Gemäldegalerie — Part 1

It’s Sunday again and so off to a museum! Or for today, to a gallery, which is also a museum. The Gemäldegalerie is one of the nineteen of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the big ones, the Museuminsel ones. It’s located in the Kulturforum district, west of Potsdamer Platz and right under Tiergarten, and I’ve biked past it many times on my way from north to south and back. It’s built of lots of slabs of stone-embedded concrete, sloping angularly upwards, somehow reminding me of the Auckland’s Aotea Square and Centre. Inside, it’s vast, light and airy, like a high-modern interpretation of classical architecture.

So, arrive, pay, audio guide! It’s 10€ with the guide inclusive, on the verge of expensive; enough to make it worth having an annual card for SMB, especially because there’s no real way to get through the Gemäldegalerie in a single day. Yes, that vastness is vast. A central atrium runs the length, with the exhibition rooms forming a double horseshoe around it. The atrium itself is on the scale of science-fiction monumental, with a long gently burbling fountain of rectangular blocks midway along. It’s necessary. The gallery is a feat of endurance and people even carry folding chairs with them on the trek.

The rooms themselves are colour-coded, which the audio guide informed me is important, however I forgot this, as the only map I had was in black and white. Nonetheless, following the two horseshoes counterclockwise is an improvised embroidery, looping back and forth slightly as one goes from inner to outer and back. The inner rooms are numbered in Roman numerals, while the outer are in Arabic. This is also important. Once again, I forgot exactly why. Nonetheless again …

It begins with German painting from the late-High and early-Late Middle Ages. Much religious art of the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, Jesus crucified and risen, all very literal, and quite a lot beautiful, often with gilt, fine typography, and a combination of brush- and line-work. I’d been reading recently about African and Arabic people represented in Mediaeval art and literature (around the time of Parsifal), and so was very happy to see what I’d been reading in the art. Interesting also, the further through the Renaissance I went, the whiter the subjects became, until by the Enlightenment they’d vanished entirely.

Back and forth between the rooms, Netherlands artists making their first appearance, then Flemish artists. A lot of this. As the audio guide said, over the course of Amsterdam’s power some five million paintings were made. The subject matter shifts from religious to mercantile, the great families of Italy, an increasing number of representations of Greek myths and the pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, Rembrandt shows up. As do a number of paintings I’ve seen countless times in magazines and books, and very unexpectedly, they are here. Entering each room is a thrill, discovering the artists, their subjects, the country or city in which they worked, the progression of themes, the refinement of techniques, the schools and styles.

The gallery is primarily Northern European art, Germanic and Dutch in particular. To be honest, not all of it is remarkable to me, though I do appreciate for someone with say, a love of Dutch art of a particular period, the quantity of works on display would be a joy to see. And it is a quantity. Many of the exhibition rooms are massive, and the smaller ones are no less than half their size. It’s possible to enter a room with multiple works of meters in length each and not feel things have been squashed in. Oh, and then there’s those 17th Century Flemish still lifes. Walls of them.

As for the audio guide, each room has at least a couple of works with audio accompaniment, which is usually 2 or so minutes, and there’s 70 rooms, so even concentrating only on these works is half a day of gallery-ing. I would have liked something to educate me on the paintings without accompaniment though, as I often ended up paying less attention to them unless they specifically caught my attention. Actually, some of them were pretty unmemorable, of the lesser works by lesser artists of a lesser school type. On the plus side, this meant there were one or two rooms I got through quicker. Not many though, every room had at least two pieces I could have stared at for ages. Lucky most rooms have (very large, wooden) benches in them, so I plopped my arse on them while audio-guiding.

Four hours later, and I’m turning the U of the horsehoe and it’s time to get kicked out. I’d seen a little over a third, realised there was no way I could steal all the works I’d fallen in love with (nor do I have big enough walls for most of them), and was part-way through listening to the story of the Martyrdom of Saint Agatha of Sicily, who was tortured, and had her breasts cut off for refusing to give up her faith.

I took a lot of not so good photos. I was wondering why, when the aperture was wide open I was still only managing a pathetic half- or quarter-second shutter speed. Turns out I’d left the ND filter on, which reduces light by about half. Idiocy abounds. As does blurriness. Still, I have to go back to get through the other two-thirds, so in the meantime …