Sunday, February 9, 2014

Museum #5: Gemäldegalerie


10785 Berlin
S- & U-Bahn Potsdamer Platz

Berlin’s picture gallery is home to a breathtaking collection of Old Master paintings spanning the 13th to the 18th centuries, including works from German, Dutch, Italian and British schools and artists. It is an enormous, overwhelming experience of colour, drama, light and precision on a large scale. 

The gallery forms one important part of the modern Kulturforum complex near Potsdamer Platz, in the city’s west. Opened in 1998, the building itself is understated and spare. The external entrance presents a sparse welcome in jagged lines, more modern in approach than the art contained within.

The Gemäldegalerie’s internal arrangement focuses on a central atrium, with the gallery rooms running more or less in two horseshoes – an inner and outer – around it. The layout in this respect makes it easy to either selectively navigate yourself to known favourites or periods of interest, or to follow five centuries of artistic achievement and development chronologically. Doing the latter will have you walking 2km in order to take in the richness and vastness of the collection.

In roughly 70 parquet-floored rooms, on velvet-covered walls of various hues, hang some of the big names of the art world past: Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Velázquez, Rafael, Fra Angelico, Dürer, Jan Van Eyck and more.

Also look out for Hugo van der Goes’ 15th-century paintings and altarpieces; his sophisticated use of light embues the corporality of his figures with the semblance of living flesh; a hand reaches as though it could clutch what it seeks; eyes are rendered so wonderfully as to gaze piercingly at the viewer.

The large group of Peter Paul Rubens’ baroque works, of which I wasn’t expecting to be drawn to, demonstrate both an incredible ability to render the human form and a mastery of the chiaroscuro technique he learnt from Caravaggio; these are powerful and moving. A series of Canaletto’s paintings of Venice include two wonderful night scenes, their incredible detail blanketed in darkness against a midnight blue sky.

Keep in mind you’ll need a number of hours to do this gallery justice, and even then you will have skimmed the surface. Taking a break is a great idea. I walked the inner horseshoe first, then sought respite in the (rather uninspiring) cafe. Once rejuvenated by caffeine, I returned to the galleries, beginning this time in the outer horseshoe. In doing so I covered the chronology from start to finish again, which gave me both a refreshed view and a deeper appreciation of what I was experiencing.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Museum #4: Bode Museum

Bode Museum
Am Kupfergraben
10117 Berlin
U- & S-Bahn Friedrichstrasse, S-Bahn Hackeschenmarkt

The showpiece at the pointy northern end of Museumsinsel (Museum Island), the Bode Museum is a star in every way. The neobaroque structure greets the city from three directions and lures the eye with its colonnaded, rounded form topped with two restored copper-covered cupolas. Built up against the edge of the island, it reminds me somewhat of the prow of a ship; and indeed it is an enormous, royal and majestic vessel of art.

Museumsinsel is a small island in the middle of the Spree River, and home to five museums built over roughly 70 years through the 19th century. Its variety of architectural styles and vast wealth of art spanning thousands of years has quite rightly gained it a Unesco World Heritage Site designation, and ensures it’s one of Berlin’s key attractions. The Bode Museum was the last museum to be built on the island, and opened in 1904 with the name Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum after the deceased emperor. Damaged during WWII, the museum was afterwards restored and renamed.

The museum was originally built to house Renaissance art, but these days is home to the incredible Sculpture Collection, the Museum of Byzantine Art and, on the second floor, the Münzkabinett coin collection. The trail through art history is long and intricate in this museum, leading you from early Byzantine to Italian Renaissance and neoclassicism. The range on display here is both enormous and impressive, from pale and lifelike marble statues of classical mythology, to large fireplaces and altarpieces; from small metalwork artefacts to large marble columns. The big names are here, too: watch for the tender Pazzi Madonna by Donatello. The depth, number and variety of art and artifacts makes it impossible to absorb it all in just one visit.

For me, the architecture itself is part of the great thrill of this museum. In the entrance beneath the main cupola a large bronze statue of Kaiser Wilhelm mounted on a steed takes centre stage, but it’s the design of the palace that takes all the attention. The enormous cupola soars above pale marble floors, pink marbled colonnades and sweeping staircases with gilded ornamentation. The space feels almost hallowed; it’s still and magnificent. This space is joined to the smaller, also lovely, cupola by a long basilica.

The gallery spaces run off the small cupola on the ground floor through unmarked dark-wood doors. Discrete signs next to them are the only indication that this is the way to the various collections. The experience of the Bode is a little like navigating a pick-a-path book that you might have had when you were a child. Which door will you choose? What will it lead you to? There’s a wonderful mazelike and secretive feeling to this layout. The marble floors are the restored originals, and don’t forget to look up as you work your way through the galleries to gaze at the original restored wood panelled ceilings. The experience here is full-bodied and three dimensional, as if you’re walking through art itself. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Museum #3: Topographie des Terrors

Topographie des Terrors
Niederkirchnerstrasse 8, 10963 Berlin
U-Bahn Kochstrasse

Standing with your back towards Wilhelmstrasse, you might first notice a remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, running along Niederkirchnerstrasse. Perhaps you’ll be drawn next to the brick hollows of exposed buildings and underground remains. Then, finally, to a grey steel structure, brutal and unadorned, surrounded by railway gravel. No matter how you encounter this site, you will likely be struck by its atmosphere of infertility and emptiness. This is a place of death and terror, now quiet and stilled.

The landscape belongs to the Topography of Terror (Topographie des Terrors). Consisting of a documentation centre, open-air exhibition trench and excavated buildings, it’s a memorial that occupies the former address of Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8, once the site of Nazi SS, Gestapo and Reich Security Main Office headquarters, the most feared address in Berlin, and the hub of Nazi atrocities. 

Read my full review of the Topografie des Terrors on Slow Travel Berlin (