Museums Germany

Berlin’s 20th-century art to gain space of its own

The director of the Nationalgalerie, Udo Kittelmann, gets the green light to rehang Gemäldegalerie with modern masters

Udo Kittelmann, the director of the Nationalgalerie, has brought Tomás Saraceno’s "Cloud Cities", 2011, to the Hamburger Bahnhof

Udo Kittelmann, the director of the Nationalgalerie, and Michael Eissenhauer, the director general of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Berlin State Museums), announced last month that the Gemäldegalerie, which houses Old Master paintings, could become a museum of 20th-century art “in the next couple of years”.

The capital of Germany should have a prominent gallery dedicated to 20th-century art that does not try to conceal the “painful” gaps in the collection caused by the nation’s traumatic past, says Kittelmann.

The Old Masters currently housed in the Gemäldegalerie in the Kulturforum, which is near the Neue Nationalgalerie, would move to an extension of the Bode Museum created by converting a former garrison across the road. Kittelmann and Eissenhauer spoke of their vision at the opening of “Divided Heaven, The Collection: 1945-68” (until late 2013) at the Neue Nationalgalerie.

Securing space for a 20th-century art museum in Berlin is high on Kittelmann’s agenda. Because the Mies van der Rohe-designed Neue Nationalgalerie is listed and lacks space for a permanent display, art from important historical periods is not regularly on show.

An added impetus to have more space came a year ago when Berlin-based collectors Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch donated 150 works of art, valued at €120m. Their gift was made on the condition that the works by artists including Magritte, Pollock and Ernst are integrated into the collection and that one day they will be on permanent display.

“Divided Heaven” was the second in a series of exhibitions presenting the wealth of the Neue Nationalgalerie’s collections. The first, “Modern Times”, focusing on works from 1900 to 1945, which closed in October, was a popular and critical success exactly because it was not just about the big names, for example, by placing the recently acquired Evening over Potsdam, 1930, by the relatively unknown artist Lotte Laserstein at the centre of the exhibition. “Suddenly one was able to see positions that because of historical developments are not held in any other museum,” Kittelmann says.

“Big, painful gaps”

The director recognises there are what he calls “big, painful gaps in our collections” because of the history of Germany. “We tried to make apparent the losses from the time of the Third Reich. And that means that we not only focus on a purely aesthetic history of art, but expand into a social history of art.” Does he want to fill the gaps? “Collections are defined by their gaps,” he says. “Hopefully, these gaps will always remain. If we all closed all the gaps, then collections would be more and more brought into line and follow a unified canon.”

During the press conference before the opening of “Divided Heaven”, Eissenhauer also announced that the Berlin State Museums had allocated funds for the first phase of the refurbishment of the Neue Nationalgalerie, but declined to say how much this would cost. The project is due to be completed for the museum’s 50th anniversary in 2018.

As director of the Nationalgalerie, Kittelmann oversees six institutions: the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Hamburger Bahnhof: Museum für Gegenwart, the Museum Berggruen, the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg and the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche. Three years on, his enthusiasm is undimmed. “[It’s] a wonderful job,” he says. “The museums for which I am responsible have this incredible scope, from the 19th century to classical modernism and contemporary art. That is a great asset.”

Contemporary art

Kittelmann’s office is in a wing of the Hamburger Bahnhof, which might also be an indication of where his personal interests lie. It is certainly the institution that has changed the most since his arrival. He has turned it from a rather static display of the contemporary canon to a much faster paced institution, with small cabinet exhibitions and spectacular installations. The central hall of the former railway station is currently filled with “Cloud Cities”: large, translucent spheres by Tomás Saraceno (until 15 January 2012). “I’ve always done large-scale installations and the space lends itself to many things,” he says.

His proposed Gallery of 20th-Century Art in Berlin could potentially change the role of the Hamburger Bahnhof. “Continually thinking about the future, with the past and its shortfalls in mind, also means questioning things,” he says. “Where does one place the contemporary boundary? Where would we place Beuys?” he asks.

In the short term, Kittelmann has transformed the attitude of front-of-house staff to visitors. Suddenly they have become approachable and forthcoming. “The invigilators and the people at the ticket office have an important task. It’s like in a hotel, where you immediately know whether you are in a three-star or a five-star hotel.” There are just three full-time curators at the Hamburger Bahnhof, which he does not see as a drawback. “With a relatively small team our approach can be more spontaneous and experimental. A larger [team] may not always result in a higher level of creativity.”

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