Michel Würthle is one of those people who you first meet with reverence, even a tingling of anticipation. Soon however, after delving into his stories, you wish only to be able to continue listening to him.
After his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, this charming artist and restaurateur was first drawn to Paris in 1964. In 1971 he continued his adventure to Berlin where he opened the restaurant ‘Exil’ alongside his long term friends Oswald and Ingrid Wiener. Only a few years later, Michel took over the now-legendary ‘Paris Bar’ on Kantstraße, situated in the neighborhood of Charlottenburg. Shortly after it opened its doors, Paris Bar became one of Berlin’s most important institutions for artists, actors and intellectuals.
Whereas nowadays West Berliners fight for any space possible among Michel’s impressive contemporary art collection, 30 years ago people would leave the establishment disgusted. There was a time in which works by Damien Hirst and Martin Kippenberger seemed too provocative, and artists would trade their pieces for bouillabaisse. Today Michel misses this resistance and tension, yet also enjoys the advantages of running a popular meeting place – no longer feeling the need to prove himself to the outside world.
Across the room and out on the street there are many greetings exchanged: “salut, bonsoir, how are you doing?” Kantstraße is a place full of familiar faces and Michel has been instrumental in building this sense of community.
We met Michel in his apartment right on the Paul-Lincke-Ufer located in the midst of Kreuzberg, then together visited Paris Bar, where we got to know the premises from every corner. Follow our conversation about Michel’s rebellious early years, the charm and change of Berlin and what art means to him – all in typical Viennese fashion.
This story is featured in our second book, Freunde von Freunden: Friends, order within Germany here, or find the book internationally at selected retailers.
Michel, tell us about your travels and when you ended up in Berlin.
I am originally from Vienna. From 1964 to 1970 I spent my time in Paris. After my six year stay in France I came to Berlin for a ‘three day visit.’ Just like in Paris, I felt like a fish in water. It was a time of infinite freedom. A capsule of ‘Yellow Submarine.’ No taxes, no military service.
What did you think of your studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna?
I searched for my professors elsewhere. The academy didn’t know anyone apart from Van Gogh. There were perhaps two or three people who had been in New York and could grasp the idea of Pop Art. You certainly had to keep yourself informed constantly. In 1962 I saw a small image by Rauschenberg for the first time. I was fascinated and couldn’t understand how it was created.
You were never drawn to New York?
Well yes, I actually wanted to go to New York instead of Berlin. But like Viennese people like to say, “I got stuck.” I like to go to New York for a few days at a time and walk through the city. What else would I do there? There is nothing to do. Even if you are invited somewhere you need a ten dollar bill for the doorman.
Your friendship with Oswald Wiener and Konrad Bayer is legendary. Could you talk a bit about the beginning of Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group) and what your role within it was?
I was never part of the Wiener Gruppe. I met Konrad Bayer in 1961 and he took me under his wing and introduced me to Oswald Wiener. Oswald was known as being a big outsider and dangerous. As a 17 year old I felt very honored, I felt like I had been included into some sort anarchist secret society.
Within the ground floor of your apartment at Paul-Linke-Ufer was Exil. What was Exil like and how were you involved back then?
Before Exil we had a different restaurant for a year located in Charlottenburg. It was booming and we were basically swimming in money. So we sold it. We never wanted to start another restaurant again. I went to Greece and met my wife. When I came back, Ingrid Wiener and I decided to open up a new restaurant after all. Oswald refused in the beginning. While taking a walk alongside Paul-Linke-Ufer we discovered the place that would later become Exil. It was such a wonderful place. It was completely run-down with a few pensioners who drank Schultheiß. In 1971 we rented it together: Ingrid, Oswald and myself. It went really well straight from the start, regardless of its eccentric milieu.
What do you mean by ‘eccentric’?
Outside the center. But Berlin doesn’t possess a center anyway. We had a feud with a few guys who called us fascists because we had white tablecloths.
Do you think the scene has changed a lot since then?
What does it mean for something to change? Back in the day the streets were empty. Now it’s over run by kids, young people from France or Spain, strollers and barbour jackets. Neukölln and Kreuzberg form this new folkloric center. It is just like Paris: it’s alive. I have always wanted this neighborhood to be like that and now it has been this way for four or five years.
In 1979 you took over Paris Bar. Can you remember what it used to look like?
Its strange name divulges that it must have been founded by someone very provincial. The bar has a great photo of the bar’s original owner who originally came from Lyon. Before selling us his bar at very peak of his career, the former owner drove to Cannes and swaggered up and down the boulevard with his three Standard Poodles. I’ll definitely do that one day as well. Maybe I’ll even dye the poodles blue.
We renovated Paris Bar straight after its handover. We kept the style but changed the decoration. Back then the bar was full of decorative crabs, fish nets and little Eiffel Towers. We decided to hang contemporary art on the walls.
How would you describe Paris Bar to someone who has never heard of it?
I don’t do that. Why should I describe something to someone? My car, my lover, my plane. Come by! Take a look! Afterwards you should describe it to me.
Where does this passion for collecting art come from?
The pieces have been accumulated over a very long period of time. In the beginning a lot of the work was exchanged – even for food – and a lot of it got taken away as well and was added to the collection. I consider these walls an ever-evolving patchwork quilt.
One hears a lot about the celebrity guests here at Paris Bar. Which encounters stand out to you the most?
The diversity of guests who have entered and exited Paris Bar over the past decades have formed a kaleidoscope of the most diverse individuals. One encounters people who leave an impression more than others over and over. However, this accumulation of legends that has been created around the artists and visitors exists unto itself. We operate in an anecdotal industry. In retrospect, the names of people who have made it are picked out and remembered. The others just disappear.
Even though the food is highly recommended here, it seems that people come less for the entrecôte and more for the overall atmosphere of the bar.
It definitely could be considered a traditional restaurant. This of course has to be examined. We did the same when we were young. In Rome we went to drink coffee at St. Gregor and in Zürich we went to Kronenhalle. But of course you never intentionally start something with the hidden agenda of wanting to turn it into an institution or create a tradition. It just happens. We didn’t create all of this to impress people. The pleasure has been purely narcissistic.
Can you remember the years when it wasn’t a well known place? What were the first reactions to it?
During the first ten years I was very motivated by the neglect and disdain towards contemporary art. For example, one of the ox heads by Damien Hirst brought with it great controversy and protest: “What is this shit? How am I supposed to eat next to this?” and so on.
Another example was the reaction to a big painting by Martin Kippenberger which had been slit. There was a really dramatic scene. When the numbers of clientele were right, all sorts of protests vanished and the mainstream decided to say “yes” to everything. Suddenly there was a general consensus of acceptance. It has always been like that and will continue being that way.
Do you miss this resistance nowadays?
Yes, of course. I miss it a lot actually.
Which art piece is dearest to you?
I don’t have anything hanging here that is not personal. The entire bistro is a personal statement. It is like a patchwork quilt. At night, when it’s dark and we have many guests it actually looks like a web.
In the past two to three years a lot has also changed around the area of Zoologischer Garten. Potsdamer Straße is basically turning into a gallery boulevard. New structures like Bikini House and the 25hours Hotel are in the process of opening. What do you think about this development?
Along with the junk! Give me more of this! (laughs) I survived in the desert, so I’ll survive here. There used to be abandoned land from here to Bheate Uhse. This is why nowadays I will say: “The more, the better.” The city has no citizens anyway. What are a sloppy three and a half million! No, but seriously, it’s pretty funny here.
Do you love Berlin?
No. And I am pretty shocked that I have been here for so long. But when you leave you often realize that it is one of the most comfortable cities.
Why did you move here?
Pure comfort! Moving is cancer as you well know! I have always liked it here. The riverside, the market. And besides, I live in the restaurants.
I think it’s great that you haven’t lost your Viennese accent at all.
Listen! I am not a television reporter and don’t have to give it up. I don’t want to. The word ‘lecker’ (delicious) or ‘super lecker’ still gives me an unconscious desire to kill someone.
What should I order when I next come here for dinner?
Do you know what? Don’t expect too much. It’s not a grand restaurant, it’s bistro cuisine and it’s decent. Sometimes things go wrong but then we just throw it back through the kitchen door.
What are you currently working on as an artist?
I am currently working on something with a long-term friend, Ingrid Wiener. It’s a project about an artist’s book where she transfers memories from a female perspective. I write and draw my perspectives. The deciding factor for this art project was the result of numerous conversations together whereby we realized what impressive and different views can be formed from two different perspectives. From vulnerable situations to our encounters, and doing this for 60 years. It’s not uninteresting.
When will this book be published?
How should I say this? She is from Vienna and I am from Vienna – we are not fast. Or better said, we, together, are not the fastest.
Photography: Debora Mittelstaedt
Interview & Text: Pia Dehne & Zsuzsanna Toth
Translation: Lara Konrad