Johann Gottfried Schadow, Doppelstandbild der Prinzessinnen Luise und Friederike von Preußen, 1795-1797 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Foto: Andres Kilger
Paul Klee: Nekropolis, 1929 (detail) © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Jens Ziehe
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Potsdamer Platz, 1914 (detail) © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Jörg P. Anders
Julio González: Masque Montserrat criant, ca 1938/1939 (detail) © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Roman März
Joseph Beuys: THE END OF THE 20th CENTURY, 1982/1983 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015 / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Sammlung Marx / Thomas Bruns
The Nationalgalerie presides over a unique collection of art that ranges in date from the 19th to the 21st century. Due to the circumstances surrounding its founding, the Nationalgalerie’s collection contains art dating from around 1800 onwards and leads on from that of the Gemäldegalerie, which contains the Staatliche Museen’s collection of old master paintings, dating from before 1800.
The collection initially concentrated exclusively on European art but has increasingly come to include art from all over the world. As a collection, the Nationalgalerie dates back to 1861, when the consul and banker Joachim Heinrich William Wagener bequeathed his collection of contemporary art to the Prussian state. Crucially therefore, the Nationalgalerie was always intended as a museum of contemporary art, one which, over the course of time, has grown to encompass historical collections. In 1876, the fledgling collection took up residency in the newly built 'National-Galerie', known today as the Alte Nationalgalerie, designed by Friedrich August Stüler and completed by Heinrich Strack.
Between the time of Wagener’s initial large-scale bequest and the gallery’s opening, momentous changes had occurred: Berlin was no longer merely the Prussian capital, but the capital of the new German nation, founded in 1871. At the point of its inception, therefore, the Nationalgalerie was also a decidedly German collection. Thanks to its first directors, Max Jordan and Hugo von Tschudi, the Nationalgalerie was able to rapidly expand its holdings through a series of acquisitions and donations that included works from abroad.
In 1909, Ludwig Justi was appointed director of the Nationalgalerie. Under his direction, new accessions included a swathe of Expressionist works. This distinctly modern contemporary art went on display in the Kronprinzen-Palais on Unter den Linden, as the 'New Department of the Nationalgalerie.' It was also during Justi’s tenure that the association of friends of the Nationalgalerie was founded, in 1929; it is once again active today, as the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie.
In 1937 the Nazis seized most of the modern art from the Kronprinzen-Palais, as part of their systematic campaign against so-called 'degenerate art'. Many of the works were subsequently shown and publicly derided at the 'Degenerate Art' exhibition in Munich of the same year before being sold. The modern art department in the Kronprinzen-Palais was shut down. With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Nationalgalerie’s main building on the Museumsinsel Berlin was among the many museums forced to close to the public. Starting from 1941, the remaining holdings were removed to external sites to protect them from air raids and bombing. The Nationalgalerie suffered severe damage in the aerial bombardment of Berlin in 1944.
Ludwig Justi, who the Nazis had dismissed from office in 1933 upon their coming to power, was reinstated as director of the Nationalgalerie on the Museumsinsel in 1946 and assigned the task of rebuilding the collection. For the next five decades, this collection of works that remained in the Eastern sector was largely expanded by art from the GDR (East Germany), predominantly but not exclusively by Socialist Realist art. In 1948, the Greater Berlin Authority set up the ‘Gallery of the 20th Century’ in memory of the lost collection held at the Kronprinzen-Palais more than a decade earlier. Its works were exhibited in the western part of the city, after Berlin was formally divided in 1949 with the founding of two German states. In 1957, the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage) was founded in West Berlin: the umbrella organization that oversees the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin today. Its role was to administer the art and cultural artefacts that had survived the war by being placed in storage in sites that subsequently fell under British, American, and French control.
Over the next decades, Prussian Cultural Heritage built up a new body of museums and galleries, to which the Nationalgalerie also belongs. Its truncated collection was initially housed at various temporary locations, before finally being able to go on permanent display in the newly built Neue Nationalgalerie, which opened at the Kulturforum in 1968 and which was the last major building designed by the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In the exhibition, the Nationalgalerie’s collection was joined by the works from the 'Gallery of the 20th Century.' Werner Haftmann, the first director of this West-Berlin Nationalgalerie, faced the task of establishing a collection that had validity and a sense of purpose in the modern, Western world. He strove to regain the organization’s international reputation through a series of new acquisitions and by holding exhibitions that would complement works in the permanent collection.
Dieter Honisch took over as director of the West-Berlin Nationalgalerie in 1975. He was to have a defining and lasting influence on the collection of 20th-century art. Honisch was responsible for a few reacquisitions of works that had previously formed part of the collection prior to Nazi rule and the subsequent events of the war. More importantly, however, he was instrumental in purposefully expanding the collection of contemporary art, revitalizing not merely the collection itself, but the institution’s original mission: to serve as a museum of contemporary art. Together with the Berlin lawyer Peter Raue, he refounded, in 1977, the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie; the patrons’ association has supported the Nationalgalerie ever since by making key acquisitions and organizing important exhibitions.
After German Reunification, the collections of the two Nationalgaleries (East and West) were merged in 1991. The Nationalgalerie’s combined holdings now comprised over 6000 works. There followed a massive overhaul of the Nationalgalerie in 1993. Too large for any one of its buildings, the Nationalgalerie now exhibits its collection at six separate sites, each dedicated to a specific facet of the collection and located in three separate boroughs of Berlin. The Alte Nationalgalerie and Friedrichswerdersche Kirche are situated in Mitte, the Neue Nationalgalerie and Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin are situated in Tiergarten, while the Museum Berggruen and Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg are located in Charlottenburg.
The historical Alte Nationalgalerie on the Museumsinsel Berlin underwent extensive renovation and restoration, and reopened in 2001. It is home to the Nationalgalerie’s collection of 19th-century art, ranging from the 'Age of Goethe' to the Realist movement. The Nationalgalerie also presides over Germany’s largest and most important collection of sculpture from the 19th century. A selection is exhibited in the Friedrichswerder Kirche, a converted church designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, not far from the Museumsinsel.
The collection of art predominantly from the first half of the 20th century, ranging from Edvard Munch to American colour field painting, was until 2014 on show at the Neue Nationalgalerie. During necessary renovations, the Neue Nationalgalerie is closed from January 2015 for several years. Continuous accessions to the holdings of 20th and 21st-century art and the desire to have the important collection of Erich Marx on permanent display in Berlin, led to the decision to convert the Hamburger Bahnhof, a former railway station that linked Berlin with the city of Hamburg, into a 'Museum für Gegenwart' (a 'museum of the present'), as a further exhibition venue for the Nationalgalerie. It opened in 1996. The Hamburger Bahnhof received a massive extension in 2004 in the form of the Rieckhallen, built to house the vast Friedrich Christian Flick Collection, selections from which are on display here in a series of constantly rotating exhibitions.
And in a parallel development in the west of city, the collection of Heinz Berggruen has been on show in the western Stülerbau opposite Schloss Charlottenburg since 1996, in a permanent exhibition entitled 'Picasso and his Time.' The Berlin-born gallerist of Jewish descent was forced to leave Germany in 1936 and spent most of his life in Paris. Over several decades he built up a unique collection of modern art, which now forms a perfect and enriching accompaniment to the works in the Neue Nationalgalerie. In the year 2000, Heinz Berggruen handed over most of his collection to the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz.
Opposite the Museum Berggruen is its architectural counterpart, the eastern Stülerbau. It was here that the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg was opened as a centre of Surrealist art in the summer of 2008. The exhibition largely presents exquisite works from the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.