I think I’ve been more than six times to the Gemäldegalerie, but a couple of those visits were without camera – though with friend! So we all don’t get lost, here they all are, along with 300 or more photos:
I was going to run out to Dahlem and poke around the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, but kinda lazy here. Plus I wanted to gawp at some mediæval art, so off to the Gemäldegalerie. And it turned out to be Internationaler Museumstag 2016.
Six times (that I count) I’ve been to the Gemäldegalerie. Am I bored with it? Is that even a question? Do you know how huge it is? It takes me 3 hours just to get through the mediæval art – Northern European and Italian that is – which leaves around 2/3rds of the place unseen. Not that I cared, I really was just antsy for some old shit to stare at, and did it disappoint? Hell no!
It gets better every time, partly because there’s so many favourites of mine – Hans Baldung’s (gen. Grien) Der Dreikönigsaltar, Meister des Aachener Altars’ Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige, I’m talking about, but oh so many others. I gave St. Mauritius in Baldung’s alter a wink, “Saw you in Magdeburg, dude!” “Awesooome! You know St. Katharina’s over there?” “Fuck no, I didn’t! St. Katharina!” “Hey Frances! You’ve been ignoring me!” I’d been walking past her every time cos she’s on a separate wing and not part of the main altarpiece. Saving photographing her for my next visit.
Speaking of not paying attention, I didn’t really want to photograph much, but also knew I kinda needed to: it’s part of the deal. So I’m looking at Albrecht Dürer’s one, the famous one of Hieronymus Holzschuher, and beside that there’s this small, matt black rectangle of I dunno, never looked at it too closely cos it’s not very impressive – until you look at it closely. It’s the sliding cover for Dürer’s portrait, and has the coat of arms of both Holzschuher and Dorothea Müntzer, to whom he was married. It’s indeed as dark as in the photos below.
Then there was Die Madonna als Apokalyptische Frau, which I like just for the title (and sorted out a little more why she’s occasionally rolling in a slammed crescent moon). It’s next to Diptychon mit der Kreuzigung und dem Schmerzensmann, which is near the top of my, “Oh yes, I will steal you one day,” list, and just over from Maria am Spinnrocken, which I love because Maria’s there spinning (& yes, she does have a creepy old man perving on her through the window).
Die Kreuzigung Christi (Kaufmannsche Kreuzigung) I’ve photographed before, but in the two years since I’ve been heavily photographing art, I’ve got a lot better (or I convince myself I have) and a lot of the earlier stuff is frankly shitful. As well, I love this one for the arrangement of people on both sides of the crucifixion. I’ve noticed recently that these group portraits can be seen at the subject of the work, rather than the obvious dude bleeding everywhere who is needed so they have an excuse to be all present. It’s striking to hold my hand up blotting him out, and see just how prominent and crucial these clusters of the public are.
As usual, there’s a few Die Anbetung der Könige. The one after Jacques Daret wasn’t in my St. Mauritius & Companions post, which shows you how much I miss even after half a dozen visits. What’s interesting here – besides being a truly beautiful work – is how representation of blackness in mediæval art isn’t explicitly tied to skin tone. Or that’s what I’m thinking lately. These three Magi look not so different from Mary or the old geezer slobbering on baby Jesus’ hand, but knowing how they are frequently—predominately represented in mediæval art, it’s enough to interpret signifiers like the slightly different skin tone of each of the three, their headdresses, the colour of their hair and say who Balthazar here is (and Caspar and Melchior for that matter).
On to Maria Magdalene, im Hintergrund Christus bei Martha, which is a marvel, her dressed in furs with a lute (or an oud if you like), and the detail in her apartment: the pale azure cups and plate high on one wall, the backgammon board left mid-game, her with a sheet music book that’s entirely legible, much more going on here than simply Mary Magdalene.
Here I reversed out of the right wing of the Gamäldegalerie and crossed over into the left wing where the Italian collection lives. Giotto di Bondone’s Die Kreuzigung Christi is another one of those crucifixions with a lively public gathered below. I’ve seen this one before, and no, I did not notice the back of his head, in 3/4 reverse profile. Then there’s Giovanni di Paolo’s Zwei Tafeln einer Predella – Die Einkleidung der hl. Klara durch den hl. Franziskus, which is St. Klara of Assis joining the church after hearing St. Francis of Assisi preach. I’d not heard of her before, but she’s contemporaneous with Mechthild von Magdeburg and that mob and a bit of an Italian sister in similarity.
I was finding it strange to be looking at Italian mediæval art, being so involved in Northern European stuff. The differences are not so pronounced before the mid-1400s, in fact the east-west differences are the most obvious – that and the differences in pigments and colour choices. It’s only when Italy gets into using perspective that things change. And even then for much of the duration of the 15th century, it’s only the backgrounds that display this shift; the groupings and arrangements of people remain relatively flat within themselves. Along with this, there’s an obvious move to more naturalistic, softer styles. Look at Ferraresisch’s Die Muse Polyhymnia, it could be an early 20th century work if not for the obviously mediæval background.
Francisco Ubertini’s Die Taufe Christi, almost 100 years after perspective was first used in Florence still retains a kind of static, pseudo-perspective tableau approach, small clustered groups that decrease in size and move higher up the landscape the further they are from the viewer, more two-dimensional than actual perspective. Oh and a quite excellent work I spent my last minutes oogling. There’s so many different people and clothing here, plus it has White Angels Throwing Up Gang Signs.
Two hours and a bit. Then a sharp bike ride to Hasenheide for Sarah-Jane’s barfday on a warm Berlin Sunday.
Tuesday, I hauled self off to the Gemäldegalerie for The Botticelli Renaissance exhibition. I … eeeeh … let’s save that for another time. Once in though, obviously I couldn’t say no to a little perving at mediæval art. I have a major crush on Hans Baldung’s awesome Der Dreikönigsaltar but couldn’t devote my empty reel of (SD card) film to that alone, so I decided to look at all the glorious detail—which turned into some portraiture, and ended up getting well carried away in the Germanic, Flemish, and Netherlands sections (I made it to the Italian but for some reason my camera battery thinks around the 350th image is a good time to go flat.)
I appreciate this collection more and more each time I see it (fifth or sixth time in the last 18 months now). The older works by unnamed artists and workshops, the works by Hans Holbein the Elder, Hans Baldung, Hans Multscher, Der Meister des Aachener Altars, as well as better-known artist like Lucas Cranach and Peter Paul Rubens, so many I love and get stupidly happy every time I see them in their flesh and bones again. So, here’s not a complete dump (extenuating circumstances of flat battery, out of focus images, need to not edit and upload hundreds of images) of works I particularly like.
The first, on the right in the first room, is the Kölnisch Christus am Kreuz mit Heiligen from ~1430. The delicate, tiny angels in black robes collecting Jesus’ blood, levitating with filigree wings on gold, it’s a joyous start to the collection. The Türingisch Auferstehungsaltar aus Arnstadti, nearby and also from around the same time is a mass of detail across its three panels. From the diversity of the saints in the left panel, to the women in the right, the curling speech scrolls winding madly across and around everyone, the sleeping guards at the feet of Jesus arisen in the central panel, the stunning use of colour, blues and golds, reds, oranges, how it’s both artificial in its staging yet bursting with life and movement and individuality.
Another one I’ve photographed before—well, most of these I have—the Meister des Gereon-Altars Marienaltar aus St. Gereon, again from Köln around the same time. This one has a brilliant St. Mauritius in green and gold wearing a red cape, but it was the poor footless child on wooden clogs being clothed by a female saint in the right wing that I noticed this time, a motif once seen turning up frequently.
The workshop of Konrad Witz’ Der Ratschluß der Erlösung I just liked for the portrayal of a woman who is old and wrinkled, yet clearly highly regarded. This is something I notice in mediæval art which attracts me: the representation of difference and diversity; a representation that diminishes after the renaissance until by the 19th century, it’s wall-to-wall stuffy old white men.
Hans Multscher’s Die Flügel des Wurzacher Altars, an eight-panel work with an excellent Adoration of the Magi packed with people from everywhere, has beneath it the Death of Mary, and the faces, heads with hair and balding patés, beards and teeth and headdresses, actually I could almost call this collection of photos “Headdress of the Mediæval.” I’ve been reading Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, and one thing he says about Northern European mediæval art is that the representation of the world is not one attempting perfection, trying to outdo nature, rather it is one of imperfection in its fullness and completeness. I’d look at this stuff any day over the mediocre ‘perfection’ of Botticelli.
The robes in Thronende Maria mit dem Kind (Glatzer Madonna) are worth commenting on. First, the strong blankets of cobalt blue, crimson, and vermillion for the robes of Mary block out the lower central part of the panel. While the blue, visible on Mary’s chest and around her feet denotes royalty, it’s the vermillion spilling from under the green and gold clad baby Jesus’ and from the lining of Mary’s robes which denotes blood and sacrifice.
The Altarretabel mit der Kreuzigung Christi, (Westfälisch, from the Kirche St. Maria zur Weise in Soest, ~1230/40) is one of the first altarpieces north of the alps. Sometimes I wonder if the Gemäldegalerie slip in new works every so often. I love the linework and detailed colour in this, it seems almost crude on first glance, but it’s an incredibly articulate work. In the centre is Jesus crucified, but what’s going on on either side is the true story here: On the left, from his spear wound (always a black, negative space rimmed with red, a portal out of the world) a stream flows and leaps horizontally into a chalice; behind the bearer the word, “ecclesia”. On the right, an angel with a spear pushes a blindfolded figure away, crown flying off their head. Behind this figure, the word “synagoga.”
Next to this is the similarly aged Altarretabel in drei Abteilung mit dem Gnadenstuhl (Westfälisch, from the Kirche St. Maria zur Weise in Soest, after 1250), which has a similar but much stronger style and angularity, more like a mosaic than painting. I feel such stark design didn’t return in art until the 20th century, and that comic book and graphic novel art are probably the greatest inheritors of this.
Back in the 1400s, Meister LCz (Meister des Strache-Altars) Christus vor Pilatus is all about faces and headwear again, then about hands; Meister der Darmstädter Passion’s altar wing is definitely about the head gear, it’s a furry hat party.
The Meister des Aachener Altars is one of my favourite artists, and Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige one of my favourite works in the gallery. I’ve photographed the crap out of it, but this is a figure I’d overlooked, up in the background, carrying a spear, pierced ears with heavy rings, a pearl headdress with a fine, white feather. I like also how so many people look beatific in mediæval art, it reminds me of buddhist art—when it’s not all demons and torture.
Some more portraits, Hans Holbein the Elder’s Maria mit dem schlafenden Christuskind with the cherub and its magnificent plumage (I could do a whole series on angel wings and not repeat myself). Also the baby Jesus fully sated and passed out on Mary’s breast. Then there’s Die Kreuzigung Christi (Kaufmannsche Kreuzigung), fairly standard in its interpretation of the Crucifixion, all the players are accounted for, blood is spritzing, but the contorted bodies, faces, hands, the mass of bodies shoved together, how the work is split into upper (the crucified against a plain gold background) and lower (the crowd of bodies and robes) elevates it to something other.
A new favourite! A Mitteldeutscher Meister, Diptychon mit der Kreuzigung und dem Schmerzensmann, from around 1400. It’s two not-large panels, a trio in each. The Crucifixion with Mary and Magdalena on the left, and Jesus risen (in the Holy Vagina) with an apostle and Mary on the right. The spare use of colour and form is remarkable, and I feel sure there is an Islamic influence here, with the geometric background and the solid blue shapes of the robes. The second panel is stranger still, with Jesus in the Iris-shaped aperture, it and him radiating golden shards, and above, part of a huge blue orb which only when looking closely is full with lighter blue angels. It’s a really unusual piece, more like abstract Persian art than mediæval European.
Soon after is a follower of Jan van Eyck, Christus am Kreuz, one of the first naturalistic works, and only 40 years later. Again, an older Mary, eyes red-rimmed (like she had chilli rubbed in), face contorted with tears and anguish, and with the distinct interlaced fingers with palms downturned, a gesture that starts recurring.
More works, then Hans Baldung (Grien or Grün, so-named because of his green clothes and his strong use of the colour green): Der Dreikönigsaltar. Really one of my all-time favourites, and one of the most spectacular representations of St. Mauritius, fully clad in armour, jaunty as all fuck. I’ve photographed this piece to its knees, so was hugely surprised to see in the background of the central panel a group of knights on horses, one with a white banner on which is a silhouette of St. Mauritius in the exact same pose. I should have said that some of these photos are parts of paintings covering only a few centimetres, like this one; it’s difficult to convey size in photos, but the smallest of these works are around 40cm on the longest side, while the largest run for 3 or more metres.
Rogier van der Weyden starts turning up now as the action drifts out of the Germanic area and into the Low Countries—though still often with artists coming from Germanic areas. Der Johannesaltar, for the peculiar and highly symbolic pastel-red God appearing out of the blue sky with a thread of speech woven around a white dove. Next, not van der Weyden, but excellent headgear: Die Anbetung der Könige, after Jacques Daret (perhaps), though excellent headwear also from van der Weyden in Die Kreuzigung Christi and Bildnis einer Jungen Frau—we’re still in the mid-1400s, but portraits and non-religious art is starting to appear (though I could argue that the religious art is all about the secular mob gathered in frame).
More strange red deities in Johan Maelwael’s (attributed) Madonna mit Kind, Engeln und Schmetterling. The butterflies didn’t make the cut, all the glaze on darkness is not photographically possible for me with my camera. But the vermillion angels with golden hair? Awesome! And sometimes, like in the Thronende Maria mit dem Kind from Hans Memling, I just like the tiled floor and carpets.
Hugo van der Goes’ Die Anbetung der Hirten, I just love these two, they’re so happy and bounding in, all a bit wonky and clumsy but “We’re here!” Yup, this is a great one.
Solidly into the 1500s, Goswijn van der Weyden’s (grandson of Rogier!) Maria mit dem Kind und Stiftern just for the heraldry and for She with the Tree. Look, this whole piece is sensational, so much detail in tapestries and clothing, Maria alone for her almost black silk robes, I have no idea who the benefactors are but clearly they’re wealthy and of significant standing. And I just like the tree she holds, like it’s been plucked from a miniature forest.
Getting near the end and to some oddities, bits and pieces. Meister der Mansi-Magdalena’s Die hl. Maria Magdalena (Mansi-Magdalena) from after 1525, I keep seeing her as an echo of the Mongol Empire, the brown of her voluminous clothes, the sparse landscape, the high symmetry of her face and the background, as well as her hat, more horsewoman than follower of Jesus.
A few from Peter Paul Rubens who for these works becomes another favourite. It’s like looking at Turner but 300 year previous, or the better chaos of impressionism, especially in the unfinished Die Eroberung von Tunis durch Karl V. And his Bildnis einer Frau looks like Tilda Swinton. His Maria mit dem Kind (1625/28) I think exemplifies what I adore in mediæval art, even though this is pushing 200 years after the fact. The centre of the work is a standing Mary with an infant Jesus also standing, head at breast-height thanks to a judiciously placed table. But all the attention is in the bottom right corner, the viewer’s eyes driven there by both Mary’s gaze and Jesus’ trailing interest. In an area not more than an eighth of the whole work, an intricate illuminated book, yellow floral borders, green and gold capitals, a basket of grapes, plums, peaches—it anticipates Dutch and Flemish still lifes as if he wanted to paint just that but wasn’t quite able to relinquish rest of the piece. It’s this detail I find throughout mediæval art, layers of unfolding meaning and story, or just a dog chasing its tail in the corner because something needed to go there.
Many more not even mentioned. I think I let myself get out of control here. Art! Mediæval art! Pictures of!
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.
Having only got through a third of the Gamäldegalerie two Sundays ago, and having completely fallen in love with the Renaissance religious art, I couldn’t imagine going to any other museum or gallery this weekend. I also knew I wasn’t going to try and see all the remaining two-thirds, and that I was going to plonk down €100 and get a Jahreskarte. There’s three different Jahreskarten, from €25 for the Basic to the Classic Plus, which is what I got, which gives me access to all the permanent and temporary exhibitions with bonus “jump to the head of the queue” special powers (if you saw the photo of me on the card, you’d want to get me away quick as possible also) — very necessary for Museuminsel on the weekend.
I decided to walk through the first third again, to remind myself what I’d seen and where I was up to, and yes, my heart did indeed leap with joy on entering the first room. It’s fucking phenomenal; there’s no superlatives that can convey the quality and breadth of the works on display, nor the endlessness of it, more rooms, bigger and smaller, yet more again, and more further still. So, starting where I got up to last time, with Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Das Martyrium der hl. Agathe from 1755.
If the first third was transcendent, the second was … well, even better. I was over half-way through before I realised I was going back in time, from the late-18th century, working my way room by room back to the 13th, each side of the double horseshoe mirroring the other, rather than a linear progression, which pleased me no end, to finish with a sublime number of rooms of heavily gilded altarpieces. The coda to all that was a room of Botticelli. There’s no point wasting insufficient words on it.
Unlike last time, I remembered to turn off the filter on my camera, so it actually worked, though the glare from the atrium ceiling in the larger rooms smeared everything. Most of the paintings have a highly glossy finish, or are protected with glass, and many of them suffer from glare, particularly the darker ones, where any detail is lost from the unsympathetic light gushing down. What sucks for camera is just sad and disappointing for viewing. As for the glass, a couple looked like visitors had been rubbing their greasy heads against it. Some of the works are so massive, 4 or 5 metres high, you really need a ladder to appreciate them, or just grasp their vastness.
So, whereas the first third (which I previously saw) was German, Netherlands, and Flemish art from 13th to 17th centuries, followed by the several rooms of 17th century Netherlands art, the entire left side (ok, it’s not really a horseshoe, more of a ‘Q’ with a hole where the tail should be) is Italian art from 13th to 18th centuries across 23 exhibition spaces. There were many, many Mary with Childs, Hieronymouses, various martyrdoms, Jesuses (alive, dead, reborn), important and not so important apostles and holy people, so many more Marys it’s like that’s the only chance they got to see and be near a woman. Yes, they are beautiful, and seeing them all together helps me understand the monumental shift in art and culture over a few hundred years, but I was often far more attracted to the unknown portraits of men and women, real people with distinct faces, bodies, postures, the gazes of some of them, like Diego Veláquez’ Bildnis einer Dame, Charles Mellin’ Bildnis eines Mannes, Giovanni Battista Moroni’s Don Gabriel de la Cueva, Herzog von Alburquerque spanischer Gouverneur von Mailand, or Georges de la Tour’s Erbsen essendes Bauernpaar which is so magnificent I would steal it in an instant — actually I’d steal pretty much all of the ones I photographed if I had somewhere big enough to put them — the beauty and profundity of them makes me ache; let there never be an end to such art.
I am now two-thirds of the way through, more really, four-fifths, with ‘only’ the temporary exhibitions to go. I got a bit carried away with photos; I couldn’t decide which to show, so I end up with about half of them here. They do the paintings no justice. The depth of the light, the pigments, the brushwork, the frames also, the shift and change when moving closer or further away, the actual colours, hues, tones, shadows, the direction of the light especially, all this is only partially and incompletely, inadequately captured and seen in a photograph. The Gemäldegalerie, yes, worth going three times in a month. It’s going to be very difficult to see a museum better than this (yes, I have no critical perspective when it comes to museums, I love them all, but still …)
Oh yes, the audio guide! Brilliant! It’s why it takes so long to get through all the rooms. I only wish there was more. And the shop is rather good also, though it didn’t have many posters and I was hoping for at least a half dozen of various works to take home.
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 …
Along the Landwehrkanal on my bicycle going west, some blue sky and sun today, though cold. I kept riding till I found myself past the traffic of Potsdamer Platz and cradled in the stillness of the Tiergarten. West along the north side of the canal, I crossed near Straße des 17 Juni, where the canal is lined with house boats and barges, begining the return along the south side. Less sun perhaps, but already milky and opalescent from the passing deck of clouds.
I stopped before passing beneath a gentle arch of steel span, captured by a cluster of Antelope or… long, thin and slightly curved antlers, and huge dark wet eyes, one startled by my sudden presence, but also the one who kept coming closer looking at me…
I rode under the bridge and home, wondering in this about Rosa Luxemburg, and having been warned not to ride too far west in case I met the same fate. And so to discover it was this bridge where she was murdered and her body dumped in the Kanal, and my photo of the Neue See, somewhere near is the memorial to her husband Karl Liebknecht, also murdered that night. And thinking in all of this I remembered too this was the bridge Walter Benjamin would pass on his way into the Zoologischer Garten in Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert the quiet entrance by Lichtensteinbrücke.