Built in 1953, Haus Ludwig in Aachen, once residence of the art collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig, can best be described as an artwork in itself. Displaying objects from different eras and of various genres this unique home is so carefully and personally curated it looks as though the Ludwigs have only recently moved out. The Ludwig Foundation occasionally invites artists to reflect on and interact with the house and its collection.

The house of Peter and Irene Ludwig was built from the inside out. The two art historians collaborated with a master builder from Aachen, known for collecting rich spoils out of the rubble after the war and repurposing the findings into new construction projects; they developed the concept for the house in collaboration, long before postmodernism made this principle its rule. Irene (née Monheim) and Peter Ludwig were given the plot of land on which the house stands today as a wedding present from Monheim’s parents. It extends across one of the most expansive hill ranges south of Aachen, close to the Belgian border. The area has been settled for hundreds of years, and large farms and walled manors from centuries ago still remain.

When the Ludwigs built their home, they had started collecting art purely out of interest, acquiring pieces from antiquity and the Middle Ages predominately. Some of the works that populate the house informed the building plans: the baroque sculpture of St. Martin by the entrance; the Brussels tapestry of Charles V in his garden amid a gathering of cheerful people, plants, and animals; the French Gothic ceiling design in the library; the rococo doors and cabinets; tiles and earthenware from the Netherlands and Italy; and ceramics from the Lower Rhine region and China. But more than the villa showcasing the art collectors’ interests in an all-encompassing modernity, this was a home of intellectuals. It is pervaded by a humanist spirit; it is a place in which the Ludwigs lived and worked by Catholic principles.The artworks so integral to their home are a mere few in relation to their large collections, which can now be seen in various public museums. The works at Haus Ludwig either have a special place in the overall concept of the building, retain a particular personal value to the couple, or are items that quite simply they had more than one of. The Ludwigs took joint responsibility in curating the house. Each room has a different color palette, and the objects are placed within the rooms not as ornaments but as showcased items, as exhibits. In the dining room, for instance, the main color is blue. The walls are covered with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tiles and plates, many with nautical motifs. They are positioned on either side of Lyonel Feininger’s painting The Cutters (1929). The painting Swimmers in the Mediterranean by Lovis Corinth from 1914, depicting two people bathing in the ocean, likely a father and child, hangs beside a Gothic Mother of Sorrows holding her dead son—he is far too large for her, yet she holds him on her lap like an infant, dignified in her grief. To the right and above the Delft tiles, further plates decorate the walls with maritime motifs. They tell the story of man and nature, of pursuits and struggles in whaling. Through the windows, which extend all the way to the ceiling, the patio can be seen, beyond it is a small water basin with a fountain, and beyond that the surrounding landscape. The living room, in yellows and greens, brings to mind the world of plants and animals. A further view opens up to a scene of willows trees and Friesian cattle grazing in the fields beyond. It adds a rural touch—even the markings on the animals seem integral to the setting. Across from the window, on the wall behind, hangs a plate by Picasso depicting a sun formed out of bright ears of wheat; next to it is a Persian-Spanish plate from Valencia with an illustration of a bull. The two items connect thematically and to the outside, too. On a chest of drawers, the blue-and-white theme of the adjacent room reappears: there lies a Ming vase from around 1640 and a large, lidded Delft vase, which is almost as old and also adorned with Chinese motifs. These two vessels document the history of ancient Chinese culture in seventeenth-century Europe. They also make apparent the Ludwigs’ embrace of “world art,” defined as art that reveals the interrelationships between cultures as well as geopolitical yet transcultural connections. These two objects alone illustrate the narratives of colonial, economic, cultural and art histories.

Next comes the library with its colors of green and brown. A striking curved panorama window offers a view onto the garden where a large copper beech tree can be seen. In the winter, when it has lost all its leaves, it is possible to see the spires of Aachen Cathedral. On a side table stands a Tang dynasty figure of a female rider from eight hundred years ago, around the same time that the construction of the Cathedral first began. Astride her horse, she seems proud, self-assured, and powerful. The books in the library sit neatly on their shelves, which follow the curve of the window and complete it to form an oval. A bottle green leather sofa and three matching armchairs are positioned around an eighteenth-century convertible table. The bookshelves contain works of European literature by authors like André Gide, Ernst Jünger, Erich Maria Remarque, Hans Fallada, Rolf Hochhuth, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Günter Grass. Beside them stand the classics: Greek philosophy, history books, Ernst Bloch, Johann Gottfried Seume, Goethe and Schiller, and virtually everybody else you would expect to find in such a place. It’s the canon, if you like, built by the generation born in the late 1920s who experienced the war in their youth. But there are no art books. They were donated by Irene Ludwig to the city of Cologne and its Kunst- und Museumsbibliothek, one of the largest art libraries in Europe.There is a genealogy of rulers referenced in the house too, which reaches from Alexander the Great to Charlemagne; the Tang and Ming dynasties, Harun al-Rashid, and the Emirates of Córdoba and Granada to Charles V and Louis XIV. Female Christian saints such as the Virgin Mary and St. Barbara are equally valued. The various artworks are arranged like still lifes, their colors, motifs, and ornamentation create connections that transcend time and place. And, of course, likenesses of the couple can also be seen: the busts by Arno Breker, for example. The Breker story is a heavy subject, however; all the other works in the house have such a special quality that these seem stiff and conventional in comparison. The Breker portraits were made in the 1980s, when many other industrialists and politicians commissioned the artist. Debates also flared up at this time between historians in the former Federal Republic of (West) Germany: there were those with revisionist tendencies who had convinced themselves that the Nazi era had not been quite so bad and that it was time to establish a new historical image. Unlike many other high-profile intellectuals, Peter Ludwig had long been critical of his own delusion and involvement with the Hitler Youth. He commissioned self-portraits from Arno Breker but also Andy Warhol, almost at the same time. Yet he argued vigorously in favor of exhibiting National Socialist art in museums. The Ludwigs’ definition of art as a historical document is most notable on this point, a definition which enabled the couple to realize their overarching approach to collecting. The general view on this issue contradicted their idea of art as a carrier of information; it wasn’t until the late 2010s that this view shifted when the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich decided it would no longer omit the art of the 1930s and 1940s from its historical exhibitions. Nevertheless, the cooperation of the Ludwigs with Breker is largely unexplained and remains a subject for future research.

In 2017, the Ludwig Foundation invited artist Annette Kelm to not only photograph the house but to present her own works. Parts of the collection had to make way for an exhibition and artworks found themselves repositioned amongst entirely new neighbors. It was also a welcome opportunity to remove a few and put them into storage for a while. Kelm took necessary time to investigate and discern the spirit of the house. Her way of thinking is very much aligned with the approach they took of bringing together the “high and low,” an ability to see relations that usually go by unnoticed, and a sensibility for how to position objects in dialogue, balancing them in such a way that may seem absurd at first but later appears entirely persuasive. The invitation sought to see the house through a new pair of eyes and to update it with a contemporary perspective. And, indeed, the genius loci came alive,
enabling not only a critical view of the past but also a future potential for art and the house.

Kelm’s still life photographs subtly held up a mirror to the setting, depicting interactions between surfaces as well as the aesthetics of materials and reproduction, also irony. The works raise questions around the banality of the gesture to immortalize as well as its fascination. Furthermore, her images produced at the house invoke, develop, and explore questions about the contemporary.

With only two exceptions, the exhibition focused on new works by Kelm which were not created at Haus Ludwig; for those that were produced there, an exhibition elsewhere seems more fitting. Given the context, an exploration of the idea of temporality was a fairly obvious response, yet Kelm added a new layer, a shift of meaning to the Ludwigs’ historic pieces. She contributed her minutely detailed and profound photographic practice that enables both empathy and critical confrontation. To simply create new works was not enough. The works had to shake up and alter the dominant regime of observation in the house, which Kelm achieved in doing. Each generation sees the objects that exist in a new light and comes up with their own interpretations. A concentration of significant artworks can be found at Haus Ludwig. The concerns with materiality and artificiality highlighted by Annette Kelm’s photographs at the house show the meeting of protecting the provenance of artistic content and reinterpreting it in the present.

© Text Brigitte Franzen
© Images Carl Brunn