The Gemäldegalerie: Out with the Old and in with the Modern?

By on 19 Jan 2018

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation has ignited an uproar in Berlin over its proposed relocation of famed Old Master works currently at the Gemäldegalerie.  The Gemäldegalerie houses one of the world’s most prized collections of European art from the 13th – 18th century, including works by famed masters such as Rembrandt, Dürer, Van Eyck, Raphael, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rubens, and Cranach. Art historians, conservators, and museum-goers alike are fighting to keep the works in the Gemäldegalerie, but a large donation of Modern art from Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch threatens to push out the Old Masters to make room for the Modern ones.

This past June, the German federal government allotted €10 million to jumpstart plans for a 20th century gallery in the Gemäldegalerie and in the nearby Neue Nationalgalerie.  This decision was prompted by the Pietzschs’ donation, a donation with conditional terms:  the donated collection must be on display in the National Galeries.  This donation includes works by modern masters such as Dalí, Miró, Magritte, and Rothko and is valued at over €150 million. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation proposes displaying the Pietzsch collection at the Gemäldegalerie and moving the Old Master works to the Bode Museum on the Museum Island.  The Old Master works that are not moved for display will be stored until space can be made available.

The Gemaldegalerie

Opponents to this proposal are mostly concerned for the safety and prestige of the Old Master works.  They do not want them sitting in storage, unappreciated for years to come.  Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor of German Art History at Harvard, is one critic.  He drafted the petition against this proposal and went on to gather nearly 13,000 signatures.  He states, “I am not opposed to moving the Old Master collection back to the Museum Island.  I am much more concerned about the ‘how’ and the ‘when’ than the ‘if’” (Michalska, “Row over Berlin’s Old Master plan,” 2). Germany’s associations of art historians and conservators along with former museum directors Dube and Günter Schade share similar concerns, as they want the Old Masters to have a definite space set aside in the Bode prior to moving the works.

Lucas Cranach, The Fountain of Youth, 1546, currently in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin
Lucas Cranach, The Fountain of Youth, 1546, currently in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin

Proponents of this proposal include former director of the Staaliche Museen in Berlin (1999-2008) Peter-Klaus Schuster and current director of the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Thomas Campbell.  Schuster refers to the German public’s backlash as hypocritical, stating that public opinion at the time of German unification pushed for the Old Master collection to be displayed in its historical home at the Bode Museum on Museum Island.  However, at the time, Museum Island was not a fit place to house these works, which led to their display at the new Gemäldegalerie.  Now, when the works are to be returned to their historical home at the Bode Museum, the public is suddenly disapproving Campbell further supports this plan, stating that it is “courageous, logical, and absolutely right” (Michalska, “Row over Berlin’s Old Master plan,” 1). While the proposal has not yet been set in motion, Julien Chapius, deputy director of the sculpture collection at the Bode Museum, assures the public that the Old Master treasures will not be moved “until there is a reliable feasibility and financing plan for the Bode Museum Expansion in place” (Michalska, “Row over Berlin’s Old Master plan,” 2).

Information derived from: Michalska, Julia. “Row over Berlin’s Old Master plan.” The Art Newspaper. September 2012.

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