The Old National Gallery on the Museum Island, designed by Schinkel’s pupil, Friedrich August Stüler, was officially opened in a ceremony held on Emperor Wilhelm I’s birthday in March 1876. Raised high on a plinth, the building was the perfect embodiment of the Neoclassical style of the late 19th century and the emulation of the architectural forms of ancient Rome. To this day, its gilded inscription on the gable end: ‘TO GERMAN ART MDCCCLXXI’ remains clearly visible from afar, thus availing itself of the political unification of the German state, brought about with the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, for the purpose of the National Gallery housed below.
From its inception, ambitions such as this gave rise to conflicts. Hugo von Tschudi, the National Gallery’s second director, interpreted its inscription to the effect of collecting anything deemed necessary for the advancement of German art. His gaze turned accordingly towards France, the arch enemy, and it was from the French that he purchased numerous works by the Impressionists. By doing so, he turned the German National Gallery into the leading international museum of modern art, something which did not go down at all well with the Emperor.
Photo: Maximilian Meisse
In 1909, annoyed at his constant contention with the Emperor, Tschudi decided to take up a post in Munich.
Now in 2010, a decidedly international twist is bestowed on the Old National Gallery once again, in the form of El Anatsui’s work. The artist’s installation evokes the building’s history and for the first time also allows African themes to be taken into the fold, against the backdrop of the globalised discussion on art in the 21st century.