New Art Museum in Hamburg Blown Up
September 14, 2011 | by Terry Southern
In 1962, Olympia Press editor Maurice Girodias published Terry Southern’s story “New Art Museum in Hamburg Blown Up” in the first issue of the short-lived literary magazine, Olympia (it ran for only four issues). Southern’s trenchant and funny piece was in excellent company: the issue also featured ten episodes from William S. Burroughs’s The Soft Machine, poems by Lawrence Durrell, a selection from Southern’s pornographic novel, Candy, and a suppressed chapter from J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. This was not a publication to be taken lightly.
Southern’s story was relegated to “long-lost” status before his son, Nile, proposed it for inclusion in Gabriel Levinson’s forthcoming anthology, A Brief History of Authoterrorism. We’re pleased to welcome it back after nearly fifty years.
HAMBURG, W. GERMANY, DEC. 13 (REUTERS).
While an estimated 150 persons waited outside, in the pouring rain, for the opening of the swank new Das Rheingeld museum in the Lebenhausen section, a series of explosions were heard inside the museum. As the crowd dispersed in panic, a much larger explosion occurred, collapsing the entire building. As far as could be determined, no injuries were sustained by the crowd—some of whom returned to the site and picked about in the rubble, turning up bits of plaster and fragments of oil-stained canvas, though nothing large enough to reveal the nature or merit of the paintings themselves. Several persons reported that the small pieces of canvas mysteriously “disappeared” after a short time.
Preliminary investigation failed to determine the precise cause of the explosions, although what appeared to be wired detonation devices were found throughout the debris. Museum officials could not be reached for comment, nor, in fact, could their exact identity be immediately determined, though it is presumed that they are in some way connected with the new school of painting in the Lebenhausen, the so-called “neo-Nada” group, whose work was to be exhibited publicly yesterday at the museum opening, after months of intensive advertising. Gallery owners in various parts of the city, as well as artists of other schools, were cautious in their comments as to the merit of the neo-Nada painting, which had never been shown before. “We must wait and see,” was the general attitude.
On a recent visit to Hamburg we had the opportunity to speak with thirty-two-year-old Ernest Badhoff, one of the leading exponents of the new school, shortly following their ill-fated vernissage at the Rheingeld museum. The interview took place in English, and was recorded on tape. A verbatim transcript of the conversation follows:
Q: I find it curious that Hamburg should be experiencing this resurgence of advanced creativity.
Herr Badhoff: Nothing could be more logical. Germany is a nation of philosophers and art, after all, is merely an extension of philosophy—a clever or attractive way of making a philosophic statement. My God, what a sense of realism it has brought! A strange new kind of realism—an almost imaginative realism, you might say.
Q: I see. Well, now about your work—the work of the neo-Nada group—how many are you?
Herr Badhoff: I am not at liberty to divulge that. I can tell you this much, our vernissage featured the work of twelve painters.
Q: You mean the October 1 show at the Rheingeld?
Herr Badhoff: Yes. I had seven paintings in the show, the others about the same. In all, there were eighty-five paintings in the show.
Q: Well, perhaps I’m mistaken, but I was given to understand that your work—the work of your group—has not yet been shown publicly nor, in fact, has it been seen by anyone I’ve been able to meet.
Herr Badhoff: You see, ideally a painting—or any other work of art, for that matter—occurs, both in conception and execution, solely in the mind of the artist. Only persons unsure of their conceptions, and lacking any inner sense of form and color, find it necessary to bring the painting into material existence. Such persons, of course, have no real or noteworthy connection with contemporary art.
Q: I see. Well, now I understand there is an American here who is quite prominent in your group.
Herr Badhoff: That is correct. Jack Dandy he is called—he was here during the war, as a soldier, and deserted from the U.S. Army. As you may know, he is a quadruple amputee, one of very few.
Q: I see. Well, how does he manage to paint with this ... this very serious handicap?
Herr Badhoff: All I can say is he literally throws himself into his canvas.
Q: But you have never actually seen his work, have you?
Herr Badhoff: Again correct. No one has seen his work. We do not show our work, not to anyone.
Q: Now your vernissage at the Rheingeld was spoiled, wasn’t it—by the explosions, I mean. How did that happen?
Herr Badhoff: No, no, that was the vernissage.
Q: The work, the paintings, deliberately destroyed?
Herr Badhoff: No, no, that isn’t the point. You have to see the totality of it. The paintings did not exist at the time of the explosions. Those paintings were done with an oil-based pigment, you understand, tinctured with acid—sulphuric acid, six-percent solution—giving them a physical duration of about seventy-two hours. The paintings were nonexistent before the explosions.
Q: Well, now just what was the point?
Herr Badhoff: The point? What point?
Q: Well, of the whole thing.
Herr Badhoff: Ah yes, that was the point—the “whole thing!” Yes, that was the point precisely!
Q: But at the time you were hanging your pictures for the show, you must have seen some of the other work then.
Herr Badhoff: Ah ha! No, I did not! We did not see each others’ work at that time. Each canvas was covered with a loose drape which had been treated with a seventy-percent acid solution. This drape dissolved in about two hours—by which time we were all out of the building. But—and this might interest you—for perhaps six hours, there were eighty-five marvelous, never-before-seen pictures there on exhibition, in a totally empty museum!
Q: And then ...
Herr Badhoff: Ka-blooie! Nada!
Q: It is difficult to understand how patronage can occur if there are no paintings to be seen or purchased.
Herr Badhoff: Well, you must realize that as an art evolves, so does its patronage. Patrons come to expect quite different things from what they expected in the past.
Q: And just what do you give your patrons in exchange for their support?
Herr Badhoff: What any art gives its patrons—the privilege of identifying with the latest and greatest.
Q: May I ask if there were any dissentions, for example, to the plan of destroying the museum?
Herr Badhoff: Yes, Jack Dandy wanted the museum filled with people, taking their last earthly look ... at nonexistent paintings! Then ka-blooie! Nada!
Q: Well, that’s quite an idea—. Still, I hope I never get into one of your showings by mistake, ha, ha.
“New Art Museum in Hamburg Blown Up” is featured in Gabriel Levinson’s A Brief History of Authoterrorism, which will be released on September 28 and is now available for preorder from ANTIBOOKCLUB. One person among the preorders will be randomly selected to receive the issue of Olympia in which Southern’s story originally appeared. The winner will be announced September 28.