Märkisches Museum

It was Sunday. Off to the museums! Having finally a properly free Sunday with only Isabelle Schad’s performance in the evening to attend, I headed across the Spree to Märkisches Museum, one of the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin, and one of Berlin’s hidden gems. I went for their collection of Mediæval art, and spent a rapid two and a half hours trying to see also the Hier ist Berlin!, Frag deine Stadt!, and Die ersten Berliner exhibitions. Firstly though, Märkisches Museum is the Berlin historical museum, complementing the Deutsches Historisches Museum which I visited a couple of weeks ago, as well as various museums of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, such as the Bode-Museum. In form, it most closely resembles Museo della Storia di Bologna, covering a history of the city from Mesolithic to late-20th Century. There are other museums in Berlin which concentrate specifically on Berlin in the last hundred years, so Hier ist Berlin! is more of an overview of the entire history, Bezirk by Bezirk, and Kiez by Kiez.

The museum, whose sharp wedge of a roof I’ve seen for years while going to ballet just up the road appears to be an old, converted church. In fact, it’s a conglomeration of six sacred and secular buildings representing architectural styles from Gothic to Renaissance of Brandenburg brick, and was completed a little more than 100 years ago. As with many museums I’ve visited, the architecture and exterior deserves a post all on its own.

A diversion here: entrance costs 5€, which is really cheap even by Berlin standards, though they do charge an extra 2€ for taking photos, which altogether is still cheaper than an average Berlin museum. The attendants are very friendly, though not especially knowledgeable, and there is sadly no audio guide, made up for by—for once—well-written descriptions (though not all rooms or items have one).

Mediæval, then! The entrance leads into the vast, airy, cool, and light Große Halle, on which attention centres on the old Berliner Dom bell. I skirted that and headed for the alcoves, containing gravestones and epitaphs from the 15th to 18th Centuries, and on the back wall, an unknown relief of four women coming from harvest approaching a large urn where a man or angel stands, looking quite tragic.

As usual, I took a turn into a room and ended up in a different exhibition and completely out of chronological order (as illustrated by lack of that in my photos). Jewish Berlin! On one side, a portrait of Amelie Beer, and on the other a beautiful hanging Torah tapestry. I was looking for female artists and representations of women, as is my museum wont, and was well-satisfied in that. More recently, because of People of Color in European Art History, I’ve been looking for these representations also. Besides being obviously something of a political act of viewing, I find it causes me to spend much longer looking at works of art. I’m looking at the figures, reading the descriptions, trying to understand what I’m seeing much more than when I simply walk through and stare at stuff.

So, puppets from “Der Freischütz“, including Samiel, the “Black Huntsman”, and a jewellery case with “allegories from the four corners of the world” from around 1700 were the first two, followed by a painting by Suzette Henry (born Chodowiecka) from 1790. Then on to paintings of Berlin which remind me of Giovanni Antonio Canal’s (Canaletto) large works in the Gemäldegalerie of Venice, here though distinctly northern. Ceramics with blue glazes from the 17th and 18th Centuries that are obviously highly influenced by trade with China and seeing Chinese blue and white porcelain. Actually, the history of Berlin’s ceramics is well-represented throughout the museum.

A large, sparse room contains a massive globe, which can be seen in the corner, looking diminutive, in a photo behind it of a room so colossal as if carved from a massif of granite. It’s Hitler’s study and his globe. Germany has been smashed from its surface, showing the metal beneath.

Then there is a painting of what I assumed was women and children playing in the snow on sleighs. I thought they looked stereotypically Germanic Grim, no laughter, tight faces. This is Hans Baluschek’s Kohlenfuhren from 1901, women and children collecting coal in the grey Berlin winter. Opposite from that is Bahnhof Nollendorfplatz bei Nacht by Lesser Ury, 1925, which for me I think is a pivotal work in stirring my interest in early-20th Century German modern art, something I hadn’t been interested in until I saw this piece.

More ceramics, and via the construction of 1950s Stalinallee, I’m back in mediæval art, where until at least the 16th century it seems so common as to be unremarkable that of the three Biblical Magi one is African and another is Arabic. This might be a particular northern representation as it occurred frequently in these works which come from Brandenburg and Niederlausitz. Also remarkable, were the three wood sculptures of Christus in der Rast, liberally flecked in blood (sadly poorly lit and in the glare of windows), which I’ve been reading about in Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond. Followed by a collection of 15th century sacral art including a Passionsaltar in a single room that was just breathtaking. And then back to 19th Century Berlin.

I didn’t follow the rooms covering each suburb of old Berlin too closely, as I only had a couple of hours, and as usual, once it gets to mid-1800s, it turns all white men with moustaches doing imperial things, which is frankly boring as shit. Villa Borsig, which I’ve seen the namesake of across the Teglersee when I’m out biking, had a series of of seven gigantic paintings by Paul Meyerheim which are notable in this context, documenting rather the history of Locomotive construction (the former Borsig manufacturing factories are north of Tegel Airport). The first shows women mining coal; the second iron manufacture; the third the machine workshop; and the seventh (the other three are missing) international trade, a scene on the docks the lower-right of which has a man, possibly Borsig, doing business with an Arabic man, in front of which a European and African sailor sit playing with a monkey.

Then I end up in the cellar, discovering the history around Berlin and Brandenburg going back twelve thousand years. Stone blades and knives give way to bronze and iron. Since reading Hild, I’ve developed a particular fascination with seax and other small blades. The jewellery and art, either ceramic or metal, is always the most distinct, and speaks to something beyond a utilitarian culture. The small bronze bull and horse I thought were fine examples of this (and in a purely consumerist mind, I don’t know why these aren’t afforded more importance, and sold in the museum shop.)

So, yes, I went about the museum entirely in the wrong direction. I made up for it by departing the bookshop with a hefty book on Mediæval Germanic art.