Making the Art of the World Visible!
Collecting contemporary art during the era of the Iron Curtain often necessitated diplomacy, especially when extending beyond the Western hemisphere.
The Ludwig Collection made waves in 1979 by showcasing GDR artists such as Willi Sitte, Wolfgang Mattheuer, Bernhard Heisig, and Werner Tübke, all with close ties to the state, in the Neue Galerie Aachen. In doing so, they removed three paintings by A. R. Penck, who had fallen out of favor within the state-controlled art establishment and was subsequently exiled from the GDR a year later. This gesture of goodwill during a period of East-West détente garnered significant criticism, notably from A. R. Penck himself, and had economic motivations as well. Peter Ludwig was also interested in establishing a presence in the GDR through his family's chocolate empire, a venture that ultimately succeeded.
The “Soviet supply system” and the Western art market
These insights can be found in a newly published work by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König. In this publication, art historian Regina Wyrwoll provides “a detailed look at the international activities of the collector couple” through in-depth interviews with their companions and contemporaries. The Ludwigs were not only active in various regions of Germany but also extended their reach to Austria, Hungary, Romania, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China.
Since the early 1950s, their passion for collecting encompassed ancient and medieval sculptures, modernist paintings, and contemporary avantgarde art, although Irene Ludwig tended to exercise caution when it came to contemporary art. She had a particular fondness for the Middle Ages, antiquities, Meissen porcelain, and ceramics, as revealed in a conversation with Wolfgang Becker, the former director of the Ludwig Forum for International Art in Aachen.
Using the Soviet Union as an example, Becker vividly illustrates the clash of systems during that time, between the “Soviet supply system” and the Western art market. “During studio visits, the artists reacted helplessly when Peter Ludwig asked them: ‘How much does a work like this cost?’”
The collector engaged in negotiations with Moscow for nearly four years
During the Cold War, collecting art from Eastern Bloc countries became a facet of cultural policy. For Peter Ludwig, taking an interest in the works of artists from nations with differing political systems also signified an interest in comprehending and respecting these systems.
However, in West Germany, such endeavors didn’t always meet with widespread understanding or enthusiasm. The 1982 exhibition "Aspects of Soviet Art" at the Neue Galerie Aachen and the Kölnisches Stadtmuseum was depicted in the Express newspaper as follows: "The collector engaged in negotiations with Moscow for nearly four years, acquiring pieces that were typically earmarked for Soviet museums. That alone is remarkable...
However, the dismayed critics almost unanimously proclaimed, ‘Boring!’”
Ancient Chinese art had been a part of their collection from its inception
In 1995, a year before Peter Ludwig‘s passing, the collector couple made their first trip to China together. Ancient Chinese art had been a part of their collection from its inception, with Irene Ludwig's parents already possessing a collection of ancient Chinese art. In November 1996, the Ludwig Museum of International Art was established as an independent division within the Chinese Museum in Beijing. Unfortunately, Peter Ludwig did not live to witness this achievement. Nonetheless, even after his death and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, his vision of transcending borders and fostering understanding through the exchange of art and culture endured.
Peter Ludwig was one of the most audacious figures in the history of German collectors
Today, his art collections are distributed across nineteen museums in five countries. Irene Ludwig founded the Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation, which has also published this collection of interviews. The transcripts, complemented by revealing images, tell us a lot about a period when art was transitioning from elite circles to the public sphere, when the art market was undergoing transformations, and curiosity was high. Peter Ludwig was unquestionably one of the most audacious figures in the history of German collectors, as acknowledged by Wolfgang Becker, someone unafraid to “engage in global political dialogues! and driven by the notion of making world art visible.
Carla Cugini and Benjamin Dodenhoff (eds.): Irene and Peter Ludwig. Insights the Collectors’ International Activities. Regina Wyrwoll in Conversation with Contemporary Witnesses, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter und Franz König, 304 pages, 25 euros.