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.