Ladies and gentlemen,
The “Desire for Freedom” – can there be a more appropriate title for an art exhibition of the Council of Europe?
The freedom of thought and the freedom of expression are among the most noble, the most fundamental rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, of which the Council of Europe is the guardian.
The desire for freedom, the sacrifices made in the pursuit of freedom, must never be taken for granted.
This is true for every city, every country. But perhaps in no other city are we reminded of this as strongly, as vividly, as in Berlin.
It is therefore very fitting that this exhibition is being held here, at The Deutsches Historisches Museum. The Zeughaus, in which we are standing in right now, has had its freedom stripped away more than once.
During the darkest days of German history, the building was taken over by the Nazis. Later it was hijacked by the East German Communist regime and used to produce Party propaganda.
The building we are in, the city we are in, the exhibition we are unveiling today, are testimony to the universal desire for freedom.
They are testimony to the way that post-war artists have tried to find European ways to express the fragility of freedom on this continent.
But, most importantly, they are a reminder of the constant need to assert and defend European values of tolerance.
We must never forget the travails of the European artist – the Jewish and the politically non-conformist painters who were sent to camps, pushed into poverty and prisons, forced into exile.
That is the legacy that today's artists in a free Europe have to live up to.
The desire for freedom is by no means a relic of the past. Freedom continues to be put to the test every day, in Europe and beyond.
Too often, we still find ourselves concerned by attempts of repression against artists.
But we are also often impressed by the courage and creativity, with which artists defend their integrity and their freedom.
We see this courage in the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, speaking out for human rights.
We see this courage in the young Egyptian artist, Ahmed Basiony.
Selected to represent his country at last year’s Venice Biennale, Mr Basiony didn’t make it to Italy. He was shot down by snipers whilst attempting to video the demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
In his last update on Facebook, Mr Basiony is reported to have written: “this is our last chance to change the regime that has lasted the past 30 years … If they want war, we want peace, and I will practise proper restraint until the end, to regain my nation’s dignity”.
And, we might add, his ability to lead a meaningful life, as an artist and individual.
These are the very current topics which come to mind when entering this new exhibition of the Council of Europe.
It is not the first held here in Berlin; some of you will remember the excitement generated around the last Council of Europe exhibition Art and Power: Europe under the Dictators 1930-1945, organised in 1996 under the auspices of several European Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the Governing Mayor of Berlin.
The new exhibition, The Desire for Freedom: Art in Europe since 1945, presents a cross-section of art created since World War II. Like all its predecessors, The Desire for Freedom seeks to remind Europeans of their common history and destiny. It does so in ways that are both novel and direct, in pointing to the turbulent changes of the recent past and the uncertainties of a globalised future.
In common with all Council of Europe exhibitions before it, The Desire for Freedom is an art exhibition, not a history exhibition.
However, it touches on some of the burning issues we know so well in Europe: the abuse of power; the degradation of the environment; the fabrication of myths; the failure of utopic designs; the global financial crisis; and, above all, the place of the artist as an individual human being and a critical agent for the survival of democracy in the globalised society of today.
The novelty of this exhibition is due, in part, to its enormous scope in time and space. A history of recent art in Europe, as a whole, has yet to be written. However, if it ever takes shape, it should be about the contribution that individual artists have made to answer the fundamental questions of human existence: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (Paul Gauguin).
The exhibition brings together work by more than a hundred artists from close to thirty countries from Europe and the neighbouring region. It has been pieced together by a creative team at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, with the formal and informal support of the Council of Europe’s consultants and advisers, in addition to the advisory, financial and logistical backing of the Ministries of Culture of practically all the countries who have signed up to the European Cultural Convention.
Each individual exhibit is described in considerable detail and placed in a wider social and political context. Exceptional efforts were made to carry the debate into the public sphere through extensive use of the internet and social media.
I am delighted that the exhibition will travel from here first to the beautiful, representational spaces of the Palazzo Reale in Milan, then to the outstanding new museums of contemporary art in Krakow (Poland) and Tallinn (Estonia), which are among the first of their kind in central Europe.
This is a genuinely European initiative, borne out of the enthusiasm of institutions in a number of European cities putting together satellite exhibitions and related events – among them Prague, Thessaloniki and Sarajevo. All of the above are cities that understand all too well the importance of freedom.
On behalf of the Council of Europe, I would like to express my gratitude to all the institutions that have contributed, as well as to the European Commission, that made a significant financial contribution. But above all, however, we are indebted to the German Government for their continuous support of the Council of Europe art exhibitions.
I am confident that thousands of Europeans will be inspired by The Desire for Freedom exhibition.
As you all know, the Berlin Wall was but a stone’s throw away from where we are now. It therefore gives me special joy that the home of this exhibition is in a united city in a Europe that, though not devoid of problems, has a passionate commitment to freedom at its heart.
Thank you. Vielen Dank.