The end of World War II for Berlin’s paintings: The Bode and the Dahlem come together in harmony at the Gemäldegalerie

The State Paintings Collection has opened in Berlin’s Kulturforum


Long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there had been a plan to transfer all the paintings in west Berlin from their post-war home in the museum at Dahlem on the outskirts to a new museum at the Kulturforum in the centre of Berlin. The project had taken shape, money had been found and the plans were approved. Then the wall collapsed. I was among those who felt that the whole scheme should be reconsidered in the light of this event and integrated into a global plan for Berlin’s museums. Above all, I thought that the proposed new museum would be too small to contain the Dahlem paintings when reunited with those which had remained in the East, in the Bode Museum, and that it would not do justice to Berlin’s outstanding collection. I was wrong.

The new Gemäldegalerie has opened. It contains about 1,000 paintings in forty-five rooms. Five hundred more paintings are easily accessible to the public in the sixteen reserve galleries. The actual stores can also be visited, but by appointment only. The Berlin catalogue of 1996, an exemplary, fully illustrated publication, includes 2,902 pictures.

Right from the outset, I must say that the great success of the new Gemäldegalerie is its light. There is nothing like natural daylight for enhancing a painting. Daylight allows the precise appreciation of detail, of nuances of colour, and of the painting’s state of preservation. Artificial light, which of course is sometimes necessary, impedes all of these. I was at the museum on a grey and rainy day, a fairly typical Berlin day I thought to myself. The paintings glowed. They looked nothing like those crudely coloured postcards that so many artificially illuminated museums and art galleries (I am thinking of the Grand Palais in Paris) have taught us to expect. One more point about natural light, an important point: it is restful to the eye, it is restful.

May I repeat that few museums of art in the world, not even the Getty in Los Angeles which opened last December, have solved the problem, which seems simple but is not, as skilfully as the new Gemäldegalerie: presenting its entire collection of paintings in daylight, a light that lives and that gives life to the paintings.

To be absolutely truthful, I must add that the miniatures and some of the smaller paintings of the Northern School in cabinet rooms (there are just a few of these) are artificially lit.

The museum’s architecture is unpretentious and does not overwhelm, which is a great quality. When an attempt is made to impress, as in the grand entrance hall where visitors can rest in close proximity to the exhibition galleries, it is only partially successful. The hall houses a sculpture-fountain by Walter Maria which would not be out of place in the entrance hall of a spa. The rooms’ spaces are dignified and the walls sufficiently high to allow the paintings to be double-hung —although this solution has only been adopted occasionally. The architect wanted to stagger the rooms; the view from one to the next has been carefully planned so that the visitor is drawn inexorably towards the star painting in the next room. The dark floors are made of oak and the walls covered in velvet (and not painted) in four colours: green, steel blue, grey and old rose. The visitor must choose the one he likes best. Let us hope that when a painting is removed and a new one hung the mark of the first will not be too visible.

Another point to be appreciated is the lack of “artificial aids.” The paintings are not glazed (a brave gesture these days), and there is no barrier to keep the public at bay—only a line on the floor. The paintings are hung on almost invisible cords with labels (in German only) that provide only the basic information; there are some moderately comfortable benches and the minimum of didactic material (I actually regret this). Everything is spare and sober. Everything is aimed at showing the pictures to best advantage.

Two further points: a sterling effort has been made to put the pictures in old frames, a great labour which has not been an entire success. An equally strenuous effort has been made with the restoration because the Bode Museum had a lot of catching up to do. There is still work to be done in that respect. As things stand at the moment, the museum has (quite boldly) hung well restored paintings next to others that are covered in a thick layer of yellow varnish which distorts the colours. In conclusion, the Gemäldegalerie aims to be classical or rather traditional without any concession to modernism. Priority is given to the paintings. Who can complain?

The hang

The Gemäldegalerie is reached through some particularly unattractive architectural areas only a few years old. Inside the gallery the right-hand side is devoted to the Northern Schools and the left-hand side to the Italian Schools. The northern circuit begins with Germany. This should by no means be interpreted as a move to promote pan-Germanism. The first rooms are the only ones spacious and high enough to contain large works by early German masters such as Hans Multscher. The galleries then follow on chronologically with the Flemish and Dutch primitives (of which more later), Rubens and Rembrandt, alternating large or small and cosy rooms.

On the left-hand side the Italian Schools are also presented in chronological order. Oddly enough France, which begins on the right with the admirable Fouquet then tilts to the left, understandably for Poussin, Claude or Subleyras whose careers were essentially Roman, but less comprehensibly for Watteau, Chardin or Restout who never left Paris—although Watteau spent a few months in London. Germany also alternates between right and left: appropriately enough for Elsheimer, Liss or Schönfeld, more arbitrarily for Tischbein, Zick or Graf (the painting by Stosskopf can be seen in reserve collections). England—whose paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Wright of Derby are new acquisitions, straddles the south and the north.

A word about these acquisitions. They have been numerous, sometimes outstanding, often courageous, particularly in the area of the Italian Baroque. They do not make up for the 434 large paintings destroyed in 1945. Berlin lost all its large paintings in one blow, the Italian and Flemish altarpieces which were its pride and joy. Their absence is painful, cruel and deeply felt.

One of the acquisitions I most covet is the admirable “Portrait of a woman” by Thomas de Keyser, a consolation for Berlin and a sadness for the Louvre which, in 1982, failed to reunite the husband (an old inmate of the Louvre) and his wife. Why not reunite the couple temporarily, soon, in one of those little documentary exhibitions that museum-goers seem to enjoy so much nowadays? I feel sure that the curators in Berlin would be willing for an exhibition of this type, without it having to despoil their reserve collections.

Another question, or an expression of mild dissatisfaction: visitors would like to know more about the history of this illustrious gallery: the acquisition of the Giustiniani collection in 1815; the founding of the gallery by Waagen, its first director, in 1830; the role of Bode who, with Dominique Vivant-Denon, was the greatest museum director the world has ever known; the shameful Nazi period and the exodus of the curators; the two museums, one in the East and one in the West, and their recent joyful reunion. One room is lacking—a space in which a few paintings would summarise this history and illustrate the various locations of the Gemäldegalerie over the years, from its foundation to its present home.

The range of the collection

The amalgamation of the Bode and Dahlem Museums has restored meaning to this museum which always aimed to be encyclopaedic. The Gemäldegalerie is not a princely collection like the Prado, with its innumerable Titians and Velazquez, or the Hermitage. From the outset its aim was to illustrate the development of European painting, from its origins to the neo-Classical period, through each period’s most representative works, its best examples.

It was intended to be didactic and as comprehensive as possible. Gaps were filled thanks to an energetic acquisitions policy which took into account contemporary advances in art history (two Vermeers, bought in 1874 and 1901, a Georges de la Tour bought in 1976; the “Irene weeping over St Sebastian” is evidently just an early copy, though a good one, but its acquisition in New York was highly commendable).

The present reunified Gemäldegalerie clearly demonstrates this aim for a complete collection, which the division of the collections between Dahlem and the Bode negated.

There are gaps, but in general the collections as presented are admirable. There is a lack of Spanish primitives, only one Goya, only one El Greco, nothing by Fragonard, Hogarth or Da Vinci, and a number of other lacunae, to list which would be egregious.

On the other hand there are wonderful series of Flemish and Dutch paintings of a very varied nature—still-lifes and portraits, landscapes and genre scenes—often in an excellent state of preservation; more than twenty paintings by Rubens, sixteen Rembrandts (if the 1996 catalogue is to be believed; pace the “Man in the golden helmet”), a collection of Italian primitives and Renaissance masterpieces from which almost no-one is missing: Giotto and Masaccio, Piero and Antonello, Fra Angelico and Domenico Veneziano, Simone Martini and Sassetta, Bellini and Mantegna, the Lippis and Botticelli, the Vivarinis and Pollaiuolo, Sebastiano del Piombo and Correggio—not forgetting five versions of the “Virgin and Child” by Raphael, and not forgetting either Cosme Tura, Ercole di Roberti and the great Marco Zoppo who was already making his mark in the East. The quality of the paintings by almost forgotten Mannerist painters like Fontana, Vasari or Sabbatini comes as a pleasant surprise.

Only the collection of German primitives in Munich can rival the collection in Berlin (the same goes for Holbein in Basel). Berlin’s absolute supremacy, however, is in the field of Flemish and Dutch paintings and it now stands out more strongly than ever.

No museum in the world can compete with Berlin’s collection of Campin, Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Hugo van der Goes, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, not to mention Oudewater and Brueghel (the “Two chained monkeys” of 1562 was bought in Paris in 1931!). This is Berlin’s trump card.

How does Berlin compare with the two other great collections in Germany, Dresden and Munich? Difficult to say. Can one, or should one, make comparisons based on personal taste? Berlin will never possess Altdorfer’s “Battle of Alexandria” nor Liotard’s “La chocolatière”.

The reunification of the two collections is a brilliant tribute to the desire of the directors and curators who, one after the other, steered the Gemäldegalerie towards the formation of this encyclopaedic collection, without sacrificing quality. And in this Berlin is closer to modern museums such as London or New York than to Munich or Dresden.