Berlin can still feel like Europe’s new kid on the block. A veritable backwater as late as the 17th century, when the continent’s other great capitals were already dynastic showpieces, Berlin spent the next two centuries racing ahead of nearly all of its rivals, amassing a treasure trove of artworks and antiquities that made it a wonder of the world. Then that world went to pieces in 1914, and the great shake-up has never really stopped. Two hot wars, two totalitarian regimes, one cold war, one enormous wall, and one peaceful reunification later, Berlin is still figuring out what to do with its artistic legacy, while fostering a contemporary art scene that is as cool as ever.
The city’s stellar collections—which together encompass nearly the whole of recorded history—are now concentrated in two distinct areas: the Museum Island in the old historic heart, and the Kulturforum, on the edge of what was once West Berlin. Visitors who come for the nightlife, or the gallery scene, or the annual Berlinale (the city’s major film festival held each February) can dip into these agglomerations for a pick-me-up, or spend a whole lifetime plumbing their depths.
Pergamon Altar (second century BC), Pergamonmuseum, Museum Island, Bodestrasse
One of the high points of Hellenistic art, this monumental altar frieze was made in the ancient city of Pergamon, on Asia Minor’s Aegean coast. Excavated by a German engineer between 1878 and 1886, it was transported in panels back to Berlin and eventually installed in a reconstructed version of the original altar, in a new museum that bears its name. Immense, motion-filled and elegant, the high-relief frieze uses larger-than-life figures to dramatise a battle between the gods of Olympus and a race of giants.
Antoine Watteau’s L'Enseigne de Gersaint (1720-21), Schloss Charlottenburg, Spandauer Damm
The concluding masterpiece of 18th-century France’s greatest artist, this double-canvas painting is Berlin’s great survivor. Planned as a front piece for the artist’s Parisian art dealer, it satirises the connoisseurs of Watteau's day, in the early Regency period of Louis XV’s reign, while musing on mortality and shifting tastes. (Note the Louis XIV portrait being packed away, along with its era.) The Prussian king Fredrick the Great bought it a few decades after it was finished, and it has been hanging in the Baroque palace of Charlottenburg for most of Berlin’s tumultuous history.
Donatello's Pazzi Madonna (1425-30), Bode-Museum, Museum Island, Am Kupfergraben
The emblem for 2022’s once-in-a-lifetime Donatello show in Florence, this marble relief dates to the 1430s. Its fusion of Byzantine and classical imagery, made for a site of private devotion in a Florentine palace, is marked by the pathos-filled connection between the Madonna figure, showing a saddened trace of foreknowledge of her son’s fate, and the Christ child, who seems to be comforting his mother. An early example of perspective applied to sculpture, it was acquired in the 1880s for Berlin’s rapidly expanding royal collections by Wilhelm von Bode, the highly influential sculpture curator and museum director.
The Nefertiti Bust (1345 BC), Neues Museum, Bodestrasse
Discovered in 1912 and dating back to the 18th Dynasty, this lifesize limestone bust of Nefertiti, a pharaoh's wife, is among the most recognisable works of ancient Egyptian art—and a symbol of Berlin’s prowess as a cultural capital. Reinstalled in 2009 in the Museum Island’s revived Neues Museum—where the British architect David Chipperfield filled in the war ruin's holes, while preserving haunting traces of wartime damage—it is a three-dimensional counterpart to the Mona Lisa and an effortless crowd-pleaser. Feel free to take a selfie, but no photograph can do justice to its vibrant colours and timeless beauty.
Caravaggio's Amor Vincit Omnia (1601-02), Gemäldegalerie, Kulturforum, Matthäikirchplatz
Joyful, seductive, sinister, and still shocking, Caravaggio’s depiction of a groin-thrusting pubescent Cupid—proudly naked, and outfitted with an all-too-real set of feathery wings—illustrates a line of Virgil's about love conquering all. Arriving in Berlin in 1815, when a French dealer brokered a giant sale between Italy's noble Giustiniani family and the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm III, it was part of a core of works that formed the basis of the city's Old Masters collection.
Joseph Beuys's Straßenbahnhaltestelle/Tram Stop/Fermata del Tram. A monument to the future [2nd version] (1961-1976), Hamburger Bahnhof—Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart, Invalidenstraße
A deconstructed version of a tram stop recalled from Beuys's boyhood in Kleve, in western Germany, this work of installation art was originally created for the 1976 Venice Biennale. Topped off with an iron cast of a cannon barrel, the gathered ruin somehow manages to be mournful, maddened, and wistful.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Potsdamer Platz (1914), Neue Nationalgalerie, Kulturforum, Potsdamer Strasse
A towering masterpiece of German Expressionism, this near-lifesize painting shows two prostitutes looking for clients around midnight in the German capital's version of Times Square. Now hung in Mies van der Rohe's high-Modernist Neue Nationalgalerie building, a short walk from the revived Potsdamer Platz, it conjures up a solid century of loud and lurid Berlin nightlife.
Casper David Friedrich's The Monk by the Sea (1808-10), Alte Nationalgalerie, Museum Island, Bodestrasse
The most advanced work by Germany's leading Romantic painter, this depiction of a wayward figure on a precipice-like beach was condemned in its time for its lack of a focal point. These days, its overwhelming, near-transcendent vagueness seems to be a summing up of the Romantic sensibility, and a forerunner of everyone from Turner to Rothko.
Johann Gottfried Schadow's Princesses Monument (in marble, 1979), Alte Nationalgalerie
A few years after creating the chariot sculpture atop Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, Schadow made this lifesize sculpture—first in plaster, then in marble—of two grand Prussian sisters. A symbol of German Neoclassicism (which Germans call just Klassizusmus) it evokes the fusion of age-old forms and newfangled ideas that presided over Prussia's golden age of arts, letters and science.
Rembrandt's Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law (1659), Gemäldegalerie, Kulturforum, Matthäikirchplatz
Enraged, vengeful, grieving, and perhaps a bit regretful, the Moses figure of this late Rembrandt masterpiece is about to break God's Ten Commandments after discovering the Children of Israel worshipping a golden calf. It is a unique work in the artist's oeuvre, but only one of several Rembrandt masterpieces in Berlin, which has among the largest collections of the artist outside Holland.