Museums Germany

Row over Berlin’s Old Master plan

Critics fear bulk of collection will languish in store, with gems in Bode Museum

The Bode Museum must expand (above, site shown in pink) if all the Old Masters in the Gemäldegalerie are to fit in

A major row has broken out in the German press over plans to move Berlin’s Old Master collection from its current location. It has stemmed from a combination of badly handled communications and fears that great works of art might disappear for years into store. German art historians, conservators and newspapers united to criticise plans to empty the Gemäldegalerie of its Old Masters for the sake of Modern art. “Save the Gemäldegalerie!” was a headline that ran in four German newspapers. But the plan is beginning to find influential supporters, including Thomas Campbell, the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The proposal is “courageous, logical, and absolutely right” Campbell writes in an open letter to The Art Newspaper. Thanks to its scale and location, turning the current building of the Gemäldegalerie into a home for the collection of 20th-century art “makes perfect sense”, writes Campbell. Moving paintings from the Gemäldegalerie at the Kulturforum in former West Berlin to the Bode Museum on the Museum Island will allow “the great narrative of visual culture from prehistory to the 19th century to be fully on view”.

The Gemäldegalerie has one of the world’s finest collections of European art from the 13th to the 18th century. Its 3,000 paintings include Lucas Cranach’s The Fountain of Youth, 1546, and works by Van Eyck, Dürer, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rubens and Vermeer, plus 16 by Rembrandt.

In mid-June, Germany’s federal government made €10m available to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the umbrella body under which Berlin’s state museums are united, to kickstart plans to create a gallery dedicated to 20th-century art in the Gemäldegalerie and the neighbouring Mies van der Rohe-designed Neue Nationalgalerie, near Potsdamer Platz. The donation of a collection of Surrealist and Expressionist works, which Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch offered to the state of Berlin at the end of 2010, provided an impetus for the changes. The permanent loan was made on the condition that parts of the collection would be shown in the context of the National Galerie's holdings. Valued at more than €150m, it includes around 150 works by artists including Dalí, Miró, Magritte and Rothko. There are also ambitions to display the city’s existing collection of 20th-century art in a more appropriate way. Although patchy because of the Nazis’ “degenerate art” purge, a collection of Modern art has been reassembled, but there is not enough gallery space in the Neue Nationalgalerie, which is also going to close in 2016 for refurbishment. “It is only ever visible in titbits in temporary shows—to the great annoyance of many visitors,” the foundation said in a press statement. According to the plan, some of the Old Masters in the Gemäldegalerie will move to the Bode Museum, while the rest will be put in storage until a new home is completed, although finances are not in place for that.

The public backlash is paradoxical, writes Peter-Klaus Schuster, the former director-general of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin (1999 2008), in the German newspaper Die Welt. “In 1990, everyone […] demanded that the chance for reunification should immediately be seized and that the Gemäldegalerie, whose precious collection was taken to Dahlem after the war, should finally return to its historic location on the Museum Island in the centre of Berlin.”

Public opinion at the time of German unification was in favour of returning the collection to its historical home at the Bode Museum. But Wolf-Dieter Dube, the then director-general of the State Museums of Berlin, pushed through his plans to move the collection from their Cold War-period home in the suburbs of West Berlin to a new building at the Kulturforum. The Museum Island was a wreck, and Dube had the funding, the architects and the site to make the move to the Gemäldegalerie, writes Schuster. Now there are calls to recreate Bode’s idea. Julien Chapuis, the deputy director of the Skulpturensammlung (sculpture collection), which is housed in the Bode Museum, says: “Bode considered painting and sculpture collections to be complementary. He collected them as such, and exhibited them together where it made sense, as in the case of early Italian portraiture or of Renaissance Germany. We want to bring back this important Berlin tradition by reuniting the two collections.”

Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor of German art and culture at Harvard University, who drew up the petition against the relocation plans, which had almost 13,000 signatories as we went to press, says: “I am not opposed to moving the Old Master collection back to the Museum Island. I am much more concerned about the 'how' and the 'when' than the 'if'.” Germany’s associations of art historians and conservators, as well as the museum directors at the time of reunification, Dube and Günter Schade, have criticised the decision to move the collection before a home for the pictures has been built. Hamburger says: “In Berlin you have about €1.5bn worth of projects that are unfinished, and then they have the chutzpah to throw in another museum [the Bode expansion] for around €200m, when experience teaches us that not a single one of these projects has been built to budget and on time. The onus is on [the foundation] to put forward a credible plan in consultation with the appropriate experts.” Chapuis refutes this: “We are not going to close the Gemäldegalerie until there is a reliable feasibility and financing plan for the Bode Museum expansion in place.”

For more letters on this subject, including one from Thomas Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, see our September issue in print, or subscribe to the digital edition.

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