Alte Nationalgalerie: Up on a Pedestal

The alte Nationalgalerie (that’s German for National Gallery; you wouldn’t believe how many tourists were asking each other what the name meant) is an art museum on the Museuminsel, an island in the middle of Berlin on the Spree which, as you guessed, holds a bunch of museums.

This particular museum attracted me as it holds art from the eras when art was at its peak: everything from classicist 18th century to the 20th century. This means there is none of that god-awful mediaeval painting you see all over Italy until you get absolutely sick of it, and none of the baseless and inane art which so pervades current culture. La grande bellezza did a good job making fun of such art.

The alte Nationalgalerie was commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm I in the 1850s in order to hold current and contemporary art at the time. There is a very interesting hall in the very centre of the building with signs and explanations only in German, showing the original plans for the building itself and the history. If you are architecturally inclined, I highly suggest peeking your head in. The building was built on a raised platform in order to evoke a Greek classical temple, and the pavilions surrounding it further enhance this image. The grounds are really quite enchanting, even in the dead of winter when everything is rather dour.

I began on the ground floor with classicist sculpture. There is something about marble which always shocks me, for the reason that someone can carve and chip and polish a piece of white rock for months and suddenly it can seem as delicate as fabric or as rough as the stone it is all at once. The sofas and divans sculpted in this medium often seem softer and more comfortable than those made of cloth and stuffing. It astounds me no matter how often I see marble statuary.

This floor contains a number of wonderful pieces by artists you should look up if you are not familiar with them. Let’s begin with Adolph Menzel. Menzel was a realist painter from Breslau, now in Poland. A highly skilled painter of odd physical proportions, he mostly kept to himself and found himself to be detached from most society. For the last few years of his life, he carried multiple sketchbooks and pencils in his large coat, and only drew in pencil even though his paintings were of the highest master quality. I am always impressed by how much more skilful a painting is when it is seen in person, since the brushstrokes actually protrude out towards the viewer and it is so much more tangible. And being in front of the actual painting gives one the instant gut reaction of whether something is or is not a masterpiece. Menzel’s pieces are just that: absolute masterpieces. The “Frederick the Great Meeting Joseph II in Nieße” affected me the most in this gallery. The absolutely tangible respect and warmth between the two nearly invites you into the painting itself and makes you wish you were in the same room with their less impressed advisors. The fineness of the brushwork itself lends it a near photographic air, yet Menzel made no attempt to make it seem like anything other than a painting. Just a wonderful piece.

A funny note about Menzel: when he saw someone in a pose he wanted to draw, he would jump up, stop them from doing whatever they were doing, and insist they remained still until he had scribbled down their likeness. He seems like he would have been a funny, or at least eccentric, guy to be around.

Vilhelm Hammershøi also made an appearance. I was overly delighted to see him represented in the gallery, as I find his glum paintings incredibly arresting. There’s another Danish painter named the “Master of Light”, but I find it hard to believe anything compares to Hammershøi. The one I remember seeing, as in most of his other paintings, featured a window and the light coming through it onto a grey wall. It makes you feel so alone and abandoned, as if you’re in the middle of a dense and unpopulated forest even though the interior obviously alludes to the fact you’re in the middle of a city. It makes you feel poor even though the interior is well-arranged and neat. And even more shocking was his ability to portray light, which is much much more difficult than it would seem to anyone who has never attempted painting in earnest.

Arnold Böcklin, a painter you’ve surely seen but whose name you may not know, covered a wall on the first floor. I had no idea his paintings were located in this museum and I gasped out loud at seeing “The Island of the Dead”, a painting which was highly popular in the nineteenth century and was often reproduced in prints at the time. The painting was also mentioned a few times in August Strindberg’s “Ghost Sonata”, a play about people living in Stockholm but who all seem to be half dead or in limbo. Next to it was “Self-Portrait With Death as the Fiddler”, a painting on the cover of my copy of Goethe’s “Faust”, with parallel German and English. Again, very gloomy, dark paintings, something I appreciate quite a bit. As a Russian professor at my University said, “It’s only when you’re depressed that you begin to think”.

A lesser known painter outside his own country is Johan Christian Dahl from Norway. Some of his landscapes, from the romantic era, can be found on the third floor all the way in the back. Norway is a rugged country, in great contrast to the relatively flat Prussian plains, which is perhaps why the Germans seem to appreciate him to some degree. The strangest thing about his paintings is that these landscapes actually exist somewhere, that he exaggerated some things here and there but they still have to be based on a view of some actual place. Make sure you view his, unfortunately, very few paintings hidden in a corner.

There are many other artists more than worthy of mention on my lowly blog, but I simply don’t have time to write about them all. You simply have to go and see these things in person on your own.

This was by far one of the best museums for art to which I have ever been. I am always shocked in Europe by the amount of art that is everywhere and the quality of it. For example, in Venice I had the chance to go to the Ca’ Rezzonico, a baroque mansion with the family’s private art gallery in their attic. This one family owned more paintings by people like Tiepolo and Titian than the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts had of pieces total. It’s downright astounding and reminds one all the time just what it is to be a centre of culture and how important European houses of culture really are. The entire continent is simply drowned in masterpieces and beauty to an extent North Americans can never understand and never hope to match.


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