June 23, 2013

A Visit to Some of Berlin's Great Museums

Since the Wall came down in 1989, the city of Berlin has played an impressive game of "catch-up".  The former East is now seamlessly connected to the West and one has to look really hard to find vestiges of the Communist era.  Chic boutiques, hotels and apartment buildings have replaced the unsightly, asbestos-filled Soviet structures that covered the landscape and one can dine very nicely in the elegant restaurants where workers' coffee shops used to be.

This reconstruction has also included some of the great museums of Berlin that were often damaged by Allied bombings during World War II and later "trapped" on the wrong side.  The past few years has seen the re-opening of some world class museums and it was the purpose of my latest trip to visit some of these important cultural institutions.

Let's start at the super famous Pergamon Museum, located on Museum Island near Friedrichstraße Bahnhof.  Known for its outstanding collection of classical antiquities, the centerpiece of the Pergamon Museum is the reconstruction of the Pergamon Altar originally built for King Eumenes II in the first half of the 2nd century BC, in Asia Minor (now Turkey). 

This monumental temple was excavated by German engineer Carl Humann from 1878-1886 and the reliefs and surviving structure was transported to Berlin and re-assembled.  It opened to the public in 1930 but was closed and dis-assembled nine years later with the commencement of World War II and did not fully re-open again until 2004.  The proportions are gigantic - the stairs are 65 feet wide and very steep - and the overall effect is quite impressive.

Another museum highlight is the Ishtar Gate, built circa 575 BC in the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II as the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon.  The gate is constructed of glazed bricks with bas-relief motifs of lions, dragons and aurochs, a type of cattle now extinct. Again, the proportions are enormous and normal size people like myself are dwarfed under the portals. Once considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Ishtar Gate was excavated between 1902-1914 and partially re-constructed in Berlin in 1930.  Only the smaller, frontal gate is on view to the public; the larger back gate was too big for the museum's space and is in storage.

Across the square from the Pergamon is the Neues Museum (New Museum) permanent home of the Egyptian Museum.  Built in the mid 1800s and left in ruins in 1945, the Neues Museum recently re-opened to the public after a massive $250 million renovation.  Despite the restoration, the museum retains a very old world feeling which has its charms but can be a little disappointing in terms of informational signage and accessible displays.  But visitors to the Neues Museum are there for mainly one thing - the world famous bust of Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten - and she does not disappoint.  Exquisitely sculpted and colored, the bust depicts the ruler's wife as a serene and exquisitely beautiful woman.  Probably dating to 1350 BC, it is one of the most copied works of art in the public domain but reproductions truly cannot do it justice.

Moving out of the ancient world and off the Museum Island, and we come to the Gemäldegalerie in the Tiergarten section of Berlin, not far from the Potsdamer Platz.  The Gemäldergalerie boasts one of the finest collections of European Old Master paintings in the world with masterpieces by a "who's who" of artists including Dürer, Breugel, Van Eyck, Memling, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian and Caravaggio to name just a few.

I had foolishly assumed that we could knock out the Gemäldegalerie in an hour or so and then go on to do something else.  What a mistake!  Within the first few minutes I realized that this was going to be a treat and spent the next five hours (with a short break for lunch) going through the 59 galleries, each one filled with extraordinary works of art.  I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite piece but the one that stuck most in my mind would have to be "Portrait of a Young Lady", circa 1470 by Petrus Christus (see above left).  What you cannot see in the image here is how the artist painted a very fine sheer netting to cover her shoulders, held in place with the finest of silver wire.  It is an exquisite portrait of a noble woman whose identity is now unknown.

After this orgy of old master art it is time for something more contemporary, so the last stop on my museum tour is the Martin-Gropius-Bau located in the Mitte section of Berlin just steps from where the Wall used to be.  Since 1999 it has operated as a kunsthalle - a museum that does not have its own collection but serves as an exhibition space for temporary shows.  Currently on view is an important retrospective of the work of Anish Kapoor, one of the major players in today's art scene and one of my personal favorite contemporary artists.

Born in India in 1954, Anish Kapoor re-located to London to study art in 1973 and lives there to this day.  He is now one of the most important sculptors in Britain, indeed the world, and this is his first big solo show in Berlin.  Covering the entire first floor, the exhibition comprises 70 works, some site specific, covering his career from the "Wound" stone carvings of the 1980s, to the over sized convex mirrors of the early 2000s.  The wax sculptures, like "Shooting Into the Corner" are perennial crowd pleasers as they are created anew for each exhibition and evolve as the show progresses.  For the atrium at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Kapoor created a special installation entitled "Symphony for a Beloved Sun": a slow motion performance involving four conveyers and large bricks of red wax that were rolled up the belts and dropped off the end to form a unique and spontaneous sculpture in and of itself.

My jaunt to Berlin has been stimulating and fun.  It is a dynamic city with a rich history, a vibrant cultural life and a thriving art scene, and one that I am looking forward to visiting again in the future.

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