Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie is an exquitiste three-storey showcase of 19th Century European art. It is also one of the German capital’s iconic buildings and part of the ensemble of the five fabulous museums on the island in the River Spree. The great Prussian architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who designed the first of these museums, the Altes Museum (1823-30), had a vision of Berlin as ‘Athens on the Spree’ and the Alte Nationalgalerie certainly fits this bill. A neo-classical temple raised on a plinth, decorated with antique motifs and surrounded by colonnades, it sits majestically above the River Spree providing an elegant counterpoint to the bulk of the Berliner Dom on the other side of the bridge.

The Alte Nationalgalerie, July 2018

The building was originally designed by the August Stüler, one of Schinkel’s pupils, following sketches made by King Friedrich Willhelm IV (1795-1861). The Prussian King was known to be rather a romanticist and he dreamt of creating a ‘sanctuary for art and science’ on this site opposite the palace. His equestrian statue now commands the top of the grand stone staircases above the entrance to the Alte Nationalgalerie.

The grand entrance

Walking through a colonnade

August Stüler died in 1865 and his plans were realised by another of Schinkel’s pupils, Heinrich Strack. The Nationalgalerie, as it was then called, was ceremoniously opened to the public on 21st March 1876 for the birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm I, becoming the third museum on the island in the Spree. It originally housed a substantial art collection bequeathed to the Prussian state by a banker and consul named Johann Wagener in 1861 and a display of cartoons by Peter von Cornelius.

Photo from 1912

The primary objective of the gallery had been to collect contemporary Prussian art; above the columns is the inscription: ‘Der Deutschen Kunst’ (‘dedicated to German Art’). But after 1896, a new director called Hugo von Tschudi, acquired major works by French Impressionists. This ended the collection’s focus on Germany and caused considerable conflict with the Kaiser. In 1909 Ludwig Justi took over as director and many Expressionist works were added as well. When the National Socialists came to power, Justi was dismissed and in 1937, the collection suffered badly from the Nazi purging of ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art) when hundreds of 20th Century works of art were either sold abroad or destroyed.

Goebbels views ‘Entartete Kunst’

At the outbreak of war in 1939, the Berlin museums closed to the public and their contents were removed for safekeeping. Despite allegedly being fireproof because of its sandstone and iron construction, the Nationalgalerie suffered severe damage during the bombing, especially after a direct hit in 1944. Only some of the interiors on the ground floor survived. The building partially re-opened in 1949 and restoration continued until 1969.

Destruction and partial reopening in 1949

By now all the museums on Museumsinsel found themselves in communist East Berlin and although many of the works from the Nationalgalerie’s pre-war collection had been returned, there were scores of others that had landed up in West Berlin. The contents of all Berlin’s museums and galleries ended up being arbitrarily divided between East and West Berlin depending solely on the place to which they had been evacuated during the war and in 1968 a second Nationalgalerie opened in West Berlin.

Neue Nationalgalerie in  West Berlin

When I visited the original Nationalgalerie for the first time in 1985, the Neues Museum alongside it was still a pile of rubble and it was a rather gloomy and forbidding place. The inside was as grand and ornate as its exterior, with marble floors and pillars and beautifully decorated ceilings, but the lighting was poor and the whole atmosphere was sombre and dull, despite its impressive collection which in those days included works by great German artists such as Schinkel, Friedrich, Menzel, Blechen and Schadow, French Impressionist paintings by Manet, Monet, Renoir and Rodin and 20th Century works by socialist artists and sculptors such as Dix, Nagel, Kolbe and Kollwitz. I noted at the time that Goya’s ‘Maypole’ was hidden away in a corner and that one small room contained three enormous canvasses which needed ten times the space to be appreciated.

‘Maypole’ by Francisco Goya

Fast forward 33 years and the Berlin art scene is unrecognisable from the dark days of the city’s division. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the German capital, there had to be a major reorganisation of the city’s museums and galleries and there are now six national art collections in Berlin, each dedicated to its own artistic remit and located in three separate boroughs of Berlin. They are the Alte Nationalgalerie (home of the original Nationalgalerie on Museumsinsel), the Neue Nationalgalerie near Potsdamer Platz (the former West Berlin Nationalgalerie), the Hamburger Bahnhof (Museum for Contemporary Art Berlin), the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, Museum Berggruen and the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg. If you follow this link to the website of Berlin State Museums you can explore the history and contents of each collection.

Schadow’s ‘Two Princesses’ greet visitors to the Alte Nationalgalerie

Between 1998 and 2001, the historic building of the Alte Nationalgalerie on the Museumsinsel underwent extensive renovation and restoration and reopened in 2001 to become arguably one of the most beautiful art galleries in the world.

Beautifully-restored interior

The contents have stayed true to their original roots, featuring 19th Century art ranging from the ‘Age of Goethe’ to the Realist movement. The collection includes numerous Romantic and Impressionist masterpieces as well as having a stunning collection of paintings by the German Realist master, Adolph von Menzel. This artist was very much admired in his day and at his funeral in 1905, the Kaiser walked behind his coffin.

‘At the Beer Garden’ by Adolph von Menzel

This summer, the Alte Nationalgalerie is running a special exhibition called ‘Wanderlust’ – one of those compound German nouns, like Zeitgeist and Schadenfreude, which needs no translation. At the end of the 18th Century, Rousseau’s call to “get back to nature” and Goethe’s Sturm und Drang poetry, were part of a reaction against the rapid social changes that began with the French Revolution. ‘Wandern’ – taking long walks in the countryside – became a central motif in painting, both as part of Romanticism’s love of nature and as a symbolic exploration of new paths and of life’s journey itself. Artists began to discover nature for themselves, exploring it on foot and looking at it from new angles. The ‘Wanderlust’ exhibition has great current appeal as travelling on foot has become part of the ‘slow’ movement that advocates decelerating our pace of life.

Poster for the exhibition

Starting from Caspar David Friedrich’s masterpiece ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’, a loan from the Hamburger Kunsthalle, ‘Wanderlust’ brings together around 120 works since 1800 that depict walking. Some are from the Nationalgalerie’s own collection and others from significant museum collections in Europe and the USA. They include works by Friedrich, Blechen, Schinkel, Dahl, Courbet, Hodler, Renoir, Nolde, Gauguin, Kirchner, Dix and Barlach. The exhibition shows how powerful the motif of the wanderer was in 19th Century art. Certainly it was a prominent feature of German Romanticism – an era when poets like Heinrich Heine roamed remote corners of the country and Franz Schubert composed his ‘Winterreise’ based on nature poems by Wilhelm Müller.

‘Alpinist’ by Karl Heinrich Gernler

The artworks in ‘Wanderlust’ are grouped in themed rooms on the first floor of the Alte Nationalgalerie. There is a good explanation of the various headings, which include: The Discovery of Nature; Life’s Journey; Artists’s Wanderings; Caspar David Friedrich and Wandering; Landscapes of the Wandering North of the Alps; Works on Paper; The Promenaders; Italy: Land of Longing; Departure. Below are a few of the photographs I took in the ‘Wanderlust’ exhibition but you can follow this link for a photo gallery of the exhibition. If you don’t make it to Berlin before 16th September when the exhibition finishes, many of the works in ‘Wanderlust’ are from the permanent collection of the Alte Nationalgalerie. Among its treasures are moody landscapes by Romantic heart-throb Caspar David Friedrich, epic canvasses by Franz Krüger and Adolph von Menzel glorifying Prussia, Gothic fantasies by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and an interesting selection of French and German Impressionists.

‘Landscape with a River Valley’ Richard Wilson

‘Gothic Church Ruin’ by Carl Blechen

‘Walk among Flowers’ August Macke

‘Winter’ Emil Nolde

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