Day four of a week of cultural tourism in Berlin.
Our day began back at Museum Island with a trip to the two museum/galleries we’d missed previously.
Confusingly (for a first-time foreign visitor) the Alte gallery and Altes museum both share neoclassical architecture of the style most popular for museums of the 19th Century (like the majority of major British galleries and museums).
The Altes (Old) Museum contains the Classical Antiquity part of the national collection. If I’m honest, we struggled to distinguish the difference between this and the Bode Museum’s collection form a couple of days before. We skipped pretty quickly from room to room until we found ourselves in the astonishing circular atrium.
In the middle of the atrium was the temporary exhibition, Predators + Prey. This was a display of a large Roman mosaic from the city of Dispolis (now the Israeli city of Lod), discovered, by accident, while repairing a road. This 17m x 9m floor shows animals from all over the Roman empire in incredibly complete detail.
The Alte (Old) Nationalgalerie, next door, contains the national collection of 19th century, mostly German, art. The gallery (like much of the Museum Island building) is a sometimes uncomfortable mixture of modern renovation and a desire to show sections of the original building. It was odd to discover one room entirely preserved in its 19th century form.
A large gallery, devoted to a single century is quite an indulgence. Sometimes the works of a particular artist can be explored in great detail. At other times, it does feel like the walls are filled with less than spectacular pieces. We loved the gallery not perhaps not all of the art
By now, my family were hoping for some respite from their museum fatigue. They left me on my own whilst they searched out less cultural ways to fill the afternoon. Ironically, they ended up in a museum, a museum of chocolate.
Left to my own devices, I went back to the Kulturforum (the collection of cultural buildings in old West Berlin).
Once again, I tried to look around Hans Scharoun’s stunning Berlin Philharmonie. I assumed that if I went back during the daytime, the welcome would be friendlier; quite the opposite was true so I moved on.
The Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) was closed for renovation. There was a big touring exhibition of Picasso that I skirted past and I stuck my head in The Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings) but knew I wouldn’t have enough time to warrant a visit.
I spent most of my afternoon in the Gemäldegalerie (Art Gallery), which houses the state’s collection of 13th to 18th Century European paintings.
I was surprised to find that this stunning gallery had only been reopened in 1998. I suspect that, had timings and academic politics been different, it would have made more sense to combine this collection with the Alte Nationalgalerie collection. As it stands, this collection feels a little incongruous in its 20th Century architecture, tucked to the side of its modernist environment.
As the collection covers a fixed time period, it uses a mixture of geography and chronology to order the paintings in an outer ring of 41 small rooms, and a connected inner ring of 18 larger rooms, all around a huge main hall.
When I was there, the main hall was completely empty but apparently it does sometimes hold exhibitions of sculptures. The whole gallery and the main hall in particular are beautifully appointed with impeccably crafted wooden lacquered furniture and exceptional lighting.
The collection is remarkable in its completeness, each room concentrates on a specific artist or group, displaying multiple paintings of each; one room contains five paintings of the Madonna, all by Raphael.
There’s not a lot of French painting in the collection (and the Italian work isn’t of the highest quality) but everywhere else is well covered. The stand-out for me was Woman with a Pearl Necklace by Vermeer.
From the Gemäldegalerie I went next to the Neue Nationalgalerie, a thoroughly modernist, glass box by Mies van der Rohe.
Frustratingly, the permanent collection (of 20th Century Art) was closed and being packed away. It is apparently to be renovated by David Chipperfield (who seems to have the Berlin museums-world pretty much sewn up).
But the enormous upstairs gallery space did have a temporary exhibition called Painting Forever so I went to that instead. The exhibition compared grand scale works by four contemporary Berlin artists: Edler, Kunze, Reyle and Scheibitz. I found the works a mixture of inspiring and infuriating, the perfect result for a modern art exhibition.
Perhaps it was the particular timings of my visit (it was cold and outside of the tourist season) but I found the Kulturforum to be the epitome of the modernist experiment. The architecture looks beautiful but the overwhelming scale feels inhuman, stark and unwelcoming; the fact that half of the huge institutions were closed did nothing but reinforce my feelings.