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October 2012

Vol. 154 / No. 1315

Old versus new in the Berlin museums

The Berlin Picture Gallery was dealt a rough hand by the turbulent events of the twentieth century. Not only did it suffer the ravages of war and spoilation, but the collection was also dispersed from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum on the Mus­eum Island. After the war what had survived was torn asunder by the division of the city. Some of the old-master paintings left in the East were eventually returned to their battered old home, renamed the Bode-Museum in 1956 to shake off associations with the imperial past. The West was fortunate in landing the more significant part of the collection. After much legal wrangling the finest pictures were put on show in suburban Dahlem. Now finally reunited and, in 1998, installed in a new building in the Kulturforum – the modern cultural complex on the Kemperplatz in the Tiergarten area – this world-class collection of old masters once again faces an uncertain future. There are plans to relocate the Gemäldegalerie in order to make way for a new Museum of Twentieth Century Art. The art-historical establishment is up in arms.

The Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), the body responsible for the preservation of the cultural property of the former State of Prussia, has long cherished a scheme to reinstate the old-master paintings on the Museum Island, with the idea that they should be part of the grand narrative of Western culture, and that more space should be made for the collection of twentieth-century art – which is inadequately housed near the Gemäldegalerie in Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie. The master plan for the renovation and reorganisation of the Berlin Museums envisages merging the complementary collections of painting and sculpture in an extended Bode-Museum in keeping with the spirit of Wilhelm von Bode, its founder. Ejecting the Gemäldegalerie from the Kultur­forum would enable another piece of the giant puzzle to slot into place: a new ‘Museum Island’ for twentieth-century art.

The financial pressures arising from the many projects in which the Stiftung is involved are immense. They include the imminent renovation of the Perg­amon Museum and the Neue Nationalgalerie, the underground promenade linking the Bode-Museum, the Pergamon Museum and the Neues Museum and the new visitor centre on the Mus­eum Island. Also included is a controversial and much delayed reconstruction of the Stadtschloss, the former royal palace where the ethnographic and anthropological museums, now housed in Dahlem, are to be installed as part of an all-embracing centre of world cultures known as the Humboldt-Forum. So the relocation of the Gemäldegalerie seemed a distant prospect. But in June the Budget Committee of the German Parliament set the cat among the pigeons with the unexpected allocation of ten million euros towards converting the fabric-lined galleries of the Gemälde­galerie into a space suited to modern art. The decision seems to have caught the Stiftung unawares. The grant was prompted by the impending refurbishment of the Neue Nationalgalerie, which is set to close in 2015, and by the need to find a home for 150 works of Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist art donated to the state of Berlin by Heiner and Ulla Pietzsch. This gift has been promised to the Stiftung as a long-term loan under the proviso that a ‘significant’ part of the collection be permanently displayed within the context of the holdings of the Neue Nationalgalerie.

The Stiftung has been at pains to stress that the old masters would be the eventual winners of this enterprise. However, the official announcement of the ‘first step in the projected rearrangement of the Berlin museum landscape’ gives the twentieth century priority over the old masters, leading critics to speak of a ‘Kulturkampf’ between new and old art. The distinguished art historian Willibald Sauerländer has drawn an analogy with Swift’s satirical Battle of the Books, where the classical greats fight the modern authors for supremacy on the shelves of the King’s Library. While the twentieth century holds sway in the Kulturforum, the old masters will have to share cramped accommodation in the Bode-Museum with the sculpture collection until such time as new gallery spaces can be built on a proposed site just across the river on the other side of the Kupfergraben – ‘definitely beyond 2018’ has already become ‘not before 2022’. The suggestion that the Schloss could serve as an alternative home has been rejected. Peter-Klaus Schuster – the silver-tongued former director-general of the Stiftung and architect of the master plan – has argued that it would not be appropriate for a collection which owed so much to civic engagement to be displayed in a former royal palace, conveniently ignoring that royal pictures formed the nucleus of the Gemäldegalerie. The Stiftung prefers to shunt large parts of both collections into storage. Hermann Parzinger, who has presided over the Stiftung since 2008, sparked outrage among art historians by suggesting that a smaller temporary display might be superior as not every work was first rate. He seems oblivious to the distinctive quality of the Gemäldegalerie which was built up to tell the story of Western painting through the depth of its collection. The culture min-ister Bernd Neumann displayed similar insensitivity after the acclaimed opening of the Neues Museum, when he patronisingly announced to the staff of the Gemäldegalerie that he would now address his attention to the ‘smaller museums’.

It is baffling that the Stiftung should wish to embark on such an upheaval without having worked out how to accommodate the Gemäldegalerie. The plans are sketchy. A glossy brochure inviting potential sponsors to ‘share our vision’ has been prepared, but a feasibility study is yet to be undertaken, no architect has been appointed and no funds have been raised. Nor has there been any attempt to engage in discussion with experts, many of whom question whether Bode’s concept of displaying painting and sculpture together in a historical context is still desirable. Critics have pointed out that, individual period rooms apart, none of the great museums has followed this method of display.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall the art-historical establishment fought to persuade the Stiftung to abandon plans for the building at the Kulturforum and reinstate the reunited collections in their former home on the Museum Island. Its then director-general, Wolf-Dieter Dube, stubbornly rode out the storm, advocating that the myth of the Museum Island with its concept of the unified presentation of Western culture should be consigned to ‘the waste-paper basket of history’. The sympathetic display of the collection in the tailor-made rooms of the Gemäldegalerie has served the old masters well and won over many detractors. To abandon this for the uncertainties of a grand vision seems foolhardy. Two years ago the director of the Gemälde­galerie publicly declared that the old masters would not leave the Kulturforum until an appropriate home was available within the context of the Museum Island. He should be held to his word.