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The Art of Society

Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie is back after almost six years of reconstruction. I can’t imagine a more fitting exhibition space for 20th Century visual arts.  With its highly geometric form, vast hall and unique construction featuring eight slender pillars supporting a monumental 65 square-metre floating flat roof, it seems built both to shock and to impress. When it originally opened in 1968, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, its world-famous architect, declared his steel and glass structure to be a symbol of openness, tolerance and ‘reconciling lightness’. Now the expensive renovations, supervised by British architect David Chipperfield, have succeeded in conserving Mies’s modernist vision and the uniqueness of this architectural icon is silencing the criticism over the cost of 140 million euros.

The refurbished Neue Nationalgalerie

Mies van der Rohe was the last director of the Bauhaus before the Nazis forced it to close in 1933 and he had to leave Germany for the USA in 1937.  The Neue Nationalgalerie is his only post-war building in Europe, completed shortly before he died. The building’s original name was simply the Nationalgalerie (of West Berlin) and it formed part of an assembly of cultural buildings on the Kulturforum, including Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie concert hall. During the city’s division their location on the edge of the Tiergarten – only a matter of metres from the Berlin Wall – underlined the fracture of post-war Berlin. Now the Kulturforum is at centre of a reunited Berlin and another museum of modern art is in the planning stages.

Aerial view of the Kulturforum (The area in red depicts marks the site of the planned new museum of mdoern art)

After the city was physically divided in 1961, so were its art collections. From 1968 until reunification, the West Berlin Nationalgalerie exhibited both 19th and 20th Century art and I first described it in 1985 in an article called ‘Artistic Distinctions’ where I compared it with its counterpart on Museum Island in East Berlin (now the Alte Nationalgalerie). I enthused about the main gallery on the lower floor of Mies’s West Berlin building and wrote: ‘The ground has been cut away on one side to form a broad terrace with a sunken sculpture garden…The huge full-length windows create a very light spacious atmosphere.’ By contrast, the grand and ornate East Berlin Nationalgalerie with its marble floors and pillars seemed ‘sombre and dull’ in those days of Communist repression.

Photo taken in 1985

After reunification, Berlin’s national artworks were organised into separate permanent collections according to their period in art history. The Nationalgalerie in former West Berlin was renamed the Neue Nationalgalerie and became the home of 20th Century art. In 2015, when it closed for refurbishment after nearly fifty years of intensive use, it needed extensive repairs and a complete technical overhaul. But thanks to painstaking efforts, the essence of Mies’s vision has been retained. David Chipperfield described the building as ‘a beloved patient’ that he hoped to have returned ‘seemingly untouched except for it running more smoothly.’ And he has succeeded. On my visit a couple of months ago, it felt like I was visiting an old friend. The sleek structure looked just the same and the interior didn’t seem to have altered at all either. Everything had simply been renewed and the building brought into the 21st Century.

The large light upper floor, also used as an exhibition space

Joachim Jäger, director of the Neue Nationalgalerie, speaks of ‘a new beginning’. In his view, the permanent collection of about 1800 works had been shown in the past in a ‘masculine way and also not globally’. He intends to bring more diversity into the collection and top of his list are long-overlooked female artists like Irma Stern and Hilma af Klint. The current main exhibition ‘The Art of Society’ looks in the mirror of restless times from 1900 until 1945, when there was always crisis, as well as two world wars. On display are 250 works of art which essentially characterise German and European art history of that period. One of the highlight openers is a poignant work by German painter Lotte Laserstein, ‘Evening over Potsdam’ (1930). The group of friends sit outside looking depressed, and in the background the dark clouds of National Socialism are gathering.

‘Evening over Potsdam’

The paintings and sculptures reflect the zeitgeist through Dadaism, Expressionism, socially critical Realism, New Objectivity, Cubism and Surrealism. They tell of the Empire, the colonial era, the First World War, the ‘Golden Twenties’ of the Weimar Republic, Nazi persecution, the Holocaust and exile. The artist’s response in these turbulent times was often extremely emotive. ‘Der Gestürzte’ (‘the fallen one’) was created by Wilhelm Lehmbruck in 1915 and shows his utter despair about the loss of life in the First World War. He committed suicide in 1917.

Der Gestürzte’

Many of the paintings are well-known masterpieces, but in this exhibition, they are given a new context by illustrated information boards with explanations of each art movement and its reaction to society. These boards delve into questions, such as ‘How is the political notion of Communism reflected in visual art?’ or ‘How are the Brücke artists connected to Germany’s colonial history?’ and ‘What does modernism stand for?’ They explain the National Socialist concept of ‘degenerate art’ and give a clearer idea about modes of abstraction and the depiction of dream worlds.

This board explains how Jackson Pollock was influenced by European Surrealism

The exhibition is arranged thematically rather than chronologically and the lack of spatial limits in the open, light gallery gives great freedom of movement. This means that visitors have plenty of space to appreciate the artworks and read the information boards. Below is a selection of paintings I chose to photograph and then explore further in the exhibition catalogue. It was hard to decide which ones to include in this blog – there is so much to enthral and contemplate in ‘The Art of Society’.   

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Potsdamer Platz (1914)
Biting satire in “The Pillars of Society” by George Grosz (1926)
Emil Nolde’s “Papua Jünglinge” (1914)
“Flandern” (1934-36) by Otto Dix, who fought in the First World War
Picasso’s “Sleeping Nude” (1942) painted in Paris during the German Occupation
“Nacht über Deutschland” (1945/46) by Horst Strempel, depicting the terror of Nazi Germany

In addition to the paintings and sculptures there is also a gripping black and white film installation, ‘Deep Gold’. It recalls a grotesque version of the ‘Golden Twenties’, where a man wanders around in a world full of lust and desire, eventually going mad. It is an unsettling experience, not least because the moral and social standards in ‘Deep Gold’ seem akin to those of the present. Promiscuity is reality and pornography available everywhere.

‘The Art of Society’ runs until July 2023. Other temporary exhibitions are listed on the Neue Nationalgalerie website at Finally, if you are visiting the Neue Nationalgalerie, the restaurant is a good tip too. It has been redesigned by Cuban artist Jorge Pardo using motifs by Anni Albers.   

Designer dining at the Neue Nationalgalerie


The Neue Nationalgalerie building still attracts controversy. Some Berliners even refer to it as ‘the petrol station’. In fact, Mies van der Rohe’s basic design for a light pavilion with a plinth floor was not intended for a museum building at all, but for the Bacardi headquarters in Santiago de Cuba. However, Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries expropriated Bacardi in 1960, and the family emigrated to Bermuda together with the rum recipes.


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3 Responses

  1. This is an absolutely wonderful read Penny : totally absorbing. Cannot wait to experience it.

  2. A fascinating account, bringing the story of the museum and its contents, along with their historical context, vividly to life. A must-see for any visitor to Berlin.

  3. Wonderful article Penny. I cannot wait to see the refurbished Neue Nationalgalerie! Max

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