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French Berlin

Marie-Blanche Carlier: Stagnation is impossible

After moving from Paris, Marie-Blanche Carlier built Carlier | Gebauer, one of the city’s most successful art galleries.

Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

Marie-Blanche Carlier did not leave Paris for Berlin with any plans to run an art gallery. She was drawn to the city by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the freedom and historical relevance of 1990s Berlin, a “city in the making” as she puts it. And yet, her eponymous international contemporary art gallery, Carlier | Gebauer, has been hugely successful and is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary with guest curatorships, including by art historian and curator Friedrich Meschede.

Carlier grew up in the suburbs of Paris and studied art and law in the city in the 1980s. Her law degree was a practical move: “I wanted to take something abstract [like art] and bring it into the economy, into the real world.” Paris and London were established, but in contemporary art-world terms, Berlin was still a young city, a place “with no [art] market, only dreamers and real estate.” This made it both a thrilling and difficult place to be. Carlier started inviting artists to Berlin to create large-scale exhibitions in public spaces. The artists, like her, were excited to make their mark in a city that was rapidly evolving, that was full of new energy.

I was young, it was exciting, but I was missing some kindness, some love, some tenderness.

The transition from the charm of Paris to the roughness of Berlin wasn’t easy. “Berlin was incredibly brutal and romantic at the same time,” she says. “I was living in the [former] East and there was this romantic notion of living with no heating… and there were almost no public lights. I remember winters being almost dark, you know? I was young, it was exciting, but I was missing some kindness, some love, some tenderness, some nice comments on the street or while queuing to buy your bottle of wine.”

Carlier remembers walking into Ulrich Gebauer’s gallery, the former Galerie Gebauer located on Torstraße, and it feeling like home: “I remember it was terrible, terrible weather, it was snowing or raining, it was pitch black at 3 o’clock and I entered this gallery and we connected.” Gebauer and Carlier had mutual artists that they were working with and their alignment happened organically until Carlier finally committed to joining the gallery as co-owner in 1997.

Berlin has now become her home, not just for her professional life, but also for her family. She has lived in the same location on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz for 27 years. “My daily life these days in Berlin mainly consists of coming back from a trips abroad,” she says. “When you are dealing with art, it feels like a kind of home. And then I come back here my heart beats seeing beautiful Tegel.”

Her community in Berlin is not particularly French, either. Carlier says she avoided surrounding herself with the comfort of other French people when she first moved to Germany. She purposefully spent a lot of her time with Germans and reading German newspapers in order to learn the language. Eventually she found herself yearning for the intimacy of French culture. “The Germans are so respectful, but that doesn’t allow for much intimacy, they don’t want to intrude. I need intimacy!” she laughs.

The gallery’s roster of more than thirty artists combines extraordinarily successful, established names like Julie Mehretu and Thomas Schütte with emerging talent, such as the young photographer Richard Mosse. Carlier clearly has an intuition for spotting up-and-coming talent, but she’s careful not to take credit for the artists’ work that she represents. “I see myself as someone who sees, who accompanies, who conveys and transmits to the outside. The artist’s work is there, they are what they are… you shape the way with them.”

In some ways, moving to Berlin was a sort of “seeing” too, of choosing the less obvious path. When asked how she feels about the past three decades? “Thirty years is an accomplishment. It’s a long time, but it also feels like being in the middle of the game. There’s no end to this work. No one can expect a gallery to remain the same over time because the world is constantly changing. Stagnation is impossible.”