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.
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
Berlin is not among the prettiest cities in Europe, at least not on the surface. But it is undeniably one of the most fascinating. Much of its beauty lies entangled in history and drama and its inherent determination and generosity of spirit has brought it into the 21st Century with new vitality. For an insight into Berlin’s unique attraction, the art exhibition, ‘Die Schönheit der grossen Stadt’ (‘The Beauty of the Big City’), at the Ephraim-Palais Museum until 26th August, is an absolute must.
Showcase with original copy of Endell’s book
The title of the exhibition is taken from a book published in 1908 by philosopher and architect August Endell. He invited readers to open their eyes to the big city and also to picture its future development. Using Endell’s basic ideas as a starting point, the exhibition shows how artists over the past two centuries have interpreted the urban and social structure of Berlin. The paintings are grouped into themes and clearly demonstrate how the city’s external appearance has, over the years, reflected its inner beauty and its soul.
Inside the exhibition
Any exhibition at the Ephraim-Palais is worth a visit, if only to pay homage to this gem of a building, once home to Veitel Heine Ephraim, a wealthy Jewish court jeweller, banker and mint master to Frederick the Great. His exquisite rococo palace was built between 1762 and 1766 and soon became known as the “most beautiful corner in Berlin”. In 1936, the Ephraim-Palais was dismantled when the Mühlendamm was extended as part of Hitler’s grandiose plans for his new capital of ‘Germania’. Sections of the façade were stored in the district of West Berlin borough of Wedding. Eventually, they were handed over to the East Berlin authorities who reconstructed the building as a museum to form part of their official celebrations for Berlin’s 750th Anniversary in 1987.
The Ephraim-Palais now stands just a few metres from its original location in the Nicolaiviertel, the heart of medieval Berlin, and belongs to the Berlin Stadtmuseum (Berlin City Museum). The exterior is still wonderfully ornate and the gold spiral staircase is breath-taking. The exhibition rooms are arranged over three floors and are quite plain and relatively small. But many of them have large windows looking on to the streets below and with their combination of natural light and polished parquet flooring they provide a perfect setting for an exhibition of paintings of Berlin.
The stunning staircase
This exhibition challenges the visitor to look at Berlin from diverse perspectives. The theme chosen for each room of paintings is introduced on a large display board and the paintings themselves each have an explanatory paragraph giving their context. All this information is given both in German and in clear English. I took photographs of the paintings which, for me, had the most appeal and summed up the theme of the room best. But there were so many others which made an impact and captured the essence of the city at a particular time and from a different angle. After reaching the last room on the top floor, suitably showcasing Eduard Gaertner’s rooftop paintings, I walked back down to the reception area to buy a couple of postcards. Quite by chance, I noticed that a rather zany black and white film of pre-war Berlin was running in the room to the left of the entrance door. It added another dimension to the ‘beauty’ of the big city and echoed August Endell’s words, displayed elsewhere in the exhibition:
“Because this is the astonishing thing: the big city, despite all the ugly buildings, despite the noise, despite everything for which it can be condemned, remains a miracle of beauty and poetry for those who would wish to see it, a fairy-tale more colourful, more varied, more manifold than anything ever told in a poet’s word.”
Below is my selection of paintings from ‘The Beauty of the Big City’ exhibition, listed by theme. The Ephraim-Palais Museum is only a few minutes walk from either Alexanderplatz or Klosterstraβe Station and is open from 10am until 6pm on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and from 12pm until 8pm on Wednesdays . Entrance to the exhibition is €7 for adults, with free entrance on the first Wednesday of each month. For further details, including tours in English, follow this link.
Young Bricklayer, 1953, Otto Nagel
Under a pale sky
Knaackstraβe, 1974, Harald Metzkes
The city and the human being
Man in front of Wall, 1988-89 and Man with Suitcase, 1983, Klaus Killisch
Nights in the big city
At Friedrichstraβe Station, 1888, Lesser Ury
Above the rooftops
Witzleben Broadcasting Station, 1982, Ernst Fritsch
Architecture and texture
Urban Landscape, 1982, Joachim Böttcher
On the edge of the city
Winter Landscape at Lichterfelde, 1912, Waldemar Rösler
The city torn apart
On Potsdamer Platz, 1973, Karl Oppermann
Landscapes of history
East Berlin, 1982, Julie de Bastion
Playground in Friedrichshain, 1913, Paul Paeschke
The Big Window, 1938, Willy Robert Huth
Wittenbergplatz, 1960, Werner-Viktor Toeffler
In the neighbourhood
Berlinbild, 1920, Ernst Fritsch
The city as a metaphor
Nollendorfplatz, 1912, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
City of work
Borsig’s Engineering Works in Berlin,1847, Carl Eduard Biermann
Berlin from above
View of the Friedrichsforum, 1835, Eduard Gaertner
Athens on the Spree
The Granite Bowl in the Lustgarten, 1831, Johann Erdmann Hummel
Berlin has an incredible 175 museums to choose from.‘20 Berlin Museums That Will Blow Your Mind’, a list recently compiled by the website Hostelworld, is a great place to start . But you won’t find one of my own top favourites here – the Märkisches Museum. This museum about Berlin’s origins and history is just off the tourist trail and attracts less hype. Its impressive red-brick Gothic-style building rises like a cathedral in a secluded park by the River Spree, in an ancient corner of the city. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was locked away in East Berlin, far from the madding crowds and today it still retains an authentic air of ‘Old Berlin’. It’s a place where you can time out to steep yourself in Berlin’s past and appreciate a stunning historic collection in a unique setting. This museum is the real thing; it even has its own U-Bahn station on line U2.
The Gothic-style exterior
Sections of the Berlin Wall outside the museum
But I would encourage you to visit the Märkisches Museum soon; there are plans to close it down for renovation and a new permanent exhibition is being created. Whilst it needs updating, this museum has a nostalgic feel to it which may be lost in the process of modernisation. The museum’s distinctive building is very much in the style of architectural precursors from the north of Germany and the Brandenburg region. In the Köllnischer Park behind the museum, there is even a bear-pit which until 2015 was home to a pair of brown bears, as symbols of the city of Berlin.
The bear-pit (Bärenzwinger) in 1984
The word ‘märkisch’ refers to the area which surrounded Berlin – the ‘Mark of Brandenburg, (English: Margravate), now the Federal State of Brandenburg. ‘Margrave’ was originally the medieval title for the military commander who defended one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire or a kingdom. The interior of the museum definitely has a medieval feel, with the Gotische Kapelle (Gothic Chapel), the Zunftsaal (Guildhall) and the Waffenhalle (Weapon Hall) as particular highlights.
The Weapon Hall and the Gothic Chapel
The exhibits go back as far as the Bronze Age and there are some fascinating large-scale models of Berlin as it has developed since the 13th Century.
The original settlements of Berlin
The permanent exhibition, ‘Here is Berlin!’, invites you to stroll through the streets and districts of the city and experience how Berlin has changed since it was founded in 1237. The English information boards are really clear and helpful and the carefully-chosen exhibits include important sculptures and paintings.
The Humboldt brothers
The Borsig factory in 1842
The room with an original wooden ‘Kaiserpanorama’ is an absolute must. Here you can sit at one of 25 stations, each with a pair of viewing lenses and watch a series of 3D images of Berlin life in the early 20th Century. The animation in these historic scenes is gripping.
Sitting at the Kaiserpanorama
Another museum highlight is the wonderful collection of historic musical instruments and at 3pm on Sundays visitors can hear some of them in action. There is also an interesting exhibition illustrating the museum’s meticulous research and documentation methods and a creative area for children.
Historic barrel organs – and their players
If you manage to fit in a visit to the Märkisches Museum before 25th February, you can still catch their excellent Special Exhibition: ‘Berlin 1937. In the Shadow of Tomorrow’. By 1937, the National Socialist regime had permeated every aspect of everyday life and yet there was a false sense of calm in Berlin. The fascinating photographs and exhibits are clearly explained in English and as in the permanent collection, you can sense a meticulous sharing of expertise. No dumbing down here. At the end of your visit, there is a small bookshop and a café in the courtyard outside. Both are low-key, uncommercialised Berlin experiences.
A walk in the park 1937
Poster for a 1937 exhibition
Finally, it is important to explain that the Märkisches Museum is the main part of the ‘Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin’. This foundation of Berlin city museums, governed by public law, was set up in 1995 following the reunification of the German capital in 1991. The aim was to bring together into one foundation the two major historic museums in the eastern and western parts of the city, as well as several smaller ones. The Märkisches Museum was originally founded in 1874, but its current building in Berlin-Mitte dates back to 1908. The Berlin Museum, founded in 1962 in West Berlin, was housed in the former Superior Court of Justice building on Lindenstraße in Berlin-Kreuzberg. This building was handed over to the newly-founded Jewish Museum in 1999. There are now five museums belonging to the Stadtmuseum Berlin: the Märkisches Museum, the Nikolaikirche, the Ephraim-Palais, the Knoblauchhaus and the Museumsdorf Düppel. For further information and opening times, visit the Stadtmuseum’s website at https://www.en.stadtmuseum.de/our-museums
For the final blog of 2016 here is something joyful – a recommendation for a tip-top night out to a Berlin comic operetta; something to lift the spirit and warm the soul. It is dedicated to those people who were tragically involved in the terrible Christmas market massacre of 19th December. I had been standing on that very spot only a week before, buying Christmas Lebkuchen hearts, and while the dreadful event was unfolding I was posting my last blog about four magical markets. It is a very sombre scene now on Breitscheidplatz, where a mass of candles and flowers marks the scene of the murders.
Flowers and Candles on Breitscheidplatz
But Berlin is the ultimate city of resolute survival. Tonight, there will be more fireworks than ever at the Brandenburg Gate and the show will go on at every venue imaginable. For a night out that conjures up the cabaret atmosphere of pre-war Berlin, I can recommend the Tipi am Kanzleramt, a marquee theatre hidden away in the Tiergarten, only a stone’s throw from Angela Merkel’s office and the Reichstag. The Tipi is a permanent venue for variety acts, cabaret, musicals and chansons, but has the nostalgic feel of a Spiegeltent, where travelling artistes bring music, magic and a touch of decadence to the general public.
The Tipi am Kanzleramt
Until the end of January, Berliners are flocking to see ‘Frau Luna’ (Mrs Moon), a ‘burlesque and fantastic operetta’, composed by Paul Lincke, and first performed in 1899. Lincke had previously worked at the Folies Bergères in Paris and in 1908, he became principal conductor and composer for the Metropol Theater, whose spectacular revues were the capital’s biggest attraction. He is considered to be the father of operetta in Berlin, and has the same significance for the German capital as Johann Strauss for Vienna and Jacques Offenbach for Paris. On his 75th birthday, Lincke was made an honorary citizen of Berlin. Now this new production marks the 150th anniversary of his birth.
The original cast of Frau Luna in 1899
German postage stamp commemorating Paul Lincke
Frau Luna has a crazy storyline, which involves a group of ordinary Berliners going to the moon on a home-made craft. It’s full of mad scenes and characters, but the main theme of escapism and chasing dreams comes clearly through. There are plenty of foot-tapping and hand-clapping songs, especially ‘Das ist die Berliner Luft’, (‘That’s the Berlin air’) which is Lincke’s most famous composition and has become the well-loved anthem of Berlin. (Follow this link to see the Berlin Philharmonic perform it as a march). Frau Luna is not considered suitable for non-German speakers because of the German dialogue and jokes, but the music has instant appeal and there are slick dance routines. My English-speaking friend loved the glamour of the whole spectacle, staged in festive silver, black and white. You can get a flavour of the show from this trailer on You Tube.
The 2016 production of Frau Luna
Not all the entertainment happens on stage in the Tipi am Kanzleramt. Members of the audience sit at tables and can order (or pre-order) food and drink. The menu features Berlin specialities as well as beers, wines and Sekt from Germany and Austria and prices are quite reasonable. People-watching becomes part of the fun and the traditionally-dressed waiters provide impeccable service, under considerable pressure.
The audience arriving in the Tipi
The Tipi programme also includes plenty of shows and acts in English. In summer 2017, it features ‘Cabaret – the Musical’ once again and the Kit Kat Club will be recreated in the Tipi tent theatre. Tickets can be bought online and need to be booked early, especially for the best seats. Follow this link for the Tipi website.
‘Cabaret‘ in the Tipi, 2016
Das Museum der Dinge is a fascinating treasure-trove. Its name translates into English as ‘The Museum of Things’ and its nearest equivalent in London is the Design Museum. The collection was started in 1970 by the ‘Werkbundarchiv’, (the archives of the German association of craftsmen) and has grown into a significant exhibition of objects that have documented German daily life since the late-19th century.
The first exhibit (pictured above) is a ‘Historicist Bench’ which was part of the luxurious interior of the villa of a director of the Borsig factory. Unique hand-crafted pieces had reached a high quality towards the end of the 19th century and reflected the new economic power of the industrial elite. Although the crafts industry drew on stylistic elements of earlier eras, it began increasingly to put cheaper merchandise of poorer quality on the market.
Early 20th century ‘kitsch’
Affordable, mass-produced glassware
There are scores of display cases packed with items that have historic or design significance; many of them now horrendously kitsch. After all, the word was invented in Germany in the 1920s to describe a low-brow style of mass-produced design using popular or cultural icons. A great feature of this museum is the clear and concise way that the information boards (in English as well as German) explain each period of modern design, covering the development of functional utensils, brand names, souvenirs and technical products to the evaluation and choice of products in our own era.
Designer TV – with explanation
Of course, the exhibits are specifically from German everyday life, but visitors with no background knowledge of German brands can still have a great time and appreciate how household goods have adapted and changed with the times. There is something for everyone in this place – including the first fitted kitchen, the ‘Frankurter Küche’ (1926), a display case full of household items produced during the Third Reich and one with more recent ‘green’ products. You can definitely find ‘your thing’.
A place for everything in the fitted kitchen
Spot the Hitler cushion…
The museum is located on the top floor of an old tenement building off Oranienstrasse in the heart of Kreuzberg. With its gritty buzz, this neighbourhood is the perfect location for an exhibition of such unpretentious, utilitarian ‘stuff’. It is open from Thursdays to Mondays (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays), from 12 noon until 7pm and entrance costs 6 Euros. Follow this link for a full explanation of the museum’s contents and its aims.