No Room for Old Masters in Berlin

Rafael, "The Virgin and Child, John the Baptist and saint boys (Madonna Terra Nuova)"
Rafael, “The Virgin and Child, John the Baptist and saint boys (Madonna Terra Nuova)” (1505), paintings/oil on poplar wood (© National Museums in Berlin, the Art Gallery, photo by Jörg P. Anders, image via

Around Christmas in 2010, the city of Berlin received an incredibly generous gift from collectors Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch: a collection of surrealist art valued at €120 million. There was only one condition — that the collection be displayed permanently in a museum in the German capital. Der Spiegel summed it up nicely at the time:

Berlin is to receive a valuable trove of surrealist art. Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch have announced they are donating their 120 million euro collection to the German capital. All Berlin has to do is build a museum.

In the year and a half since then, the government formulated a plan: it would place the Pietzsch collection in the Gemäldegalerie, which currently houses Berlin’s famed Old Masters collection. Roughly a quarter of the Old Masters would be moved temporarily to the Bode Museum, and the rest of the collection placed in storage until the city builds a new home for it near the other museums on Berlin’s famous Museumsinsel (Museum Island). Of course the Bode Museum also houses an impressive collection of sculpture, so some of that would also have to go into storage in order to accomodate the Old Masters.

If this sounds vaguely mad and maddening, that’s because it is — at least to Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor of German art and culture at Harvard, who’s started a petition protesting the move. Hamburger takes issue with the dislocation and relinquishment to storage of some (undetermined) portion of the Old Masters collection, which Bloomberg describes as “one of the world’s greatest.” The trove includes more than 3,000 artworks by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Botticelli and Titian.

As Hamburger explained to Hyperallergic, the issue isn’t so much the move itself as the lack of preparation and foresight:

In theory, the proposed plan [to move the Old Masters to Museum Island] makes a certain amount of sense: as argued by its proponents, it would, once all the necessary parts are in place, allow for a complete, uninterrupted survey of world art within one interconnected complex of buildings.

But there’s the rub: to put all the parts in place will in practice require enormous sums that are not at present available … To build a new picture gallery will also almost certainly require far, far longer than the six years or so currently estimated as the amount of time that more than half of the collection would languish in storage. … Planning itself could well take a decade, after which funding and construction could well take at least another. At a time when many other projects in Berlin have been delayed or canceled due to lack of funding, and when Europe finds itself in the midst of an intractable financial crisis, what has been touted as a temporary solution … could likely become permanent for at least a generation. Given the importance of the collection, this is simply unacceptable.

Hamburger pointed out that he and many other critics of the plan — including, presumably, the 8,401 signers of the petition to date — appreciate the Pietzsch collection and its value, as well as modern art in general. Rather, they take issue with a plan that places a world-renowned group of of Old Masters paintings in what is essentially an state of extended limbo. What they oppose, Hamburger wrote, “is the proposed timing and sequence of what, in an imperial flourish, the proponents have called a ‘castling,’ as in chess, in which king and rook change places. In chess, however, both pieces move simultaneously. In contrast, in Berlin, the moderns will move in first. The Old Masters will have to wait … and wait … and wait.”

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