A Monument to the Living
Like most of Bert Theis’s other works, Spirale Warburg (20002002) does not look like a work of art in the usual sense of the term. It does not strike one as an object designed to be taken on its own terms – as an artistic artefact, codified and identifiable as such. Unless one makes enquiries, or notices the explanatory label, it will not be obvious that this curious construction has an “author”, and that it bears a name which is also a dedication. Placed on a lawn among trees, close to a tram stop, it suggests an invitation to sit down if one feels so inclined and has the time. That it forms a spiral will quickly be evident, but it will probably be seen, first of all, as an unusual-looking bench.
It is by no means necessary that this construction should be perceived and recognised as a work of art, with respect to its essential nature. What really matters is that it should be a useful object, or in any case utilisable, and it is in this way that it should be seen, and appropriated. The idea of “use” implies a certain complexity, given that this strange structure incorporates a whole concretion of significations. Spirale Warburg is a piece of urban equipment as regards the usage it suggests, but it is also an authentic monument in its symbolic stratification, its dissymmetric setting, its function as a natural clock, and the dedication contained in its title. The fact is that it constitutes a specific response to an official commission.
The artistic programme that accompanied the addition of line B to Strasbourg’s tramway system, as drawn up by a committee of experts, included the suggestion that an artist be given an opportunity to work on Place de la République, which was selected for a number of reasons. It is where line B divides into two branches, one going north, the other east; which means that it is an important node in the network. The stop in Place de la République serves the national theatre of Strasbourg, the conservatoire, the national library, the prefecture, the treasury, the main post office, the regional department of cultural affairs, etc., which are frequented by many different kinds of people. The square also has a fine public garden to which people flock throughout the year, but especially when the flowering of the magnolias signals the arrival of spring. A stroll in the park at this time is something of a ritual for the people of Strasbourg.
These reasons would have been sufficient in themselves to justify the commission, but in fact the decisive considerations were historical. Place de la République was called Kaiserplatz until 1918 (and Hitlerplatz during the 1940-1945 annexation). It forms a strategic junction between the old town and the Neue Stadt, whose construction began in 1880 to plans by J.G. Conrath, and it is situated at the heart of the Neue Stadt itself. It is square in shape, and three of its sides are lined with buildings, while the Faux-Remparts canal, which was originally intended as an addition to the old fortifications, runs along the fourth. Built in white sandstone, rather than the pink sandstone that is so typical of the old town (the cathedral being a good example of this), an impressive amount of power is concentrated in the five buildings that overlook the square: the Kaiserpalast (now the Palais du Rhin), the two ministerial buildings (currently those of the regional authorities), the “library of Alsace-Lorraine” (1) and the Landtag (with the regional assembly, which is now a theatre and a conservatoire). There is also the Palais de l’Université, which is situated in line with the Palais Impérial at the end of Avenue de la Liberté (formerly Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse). Here we have the seat of political power (both state and local), but also intellectual and cultural power, in the heart of the new capital of the Alsace-Lorraine Reichland (the inscription “Litteris et Patriae” figures on the pediment of the university).
The lowered circular garden in the centre of the square was intended to attenuate the somewhat oppressive effect produced by the imperial palace, with its lawns, flowerbeds and trees, some of which are over a hundred years old. Besides the abovementioned magnolias, there are four superb gingkos (supposedly presented by the emperor of Japan to the German Kaiser), with their golden leaves that bestrew the ground in autumn. The garden is divided into four parts separated by two perpendicular paths. Without going into details, Bert Theis writes in his “working notebook” (2) that a cross inscribed in a circle is a recurrent motive in Christian iconography, as well as a symbol of power (divine or imperial). It is also the emblem of some extreme right-wing groups. Circle, square, cross: these concentric, symmetrical figures set the seal on the empire’s control over the city, centred on the Kaiserplatz.
And yet up to 1918 many of Strasbourg’s citizens shunned this square, as they shunned everything connected with what they called “the German town”. What they disliked was precisely its rectilinear, symmetrical order, so unlike the natural irregularity and organic creativeness of their own medieval city, which was coming back to life: “We bent over backward to comply with this tyrannical rule of symmetry. Look at the Kaiserplatz – is it possible to imagine anything less artistic, more banal, or closer to the taste of the ‘less educated people’, as Mr Sitte calls them?” (3)
In this garden, between 1911 and 1918, there was an equestrian statue of Wilhelm I by the Berlin sculptor Louis Tuaillon, though it was not located at the geometrical centre of the square, unlike Drivier’s 1936 war memorial. Up to Warburg Spirale, the latter was the only French addition to Place de la République, which remained unchanged after 1945, in spite of calls for the destruction of the imperial palace. This monument is a neo-classical allegory of the city’s destiny: “The mother (Strasbourg) is holding her two dying sons on her knees. One looks towards France, the other towards Germany. They have fought against each other, but in death they are holding hands. And the absence of uniforms makes the scene even more poignant.” (4) Bert Theis, who is from Luxembourg, alludes in his notebook (5) to the historical similarity between Luxembourg and Alsace, and includes a photograph of his maternal uncle wearing a German uniform. This uncle was conscripted in 1942, and disappeared without trace on the Soviet front.
Place de la République is a place of deeply emotional memories. The idea of placing it in the hands of a contemporary artist met with strong and persistent political opposition, and, as it happens, the argument that won over the leftist municipal majority to Theis’s project was also the one about which, in 2001, the newly-elected rightist majority had the strongest reservations, namely the fact that Theis wanted to call his work Monument to the Living, though the title was later changed to Spirale Warburg. Is it not paradoxical that, in a country which over the last century has erected tens of thousands of monuments to the dead, there should be such controversy about devoting just one to the living? In any case, Theis was unable to imagine his work having any title but this. And what could be added to a such a highly-charged monument as the existing complex other than a second monument – abstract, secular, familiar – as an inverted mirror-image of the first?
But the location of Spirale Warburg was not dictated solely by the opportune proximity of a tram stop. It is half-way between the war memorial and a pedestrian footbridge that runs across the Faux-Remparts canal, and on to the square. In reality there is no reason to have a footbridge here, between the Pont du Théâtre and the Pont de la Poste, other than that, as its name, Passerelle des Juifs (“the Jews’ footbridge”), suggests, it calls to mind the Porte des Juifs (“the Jews’ gate”), and the footbridge by which, every evening, the Jews would leave the city. This elegant metallic footbridge, dating from 1858, is a reminder of the kind of secular anti-semitism that Aby Warburg experienced while studying in Strasbourg: “These people are repugnant: I can’t go out without someone saying aloud, behind my back: ‘Desch ischt e Jud!'” (6) Below the photograph of his uncle, Theis placed one of a clock which, as he adds in brackets, “was inherited by my grandparents from a Jewish family fleeing the German army” (7).
The dedication of the work to Warburg is not simply a reference to the widespread anti-semitism which was prevalent at that time, especially in Alsace, and of which Georg Simmel, who taught at the university of Strasbourg from 1914 till his death in 1918, was also a victim, having been forced to teach at the university of Berlin without pay for fourteen years in order to gain acceptance – he who walked through this square on his way to the university library, and saw the gate and the footbridge as concepts of freedom. Through Warburg, the work pays tribute to Jewish intellectuals; those, for example, whom Walter Benjamin talked about in “The Jews in German Culture”, a copy of which Theis has included in his notebook. The artist originally thought of calling his work The Jewish Spiral. “Place de la République is a palimpsest, with Jewish history buried under German history a contradictory and complex history, as with all Jews of Germanic culture” (8). The eventual choice of Spirale Warburg as the title was intended to defuse dubious, sterile discussions, but also, and especially, to mark the Strasbourg origin of the famous Warburg library, in whose magical labyrinth Ernst Cassirer was apprehensive about getting lost (9).“At that time, according to Saxl, the Strasbourg university library (where Warburg studied from 1889 to 1891) ‘consisted of a variety of cells housing specialised libraries, among which the student could go back and forth. Warburg, with his burning desire to decipher the mysteries of images, went from one room to another, following different paths from art to religion, from religion to literature, from literature to philosophy. To create a library that would bring together the various branches of human civilisation, where one could wander freely from shelf to shelf: this was his resolve.’ The Strasbourg library (…) provided Warburg with a model.” (10)
As a monument to the contribution made by Jewish intellectuals to European thought, Spirale Warburg symbolises knowledge that is open-ended, all-encompassing, trans-disciplinary, constantly redistributed, and, like the books in his library, “a summation of living thought” (11). The spiral is a classic symbol of life, and one of the forms of the labyrinth, which also represents the quest for knowledge. In his notebook, Theis compares his work, which is ovoid in shape, to the Warburg library’s oval room, which Salvatore Settis, in turn, compares to the elliptical form of the Wolfenbüttel library; which itself may have owed something to Leibniz, who was one of its librarians (12). And thus Spirale Warburg winds a whole chain of remembered theatres of memory and knowledge, and places that preserve the memory of knowledge, into its coil. Its form originated in the organic world; its off-centre location and structure bring disorder into the orthonormal Place de la République, along with an imbalance which gives it a virtual tilt towards culture and art (the library, the theatre and the conservatoire), towards life rather than power and the commemoration of wartime disasters (13).
This was not, however, the first appearance of the spiral motif in Place de la République. Close to Spirale Warburg are the spiral ramps that lead up to the former Landtag palace. And the same motif can naturally be found in many of the decorative elements used in the buildings round the square, in particular the capitals of the columns and the pilasters of the ministerial buildings. Theis’s aim was to give new meaning to what was no longer anything more than formal patterns.
Through its ascending structure, which makes it, in a sense, a small belvedere, the Spirale might also suggest the Tower of Babel’s mythical architecture, or the dynamic utopia of Tatlin’s project, Monument to the Third International. But Theis’s monument is actually an anti-monument, pointing to nothing beyond, expressing no hubris, honouring no creed, and celebrating no hero. It is on the side of the living, the stroller, the passer-by. It is a discreet invitation to take time out, to daydream, to laze. Just as he was starting to think about the project, he read and noted the following excerpt from one of Rosa Luxemburg’s letters: “Stretched out, saying nothing, I let the sun warm my skin, while observing a family of wine growers and chewing a blade of grass. My head was free of all thought, and my entire body was taken over by the feeling: ‘God, what a beautiful life, what a beautiful world!'” Most of Theis’ works contain an implicit call to take a break, an invitation to switch off and make some unproductive use of time, an incitement to voluntary redundancy, to the temporary rediscovery of one’s self and one’s autonomy, to the free exercise of one’s thought processes and imagination:
Each year, the Japanese palm tree that presides over the Spirale dies and is born again. It is a tree from the Garden of Eden, and seems to have fallen from heaven. With the magnolias and gingkos, it follows the natural cycle of time; it is a metaphor of life. But it is also a cheap icon: the elsewhere, the far-off, the exotic – close at hand, or just a plane journey away – as in the botanical gardens it comes from, or on tour operators’ posters. So the Spirale also appears like a small desert island where the castaway is alone with himself, playing Robinson Crusoe for a short spell until he is scooped up by the flows that will carry him away until his return.
Modestly covered with white-painted planks, Spirale Warburg looks quite familiar – like a piece of garden furniture, for instance. Its vernacular modesty contrasts sharply with the decorum of the surroundings, just as it contrasts, in the world of contemporary art, with Robert Smithson’s well-known Spiral Jetty, a mythical work of the radical exodus that was attempted by land art. In the here and now of the city, Spirale Warburg is perfectly present, awaiting only the uses that will be found for it by the passers-by it momentarily lures away from the beaten track, with the risk that they will go astray and lose their bearings (14) – unless it sweeps them off in its dizzy whirl.
Christian Bernard (2002)
Christian Bernard is an art critic and curator. He is the former Director of the Mamco, Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art in Geneva, Switzerland from 1994 until 2015. He was the artistic director of public art commissions for the development of the T3 line in Paris, that opened in December 2012. Since 2016, he is director of the Printemps de Septembre in Toulouse.
- It was built between 1889 and 1895 to replace the Temple Neuf, which housed the city’s libraries and seminary until it was destroyed during the siege of 1870, when at least 100,000 books and almost 5,000 manuscripts and incunabula were destroyed.
- Entitled Strassburg, unpublished, not paginated, 2000, Mamco collection, Geneva.
- Chronique d’Alsace-Lorraine, Vol. V, No. 3, June 1903. Roland Recht, Jean-Pierre Klein, Georges Foessel, Connaître Strasbourg, Colmar, Alsatia, 1988, p. 256.
- See Note 2.
- Quoted by Bert Theis, in op. cit. Ibid.
- Ibid. Here, Theis seems to be alluding to a rumour (of which we have found no confirmation) alleging that there was an old Jewish cemetery under the war memorial. His remark could be taken as implying that Place de la République provides an example of German history being buried under French history.
- See Salvatore Settis, “Warburg continuatus. Description d’une bibliothèque”, in Marc Baratin and Christian Jacob, Le Pouvoir des Bibliothèques. La mémoire des livres en Occident, Paris, Albin Michel, 1996.
- Salvatore Settis, op. cit.
- Ibid. Bert Theis, op. cit.
- “Like a tram, it’s accessible to wheelchairs, bicycles, pushchairs, rollerskates, etc. You can sit down and wait for the next tram, take a rest, think, read, or watch people coming and going. It can be used as a belvedere, since it provides you with a variety of views as you move up towards its centre, which itself can serve as a meeting-place. You can lie down and just while away some time; dream; sunbathe a bit…” Bert Theis, ibid.
Florian Matzner, ed. Bert Theis. Some Works, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2003