Unlike many other national galleries around the world, the Nationalgalerie was founded as a museum of contemporary art. Its origins can be traced back to 1861, when the consul and banker Joachim Heinrich William Wagener bequeathed his collection of contemporary art to the Prussian state. It remains dedicated to contemporary art to this day, with the collection of the Nationalgalerie encompassing European and international art from the 19th to the 21st century.
In 1876, the fledgling collection took up residency in the newly built Nationalgalerie, known today as the Alte Nationalgalerie, designed by Friedrich August Stüler and completed by Heinrich Strack. 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 off. 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 named Director-General of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in 1946 and in 1950 was reinstated as the Director of the Nationalgalerie on the Museumsinsel and assigned the task of rebuilding the collection. In 1947, Justi and Adolf Jannasch were tasked by the Municipality of Greater Berlin with assembling a collection of modern art for the “Gallery of the 20th Century”, which was established a year later.
The administrative division of Berlin in 1948 prevented any further joint activities. Jannasch was entrusted with the new Nationalgalerie in West Berlin.
In 1951, the municipal authorities in East Berlin donated numerous works that had been acquired for the “Gallery of the 20th Century” to the Nationalgalerie on the Museumsinsel. Justi’s tenure was followed by a caretaker period under Vera-Maria Ruthenberg and then directors such as Willi Geismeier and Peter Betthausen, who took this initial collection of donated works together with the remaining collection on the Museumsinsel, expanding it to include more art from the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, along with works that had been produced in the GDR (East Germany).
In 1957, the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage, or SPK) was founded in West Berlin. The SPK administered the art and cultural artefacts that had survived the war in West Germany, and built up a new ensemble of museums over the ensuing years. The truncated collection of the Nationalgalerie in West Berlin was initially housed at various temporary locations. With the opening of the Neue Nationalgalerie in 1968, the last major building designed by the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the works were able to be presented in a permanent display together with the works acquired after 1949 for the “Gallery of the 20th Century” at the site of today’s Kulturforum. Werner Haftmann, the first director of this West Berlin Nationalgalerie, faced the task of bringing together these holdings to form a coherent collection, and to regain the organisation’s international reputation through a series of new acquisitions and by organising exhibitions that would complement works in the permanent collection.
Dieter Honisch took over as director of the West -Berlin Nationalgalerie in 1975. He continued to expand the collection, was able to buy back a number of works, and built up the collection of contemporary art. Together with the Berlin lawyer Peter Raue, in 1977 he refounded the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie, and this patrons’ association has supported the Nationalgalerie ever since by making key acquisitions and organising important exhibitions.
After German Reunification, the collections of the two Nationalgaleries (East and West) were merged in 1992. The Nationalgalerie’s combined holdings now comprised over 6,000 works, and in 1993, a massive overhaul of the Nationalgalerie was carried out. At the time, its holdings were on display at five of the six institutions that comprised it, which were scattered across 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 work, and reopened in 2001. It is home to the Nationalgalerie’s collection of 19th-century art, ranging from the “Age of Goethe” to the art of the Secession movement. At that time, the Nationalgalerie also presided over Germany’s largest and most important collection of sculpture from the 19th century, some of which was on display in the Friedrichswerder Kirche. After restoration and refurbishment work lasting from 2012 to 2020, as of this autumn, it is once again open to the public, displaying a selection of sculpture ranging from Schinkel’s era to that of the German Empire.
The collection of 20th-century art, ranging from Edvard Munch to American colour field painting, was until 2014 on show at the Neue Nationalgalerie. Due to necessary renovations, the Neue Nationalgalerie has been closed since January 2015. In 2021, the Neue Nationalgalerie will be open to the public once more.
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. Since 2004, the Hamburger Bahnhof has also presented the vast Friedrich Christian Flick Collection, selections of which are featured in thematic and monographic exhibitions. The current lease for this space ends in autumn of 2021, as does the loan agreement with the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection. However, 268 works will remain in the Nationalgalerie collection as donations, including works by Douglas Gordon, Rodney Graham, Nam June Paik, Pipilotti Rist, Isa Genzken/Wolfgang Tillmans, Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman, which are currently on display in the Rieckhallen.
Also on display since 1996 is the collection of Heinz Berggruen, which is presented in the western Stülerbau opposite Schloss Charlottenburg, 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 an ideal accompaniment to the works in the 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 outstanding works from the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
These efforts to expand the Nationalgalerie and its collections were taken up with vigour under the reins of directors Peter-Klaus Schuster (1998–2008) and Udo Kittelmann (2008–2020). Eventually, Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie could no longer accommodate the continually growing collection of 20th-century art. In response, the federal government decided to approve the construction of a new building for the Nationalgalerie at the Kulturforum. The Swiss architectural team of Herzog & de Meuron were declared the winners of a two-stage design competition. In 2021, construction work will begin, with the building set to be completed in the second half of this decade.
The new building at the Kulturforum will for the first time make it possible to place the Nationalgalerie’s diverse holdings of 20th-century art on permanent display. These holdings encompass all the major European and North American art movements of the 20th century, including key works in the evolution of Expressionism, Conceptual Art and land art, as well as sprawling multimedia installations.
A major focus will be art produced in Germany, including movements such as New Objectivity and the Zero group, as well as art produced in the GDR.
The Kupferstichkabinett and the Kunstbibliothek of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin will have dedicated exhibition spaces in the new museum, showcasing graphic works, poster and book art, objects from the archives, as well as 20th-century architectural models.
It will also feature the Marx Collection, with its dual focuses on Andy Warhol and Pop Art on the one hand and Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer on the other, along with the collection of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, with Surrealist works by artists such as Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and Max Ernst.
In addition to generous and flexible exhibition spaces, there will be a large media and events hall, which will accommodate the restaging of performative works and film screenings.
With the In Preparation series, the Nationalgalerie seeks to provide insight into the curatorial and restoration preparation of major works for the Kulturforum’s future new building.