Rory MacLean meets Erika Hoffmann
‘Originally neither my nor my husband’s family had any links with the arts world, until my mother remarried,’ recalled Hoffmann. After the war her stepfather, the director of the Mönchengladbach museum, was determined to rebuild its ruined collection. ‘He saw my interest and took me with him on trips to Holland and Belgium. At that time some children in those countries saw the German license plate and spat on our car. Yet once indoors with the curators and collectors we were welcomed with real warmth.’
Away from the devastation of post-war Germany, exposed to refined collections and exquisite works of art, Erika Hoffmann felt as if she’d entered ‘another world’.
‘Through those Expressionist paintings, and then in my discovery of radical contemporary work from Holland and the United States, I felt as if I was experiencing new moods, emotions and bold colours,’ she told me when we met in Berlin. ‘Art seemed to express to me absolute freedom, a freedom without limits.’
At the age of 14 those motor journeys with her stepfather set the course of Hoffmann’s life. She decided to study art history, even though her mother considered it to be a fruitless pursuit – ‘ein brotloser Baum’. But then she met and married Rolf Hoffmann, a ‘genius marketing man’ with whom she built up the elegant and hugely successful Van Laack fashion company. She was ‘thrilled by the experience of being pregnant’, of having three children, of designing fabrics and then the company’s women’s clothing line.
‘We never set out to be collectors,’ she said. ‘In the 1960s, objects were for the greedy, materialistic bourgeoisie. We wanted none of that. Instead we were hungry for ideas, to enrich ourselves through creative thinking and debate.’
The Hoffmanns made their first forays into the contemporary art world at early Documentas in Kassel and in Düsseldorf with Gruppe ZERO. They wanted to know what made tick artists like Günther Uecker, Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, what drove their need to work and to express themselves when there was virtually no prospect of financial return. Through their meetings and conversations, they came to see art as a powerful means of engaging in the questions facing contemporary society. Their resulting friendships brought inspiration and transformed both private and professional lives.
‘When we met the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers for example, he was so poor that he didn’t have a refrigerator. He couldn’t afford to pay the doctor’s bill. It was then we realised that the artists weren’t against selling their work.’
In 1968, following the trend in London of Biba and Lord Kitchener’s Valet, Erika Hoffmann opened in Mönchengladbach an upmarket fashion shop called Tom’s Corner Drugstore. In the niche above the front door, where a Madonna had once stood, Erika Hoffmann set Panayotis Vassilakis Takis’ ‘Signal’, a kinetic artwork. The city authorities complained that its flashing light was a distraction for drivers and ‘Signal’ had to be removed. ‘And so the first artwork ended up in our home’ she said with a laugh. ‘In a way that was our Sündenfall. Our “fall” from the ideal of being free of possessions.’
Today the vast Hoffmann Collection includes contemporary paintings, sculptures, photographs and video art. Set over two floors in a former factory off Berlin’s Sophienstrasse, the display is also Erika Hoffmann’s home, as it was her husband’s until his death in 2001.
The idea to open both the collection and their home to the public only came with the collapse of Communism.
‘Rolf and I were really moved by the Wall coming down,’ said Erika Hoffmann. ‘We wanted to open our doors, to share with other Germans the ideas which had shaped us. We knew there was a need for dialogue.’
In 1997 the Hoffmanns established their home-cum-display in the heart of old East Berlin. But in a manner reminiscent of the spitting children in the early 1950s, their overtures for reconciliation were rejected by their new neighbours. Doors stayed shut in their faces. Most locals ignored invitations. Around the neighbourhood appeared the graffiti ‘Rheinländer raus!’
‘We were seen as the western capitalists, the colonialists,’ said Erika Hoffmann with real sadness. ‘We weren’t able to share the collection with the people who we’d most wanted to share it. Instead we have shared it with others from all over the world.’
The collection feels particularly personal, driven as it is not by trends or populism but by private passions. Americans Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol and Fred Sandback are included, as is family friend Frank Stella whose vivid and striking work (from the Moby Dick series) is the only piece not to be moved during the annual re-hanging. The Hoffmanns growing interest in eastern Europe and Asia led to the acquisition of works by Poland’s Katarzyna Kozyra, Hiroshi Sugimoto from Japan and China’s Fang Lijun. Among the many other artists whose work and ideas shape the collection are Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joseph Beuys, Felix Droese, Günther Förg, Isa Genzken, Nan Goldin, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, François Morellet, Arnulf Rainer and Gerhard Richter.
A tour of the Hoffmann Collection is a thrilling and stimulating cultural experience. Visitors – who are welcomed every Saturday by appointment -- are not lectured at by the guide. Rather he or she encourages discussion, exchanging ideas, perpetuating Rolf and Erika Hoffmann’s heartfelt belief that art can enhance and enrich individual lives, reaching across borders, over time, through generations to bring understanding between people.
‘I like to think that we have added something to Berlin, and to have helped to make it more open,’ the charming Erika Hoffmann told me.