er in the but­ton­hole of her dark suit in a nod to the of­ten dis­cussed fear of the “mas­culin­iza­tion” of mod­ern wo­m­en. The adop­tion of flow­ers as a pas­sive lure in the ser­vice of pro­cre­a­tion can be found in per­haps its most ri­t­u­al form in wed­d­ing pic­tures, in the hair and hands of the brides. Flo­ral el­e­ments were al­so pre­sent un­der­neath peo­ple’s cloth­ing, name­ly as tat­toos, as Chris­tian War­lich’s tat­too art from the 1920s shows.

IV. The Plant as Rel­a­tive

The philo­so­pher Wal­ter Ben­jamin was not the on­ly one who was fas­ci­nat­ed by pho­to­graphs of plants un­der the mi­cro­s­cope and time-lapse re­cord­ings. Cin­e­mas were packed with au­di­ences for the film Das Blu­men­wun­der, which pre­sent­ed plants in a com­plete­ly new way. Th­ese mirac­u­lous im­ages came from the time-lapse lab­o­ra­to­ry re­cord­ings of ex­per­i­ments with the first ar­ti­fi­cial fer­til­iz­er, which was de­vel­oped to help feed the world’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. The fact that plants are alive, move, have a pulse, and can grow tired was de­scribed by the physi­cist Ja­gadish Chan­dra Bose in his pop­u­lar book Plant Au­to­graphs and Their Rev­e­la­tions. At the same time, the bio­sophist Ernst Fuhr­mann dra­mat­i­cal­ly lit and staged plants for his pho­tog­ra­phy book Die Pflanze als Le­be­we­sen. The boun­daries be­tween life­forms had be­come more fluid, and so it is not sur­pris­ing that hor­ror fan­tasies about plants can al­so be found in film and lit­er­a­ture of the Wei­mar Re­public, such as car­niv­o­rous plants, which were on­ly rec­og­nized in bo­tany with Char­les Dar­win.

Artists: Hans Arp, Max Baur, Arthur Ben­da, Aenne Bier­mann, Karl Bloss­feldt, Ot­to Dix, Al­fred Eisen­s­taedt, Hu­go Er­furth, Max Ernst, Ot­to Feld­mann, Ernst Fuhr­mann, Al­bert and Richard Theo­dor Got­theil, Erich Heck­el, Hein­rich Ho­er­le, Ernst Lud­wig Kirch­n­er, Wern­er Mantz, Franz Pich­ler Jr., An­ton Räder­schei­dt, Al­bert Renger-Patzsch, Lud­wig Ernst Ronig, Au­gust San­der, Karl Schenk­er, Karl Sch­midt-Rottluff, Richard See­wald, Frie­drich Sei­den­stück­er, Franz Wil­helm Sei­w­ert, Renée Sin­te­nis, Carl Strüwe

Al­so fea­tur­ing: Mar­ta Ast­fal­ck-Vi­etz, Ja­gadish Chan­dra Bose, Co­me­dian Har­mon­ists, Lili Elbe, Wil­helm Mur­nau, Max Reich­mann, Chris­tian War­lich, and others.

Eco-cu­rat­ing: Sus­tain­able Ex­hi­bi­tions

Green Mod­er­nism: The New View of Plants is a pi­lot pro­ject in eco-cu­rat­ing for the Mu­se­um Lud­wig. Ger­many has com­mitt­ed to be­ing car­bon-neu­tral by 2045, and Cologne is plan­n­ing to be car­bon-neu­tral by 2035. Cul­tu­r­al in­sti­tu­tions al­so want and need to estab­lish new en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards for their op­er­a­tion­s—e­spe­cial­ly mu­se­ums, which are among the ma­jor CO2 emit­ters in the cul­tu­r­al sec­tor with air con­di­tion­ing, light­ing, trav­el, and ship­ping. Green Mod­er­nism: The New View of Plants will ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties for pre­sent­ing sus­tain­able ex­hi­bi­tions and make them trans­par­ent. This marks the cont­in­u­a­tion of the trans­for­ma­tion ini­ti­at­ed by the mu­se­um’s sus­tain­a­bil­i­ty team, whose goals can be found in the sus­tain­a­bil­i­ty re­port of the Deutsch­er Nach­haltigkeits Kodex (DNK).

We are able to conserve re­sources and emit less CO2 by work­ing with our own col­lec­tion, since this re­quires less ship­ping and pack­ing of art­works. On the mu­se­um’s roof­top ter­race, old ship­ping crates are now be­ing re­cy­cled as raised beds. Th­ese are used to grow herbs, which will be served in the mu­se­um res­tau­rant as part of the ex­hi­bi­tion, thanks to a part­n­er­ship. And yet, we won’t do with­out pic­tures from out­side of our own col­lec­tion—just orig­i­nal works. To conserve wood and wa­ter, the ca­t­a­logue will be pub­lished on­line at green-mod­er­ in a cli­mate-neu­tral man­n­er and will be ac­ces­si­ble to ev­ery­one free of charge. All other print prod­ucts will be print­ed lo­cal­ly on Blue An­gel-cer­ti­fied pa­per with min­er­al oil-free ink. Ex­hi­bi­tion ar­chi­tec­ture from pre­vi­ous ex­hi­bi­tions will be reused or re­cy­cled by our in-house car­pen­ters. Since 2021, the mu­se­um has been gett­ing 100 per­cent of its elec­tric­i­ty from hy­dropow­er. And one eu­ro of ev­ery ad­mis­sion tick­et will go to the na­ture conser­va­tion pro­ject Moor­Fu­tures in Sch­leswig-Hol­stein, Ger­many.

➤ Clau­dia Roth, Com­mis­sion­er to the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment for Cul­ture and Me­dia, is act­ing as pa­tron of the ex­hi­bi­tion.

➤ Cu­ra­tor: Miri­am Szwast, ad­vised by Suzanne Pierre, ecol­o­gist and bio­geo­chemist with a fo­cus on glob­al nu­tri­ent cy­cles in soils and forests. Her re­search in­ter­ests in­clude the car­bon cy­cle in plant and mi­cro­bial sys­tems un­der the in­flu­ence of cli­mate change. She is al­so the foun­der of and prin­ci­pal re­search­er at the Crit­i­cal Ecol­o­gy Lab, a non-pro­f­it or­gani­za­tion fo­cused on the in­ter­sec­tion of glob­al en­vi­ron­men­tal change, so­cial jus­tice, and the lib­er­a­tion of op­pressed peo­ples.


CE­PLAS Clus­ter of Ex­cel­lence on Plant Sci­ences (Hein­rich-Heine-Uni­ver­sität Düs­sel­dorf, Uni­ver­sität zu Köln, Max-Planck-In­sti­tut für Pflanzen­züch­tungs­forschung, and Forschungszen­trum Jülich) 


Cafe and res­tau­rant Lud­wig im Mu­se­um 

In­sti­tut für Zukunft­skul­tur


For the gener­ous sup­port of the ex­hi­bi­tion we thank: