The Gemaldegallerie is Berlin’s repository for old master paintings and it is a treasure house of the history of European art, offering up a wealth of visual riches. The collections had been divided between East and West for a half century, but are reunited now in a new building at the Kulturforum, a complex along the banks of the Spree. The Kulturforum was once hoped to be a unifying center for East and West, but only in recent years has neared completion with rather a hodgepodge of buildings housing a variety of cultural institutions in widely varying architectural styles.
The Gemaldegallerie building was designed in 1986 and it was designed for the collections then in the West, but with the usual political and bureaucratic conflicts, construction was delayed for a decade and the building did not open until 1998. In the interim, Germany was reunified, the picture collections were reunited, and, even before it opened, the new gallery was thereby rendered totally inadequate in space to display more than the cream of its 2,700 painting collection.
The building itself is a fine place to look at the paintings. The architects (Heinz Hilmer and Christoph Sattler from Munich) appear to have been influenced by the work of Richard Meier in their use of light, open spaces, lots of white, and curved railings, but the building fails to achieve the transcendent airiness of the best Meier work and by comparison seems somewhat clunky, particularly the all white grand domed entry which uses glass brick.
Still, the rooms are of graciously large proportions, allowing the paintings room to breathe, the entire exhibition floor is skylit for natural lighting, and fabric panels on the walls lend color and warmth, as do the parquet floors.
A foreign culturevulture visiting Berlin quickly perceives the intensity of this city’s passion for opera and classical music, but one gets the impression that the visual arts play second fiddle in the local cultural band. It seems that the new Gemaldegallerie has had little publicity (and certainly does little to encourage the press); the result is a boon to art lovers – no crowds, but sparsely populated rooms where the luxury of pausing and contemplating the paintings that capture your fancy in peaceful silence feels a great privilege, hardly ever found these days in museums of this quality, where the opportunity to enjoy art under such ideal circumstances has all but evaporated into blissful memory.
The collection may not have the comprehensiveness of the Prado or the Louvre (the Spanish school, for example, is very thinly represented), but that is probably more a concern for scholars than for the lay aficionado. What is there is room after room of paintings, ranging from the medieval to around 1800, with the greatest strength in northern European works – which does not mean that you will not come upon a Botticelli, a Caravaggio, or, specifically, Raphael’s Terranuova Madonna, a masterwork as nearly a perfect pleasure today as it must have been when it was painted a half millennium ago. What one finds in the northern works, though, is both quality and quantity. There is an entirely added level of appreciation in seeing, say, a whole roomful of Durer portraits (see graphic, left); not only does it become possible to see the ways that Durer’s work developed and changed over time, and the variety of his accomplishment, but the viewer comes away with the sensation of having met a fascinating group of very real people, from another place and another age. Great art connects humanity over the centuries.
With some painters it is a special joy to find even one canvas. The rare and special pleasure of Vermeer is here in Das Glas Wein (see left) from 1661, with its glowing colors, stained glass, the content bourgois in his broad hat standing protectively beside his seated wife, all in the classic Dutch interior of intricate detail and subtle, tight composition. A large Breughel, Die Niederlandischen Sprickw�rter (1559), shows dozens of village characters surrealistically acting out old proverbs, mostly with a religious bent. And a larger-than-life Rubens portrait of a mother reading her illuminated bible, her golden-curled infant near her exposed breast, offers serenity and a palpable sense of contentment in the midst of lush color, texture, and captivating charm.
Then there is a roomful of Rembrandts… and another of Hals…van Eyck, van Dyck, Holbein…
Don’t think of this as a gallery to be seen in an hour or a day or a week. Think of it as a treasure trove to be dipped into over the years and savored.