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The Realized Fantasy of Visiting an Empty Museum

I had previously wished to have the tourists and school groups disappear, but as Berlin museums reopen, it feels reassuring to see famous artworks still up, but also eerie to see them without a large audience.

Claude Monet, “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” (1903) oil on canvas, 25 x 38.7 inches (courtesy and © Denver Art Museum)

BERLIN — Being alone in a museum is a fantasy I’ve had since, at age 10, obsessively reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsberg. In this children’s book, the precocious heroine runs away from home to hide at the Met, sleeping in a musty princess bed and exploring the museum’s treasures by night. Since then, I’ve recognized the fantasy of being alone and up close to the art in rituals such as private gallery previews or after-hours walk throughs with cocktails. Surreally, it’s a global pandemic that has brought me closest to this childhood dream. Museums and galleries in Germany have been allowed to reopen with strict new hygiene rules since May, but as people struggle with the basics of personal health and employment, they are mostly staying away. These days, collections which would have normally been teeming host only a handful of local visitors, their footsteps echoing faintly through the halls. Until this moment it had been only my conceited wish to have the tourists and school classes magically disappear. Now, with the heightened awareness of human density and proximity, it was reassuring to be there mostly alone, but also eerie and alienating to see famous artworks without an audience.

Monet: Places exhibition views at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam (© Museum Barberini, photo: David von Becker)

At Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, a special exhibition marks 500 years since Raphael’s death and collects five of his Madonnas from the Berlin State Museum’s collection (usually scattered throughout the larger museum’s galleries) alongside one Madonna on loan from London. A sign says three visitors are allowed in the exhibition at once, but I was there all alone, my masked nose practically touching the canvases. The six serene Madonnas and their squirming holy babies have been fixed in paint for half a millennium. The notion is somehow comforting: This art is so old that the artist’s name signifies a style and historical moment rather than a person, its importance so institutionally entrenched that presuming they would lose visibility or significance because of the Coronavirus pandemic is ridiculous. I imagine that if the room would have been packed, these paintings would have become performative: displaying their beauty, the genius of their creator, the splendor of Raphael’s period. Seen alone, they are somewhat muted, timeless in the mundane sense of the word: a reminder that such images have been enshrined long ago and will remain untouched by our volatile times.

Raffael, “Madonna Colonna” (ca. 1508) oil on wood panel, 31.1 x 22.9 inches (© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, photo by Jörg P. Anders)

The stately rooms of the Hamburg Kunsthalle are likewise mostly deserted. The institution’s outstanding 19th– and early-20th-century collection includes many iconic images: Munch’s “Madonna” (1893–95); Kirchner’s “Painter and Model” (1910) and perhaps most famously, Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1817). The last, an image of an aristocratic man looking over a turbulent precipice of fog and stone, is an image that perfectly portrays the state of internal turmoil that German Romanticism looked to nature to capture. I am alone again in a room full of Friedrich’s moody landscapes. The “Wanderer” is the only one that depicts a human figure, so when I stand in front of any other painting, I also become a solitary figure in front of a landscape, with no one behind me to appreciate the doubled image. These paintings need an audience, because their landscapes aren’t a documentation of nature but rather a reflection of it in human terms, an idealization of nature through a human lens of beauty and significance. Thinking of this room in March and April, totally deserted of human attention while the museum was closed, I imagined the pictures lying in waiting. Seeing them on my own, it is apparent just how much they require constant confirmation through live attention to maintain their significance.

Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1817) oil on canvas, 37.2 x 29.4 inches (image courtesy and © the Hamburg Kunsthalle, photo by Cybershot800i via Wikimedia)

The institutions that house these artworks are even more dependent on an audience, both symbolically and financially, leading museums to use multiple display conventions to assert their authority. One of the most commonly used museum conventions is displaying their collection in chronological order, allowing tangents for regional developments but maintaining an overall Hegelian structure, in which each artistic phase is a negation or expansion of the one before it, implying an overall development over time. This philosophically Eurocentric approach gives the visitor an artificial sense of progress, arranged as a forward-marching narrative. Walking through the elegant rooms of the Kunsthalle, it became clear to me that this narrative also needs a crowd of people to work. When you walk alone, not subconsciously following the route of other visitors and not blocked in any direction, you can make independent connections between the artworks, which seem to jump out of their prescribed historical context. Instead of following a curatorially imposed trajectory, I was drawn to one image at a time, and could imagine them existing independently in the artist’s studio or a dealer’s warehouse, receiving criticism in their own time, before they were assigned to this or that location in the collection’s overview. The didactic structure of a museum collection seems just a little less canonical when it is completely devoid of an audience to educate.

Raphael in Berlin exhibition view (© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, photo: David von Becker)

The Museum Barberini in Potsdam is located in the precisely reconstructed Barberini palace, originally built by Prussian king Friedrich in the 18th century. It houses a private collection focused on Impressionism and is currently showing an extraordinary Monet exhibition with over 100 of his paintings from the Barberini collection and borrowed from museums around the world. The exhibition is organized geographically rather than chronologically, with each room dedicated to a location Monet painted during a specific sojourn or repeatedly throughout his life, such as Normandy, London, and Venice. By displaying many pictures from the same location or even the same motif, the exhibition effectively distills the subject of Monet’s work into light, weather, and color. For instance, London’s Waterloo and Charing Cross bridges are depicted again and again, with different lighting and color effects, in a room that reflects the artist’s proclaimed interest in portraying not the objects themselves, but “the objects as seen through all these fogs,” as he told an interviewer in 1901.

Claude Monet, “Water-Lilies” (1903) oil on canvas, 31.9 x 39.3 inches, the Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio (photo by the author)

This beautiful, approachable exhibition was meant to be a huge blockbuster, but it opened at the end of February and closed again soon after. Tickets are now available with an online time-slot booking, and only a third of the visitors are allowed in as would have normally been. In the exhibition itself, a parcourse with arrows and black circles guides the viewers through, suggesting viewing positions that are safely spaced. Although the museum was quite full, compared to the others I visited, people were keeping their distance from each other. While standing on the designated black circle I could stare at the layers of paint undisturbed. And in contrast to the deserted rooms of the collections, the room was full of shared excitement at seeing famous images such as the water lilies or haystacks, probably for the first time in Potsdam. This was as much of a blockbuster as the times will allow, and a modest reminder that although I may wish to see them all alone, such important artworks are in public collections for the sake of a public audience. Although it was a luxury to see other artworks up close and alone, an important piece was missing from the museum experience, which I found again at the Monet show: the common admiration that repeatedly affirms an artwork’s significance through the attention we give it as a community.

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