Berlin Does It Again

     |    Wednesday July 18th, 2012

First, I’d like to beg the pardon of the few of you who, in the years 2004-2008, followed my late Berlin-based blog, since I’m about to repeat myself, and you’ve heard some of this before. In fact, I wouldn’t bother with it, but at this time of year, you get your news where you find it, and this is all I found this week.


Many years ago, I was a cultural correspondent, based in Berlin, for the Wall Street Journal, which meant covering art and culture all over a hunk of Europe that was my turf, but obviously also what happened in Berlin. On June 14, 1998, according to my notes, I showed up at an extremely boring press conference at 11am, to mark the opening of Berlin’s newest museum, the Gemäldegalerie, which was far more than a new museum. It was a symbol of the final unification of the city, which wasn’t exactly a single event, but an ongoing process. But if the process could be seen as a jigsaw puzzle, this was a big, honking piece of it.


The Kaisers of Prussia were big art collectors, and Friedrich Wilhelm kicked off the collecting with a bunch of German artists, and his nephew, Frederick the Great, added significantly to the collection, turning its focus to his beloved France. Finally, in the 1830s, a museum, the Altes Museum, was built to hold the collection. The building itself is a masterpiece by Karl-Friedrich Schinkel.



Located directly across the street from the Kaisers’ residence, it was one of the greatest art collections in Europe, and a destination for anyone who fancied themselves cultured, which meanta that the Kaisers kept adding on to it. Then, of course, came the 20th century, the Nazis, and the emptying of the museum to keep its treasures safe from bombing. Some of the art went here, some went there, and at the end of the war, some of it was on the Allied side and some on the Communist side. There was no rhyme nor reason to which side had what, and you know how Germans love rhyme and reason. Thus, when the city was going to knit together its two halves in the aftermath of the events of November, 1989 (which Germans call die Wende, or the turning), one of the first orders of business for some was the organization of the city’s gigantic royal art collection and its apportionment and assignment into the various and several museums on Museum Island. Well, except there was too much by now for even that complex, but fortunately, a new complex called the Kulturforum was a-building over by Potsdamer Platz, and one particularly lovely building (inside, anyway) was where the paintings up to the 18th century — or the best of that cohort — would hang. Thus, the Gemäldegalerie, the paintings gallery.


The place is a wonder: it’s got a translucent ceiling so that when there’s decent outdoor light you can see the paintings in natural light, and a complex lighting system to make up for what nature’s not providing, a not uncommon occurance in grey, rainy Berlin. The collection is astonishing, too: 18 Rembrandts, masterworks by Botticelli, Holbein, Hals, Cranach, Canaletto… And, of course, Hans Baldung-Grien’s picture of the Three Kings presenting their gifts to the baby Jesus, in which Balthazar, the black king, looks a lot like Samuel Jackson. (The only closeup I could find had all rights reserved, which I respect, but you can see it here). 3000 paintings in all, including “study galleries” in the basement and “virtual galleries” on the computers down there.


So now, after providing these masterpieces with a home after all these years, putting them together in a nice, logical form after war and politics divided them, what does the city of Berlin propose? To put them all in boxes and take them away. And why? Because an art collector stamped his little foot and whined.


The stupidity on view here is amazing. Heiner Pietzsch,  a billionaire who made his bucks in synthetic fabrics, and whose art collection, from the sound of it, is a fine assembly of 20th century masters (although of what quality, exactly, I can’t say), is leaving the whole thing to the City of Berlin. And where he wants it to go is in the Gemäldegalerie. Where they stash what’s already in there isn’t his problem: it’s either there or his heirs put the art on the market. He thinks (and he has a bit of a point) that with the Neue Nationalgalerie pretty much next door, and with the city’s collection of 20th century art housed there, that the Pietzsch collection should be next to it.


There have been a couple of stories about this in the press, with the one the Guardian printed last week being the most comprehensive I’ve seen. And two sentences there set off some bells. Hermann Parzinger, the head of the PK, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, told the reporter “The wonderful Pietzsch collection … will help reinstate Berlin as a superior art capital as it was before 1933 and the rise of the Nazis – who labelled much of its art degenerate – when it was itself a role model for museums like Moma. In short, we’re rectifying the wrongs of history and re-establishing our cultural landscape, which is our calling card to the world.” Oh, dear.


Now, the overall plan — that the Old Masters should be on Museum Island — is logical and fits in with the German passion for order, which trumps reasonable thought often enough to be a national idiosyncracy. Thing is — and I haven’t been there for a while — I’m not at all sure that there’s a place ready to stick them over there yet. The jigsaw puzzle, in other words, wasn’t as finished as it looked 14 years ago when the Gemäldegalerie opened.


Outrageous demands on the part of art collectors are nothing new: Philadelphia has been going through hell with the Barnes Collection, formerly housed in the collector’s own house and willed by him to a historically-black college on the proviso that it never be moved and everything stay exactly where it is: no moving the pictures. The college, what with the end of segregation and decline in enrolment in historically-black colleges, didn’t have the resources to maintain a collection whose value was increasing in value daily, but finally, after a bunch of delicate negotiations, the city of Philadelphia built a new home for the collection and transferred it in its hodge-podge glory to a new space downtown where more people than ever can see it (Barnes also restricted admission) and apparently everyone’s happy now.


And as far as I remember, Berlin doesn’t lack for large, empty buildings. I don’t know how big Herr Pietzsch’s collection is — big enough to empty out the Gemäldegalerie for? Seriously? — but my guess is that it could easily find a temporary home somewhere else in town. Why, in my old neighborhood there was a nice, grandiose, marble-clad post office that wasn’t too far from the Hamburger Bahnhof collection of contemporary art, if we’re worried about who’d be neighbors.


But the idea that the PK is being bullied, not by Pietzsch, but by the Burden of History, the idea that Herr Parzinger wants to do this to show that Berliners aren’t Nazis any more, the idea that displacing one of the world’s great Old Masters collections because of the Burden of History, that skulking monster that makes Berlin atone in public again and again and again, well, that is just plain stupid.


Seriously, Herr Parzinger: how about not thinking in unsound binaries just for a moment. And Herr Pietzch? I know you’re 82, but hang on for a moment. Jeez.