“Reality is what sucks”

Bruno Brunnet of CFA Berlin talks about fashion, his mission and Juergen Teller’s new exhibition


The building of Contemporary Fine Arts Gallery (CFA), at the very center of Berlin, could be easily taken as a museum instead of a commercial art gallery. Situated right beside the Museum Island and at Kupfergraben canal, it was built by British architect David Chipperfield – who also took care of the Neues Museum renovations, just across the river. CFA even references the latter, with the same bricks on its façade, high ceilings and huge windows. And then there is Angela Merkel, who just happens to live a few houses down the road. “One night the police showed up here because we were having an opening and the gallery was so full”, says owner Bruno Brunnet referring to the opening of the group show “You’re Just too Good to be True” with works by the students of TAL R and Juergen Teller, back in January. “It was chaos. So many people were queuing outside, waiting to get in. Suddenly the street was full and there was no traffic anymore. Merkel’s security got really worried about it. No one knew what was going on”.

The young and international crowd was attracted to CFA thanks to the power of social media. “We could never have imagined so many people would show up because it was right after New Year’s Eve, in the cold winter and we didn’t send out that many invitations… It all went through the Internet”. This was followed by the fact that it was the most well attended exhibition in the gallery’s 24 years of existence. Yet there was only a handful of works that sold from the show. For Mr. Brunnet to bring more visitors to the space meant starting a new chapter for the gallery. “It had nothing to do with money”.

For someone that is part of the money-crazed and sometimes-aloof art market, this is an unusual statement. He is often ranked on the list of the most influential art gallerists in the world and has been representing high-profile artists like Sarah Lucas, Peter Doig and Julien Schnabel for years. He prefers to be called an art dealer because nowadays “a lot of art gallerists are young, can work 24/7 and are in search of money and fame”. Of course, a lot has changed since he started out when the relationships between artists and gallerists were for a lifetime. Brunnet believes this has changed and nowadays he does not necessarily focus on the career development of his artists.

It is well known the story that he decided to enter the art world while he was still working as a waiter in the bohemian bar Exil back in the 80s, where artists of West Berlin would hang out. By listening to them and also testifying their ups and downs, he felt he could work in this scene, helping to develop their careers. After learning the trade with other gallerists in Cologne for a brief period, he founded his own business back to Berlin in 1992, (his wife and partner, Nicole Hackert joined in 1994). So in the end, for a self-made man like himself, it makes sense that he speaks his mind and sets himself apart from his fellow colleagues with bold actions.

This September, the energy in the corridors of CFA is raising again: Not only because of Berlin Art Week that attracts the international art crowd to the city, but also because the venue has two new shows, one by the painter Cecily Brown and another by Juergen Teller, his third just this year. As a matter of fact, whilst Mr. Brunnet gives me the interview, Teller himself is mounting the show next door with his assistants, going through the photographs while they are still on the floor, waiting to be hung.

Entitled The Clinic, the series of photos is a collection of images Juergen took while he was doing rehab in Austria. The images couldn’t be more personal as the same clinic was also where Teller’s uncle treated himself in the past. The show makes juxtapositions between these two characters and two different narratives. To Mr. Brunnet the reason why Teller’s work is so appealing is because it is self-referential in a unique way, and, of course, it has a massive audience.

“I am interested in working with someone who has this popular effect, who can attract visitors with his commercial work. They might be of fashionistas too, but most of them come here because they are interested in his edgy work and what he is doing in the art system”, he says. “In general Teller and I never discuss his commercial work”.

It was perhaps CFA who did the first move towards the fashionistas, back in 2011, when it showed a retrospective of the fashion photographs of the legendary German photographer F.C. Gundlach, entitled Berliner Durchreise. Never before had Gundlach’s black and white images of fashion editorials, in landmarks of Berlin, been seen from that perspective and exhibited all together.

“The reason why we did that show is because, firstly, there is my personal connection to him. He is now 89 years old, and he talks like a young man to me. I was fascinated to learn about the time he was active in the Berlin fashion industry, right after the war. Also because there is always a lot of noise around fashion week and I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to contribute with something and show to the younger generations that they were not the first ones. There is always a generation giving the torch to the next one. We must have sold one or two prints from Gundlach. On the other hand our clients were not used to it. They expect paintings and sculptures from us”.

Of course since 2011, things changed and the love affair between fashion and art has grown. Just recently Prada opened its own Foundation dedicated to arts in Milan, and big artists like Marina Abramovic and Yayoi Kusama have done their contributions to big fashion brands – just to name a few examples. “It is clear that I have a lot to learn from these guys”, Bruno says about the fashionistas. He goes on to talk about his admiration for Karl Lagerfeld and that he met him while he was on his summer holidays in the South of France a few weeks ago. “I do think a couture dress by Lagerfeld is a collectible item and it is an object that will stand the test of the time, just like great art does”.

“When I got my first big paycheck, in the late 1980s, I went to L. G. Wilkinson in London to have my first bespoke suit. It still fits me and it didn’t age at all”, Brunnet says, while wearing his favourite “summer” uniform: a white shirt with fraying collar by Brooks Brothers, a pair of Levi’s blue jeans and carmine Gommino shoes by Tod’s. He still is a client of the Wilkinson tailors, who most of the time cut three-piece suits for him. “As far as my personal relation to fashion goes, that is all”, he says, shying away from the discussion, to add that he also admires the work of John Galliano and follows Hedi Slimane ads for YSL in art magazines.

When I ask what has been his mission all these years, he explains that it was to eliminate as much reality as possible, “because reality is what sucks!” In this respect it is not different from what fashion does, I say. “Not at all!” He agrees.

Photos by Hermano Silva

CFA Berlin

Exhibition The Clinic by Juergen Teller
Until September 26th