Gemäldegalerie — Part 3

My third trip to the Gemäldegalerie, this time to make my way through the final third in the basement Studiengalerie, and to have a quick glimpse at some ink works on paper from the Plaisante Plaetsen – Arcadia in Holland exhibition. My previous visits to the gallery, Part 1 and Part 2 cover about half each of the upper, main floor. To be honest, the best and most famous works are in the upper section, though there are quite a few among the 400 or so (slightly less than half what is upstairs) that are the equal of their upper peers, and one or two that really don’t deserve to be hidden where the majority of patrons don’t go.

The Studiengalerie runs in a low-ceilinged corridor most of the length of the gallery, with rooms opening off on one side collecting variously works of Dutch masters, German Renaissance-era religious art, smaller works by well-known artists and many works from schools and movements covering roughly 14th to 18th centuries. When you can see them.

The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – at least in the galleries and museums I’ve been in – has a predilection for bad lighting which reaches its finest form in the Studiengalerie. The side rooms have windows. The windows are covered with an opaque, white diffusion layer, which on sunny days outside does little or nothing to reduce massive amounts of glare and bouncy light. Many of the paintings are behind glass; many are lacquered, shellaced, or otherwise glossy; some are both. Some are both and then hung facing the windows. Of the 400 or so paintings here, around a third of them suffer from this, and some are simply unviewable. A reasonable example of this is Bartolet Flemael’s (?) Die Großmut des Scipio, which hangs in the corridor just to the side of the entrance to the first room. It’s the second image below, and this is from my camera with no adjustments, me trying to capture the uselessness of looking at this painting from the most ideal viewing position, i.e. standing in front of it. (As an aside, this is an extreme example of the barrelling, false colour and other image atrocities that I deal with between camera and blog.)

Oh, and none of the paintings have an audio guide accompaniment. I feel a bit petty to mention it, but without shelling out 39€ for the definitive Gemäldegalerie coffee table book there’s a lot of lack of context going on.

Ja, so, there were some truly beautiful early-Renaissance German religious works, all gold-leafed and with the very particular line-work for draping fabric that’s almost like contemporary comic book art, and I think is my current favourite style. There were also many Flemish and Dutch works (quite a few done in Berlin during the early-mid 17th century), still-lifes of food on tables, birds and game hanging, glassware, almost photographic in detail yet never to be mistaken, as if it’s more real than a photograph could possibly describe.

I ended up taking mostly closeups, as a way to get around the limitations of the lighting – which I often do anyway, just not so often blogging them. Sometimes it was a choice of colour, other times the unfinished or worn quality in the line-work and delicate colour, sometimes the expression on the face or the detail in the fabric and embroidery. The furthest room, approximately under the English art section above, and mercifully walled in light blue covering the windows had two works I particularly enjoyed.The first, Georg David Matthieu’s large Kammerrätin Sophie Elisabeth von Giese, geb. von Schwerin (one of a pair, the other being her husband), for her eyes and expression, which is why I’m always more drawn to the portraits (especially after a heavy bout of religious and mythical figurative art), perhaps she was a monster (though it seems entirely the opposite from what I’ve read: “eine der schönsten und gebildetsten Frauen, allgemein geliebt und geehrt”), but in this moment, looking up as if unexpectedly called, there is such warmth and gentle humour there.

The other, across from Sophie, is more interesting for who painted it. The subject matter, the three children of a Marshall, is nothing spectacular in itself, though the execution is the equal of many works by well-known artists upstairs. What’s special here is the artist was a woman, Marie Eléonore Godefroid, and yes, she was well-known and respected in her time, and yes, she vanished from view almost completely after her death. It seems strange and not a little sad that this painting is literally in the room furthest from anywhere in the gallery, the last room, and not upstairs where it deserves a place because the talent of the artist is worthy of such a place and that she is a woman makes this work exceptional.

I’ve come to the end of my Gemäldegalerie journey, three days in there, much thinking before and after, writing, looking, of all the galleries in Berlin I’ve visited, it’s by far the best. It’s a pity then that the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin manage to shoot themselves in the foot and what is genuinely one of the very few exceptional museum galleries in the world is let down by the details. Let down also by almost complete absence of female artists (which is something I’ve noticed in all their museums – Hamburger Bahnhof I remember particularly). Sure, the Masterplan Museuminsel is radically restoring, updating the museums, adding new ones, connecting and unifying the island and surrounds (or at least it claims in that direction), and sure also, a lot of the museum visitors just hurtle through the rooms waving cameras like drunks looking for a refill and the ‘doing’ of the museums is all that’s important (particularly for tourists with only a few days to see it all), yet these things are also equally, fundamentally important: lighting that allows for the works to be seen; descriptions and audio guides that allow for contextualisation of what’s being seen; representation of women artists who were evidently there throughout all the eras and ages and schools and movements and evidently also the equal of their male peers, and evidently also currently almost entirely absent.