Unlike many other national galleries around the world, the Nationalgalerie (National Gallery) in Berlin 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 encompassing European and international art from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century.
In 1876, the fledgling collection took up residency in the newly built National Gallery, 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 expand rapidly 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 (the former Crown Princes’ Palace) on the boulevard Unter den Linden, as the “New Department of the Nationalgalerie.” In 1929, also during Justi’s tenure, the association of friends of the Nationalgalerie was founded; it is active once again 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 “degenerate” art. Many of the works were subsequently shown and publicly derided at the exhibition “Degenerate Art” in Munich that year before being sold off. The modern art department in the Kronprinzen Palais was shut. With the beginning of war in 1939, the National Gallery’s main building on the Museumsinsel Berlin (Museum Island Berlin) was among the many museums forced to close to the public. Starting in 1941, the remaining holdings were removed to external sites to protect them from air raids. The Nationalgalerie suffered severe damage due to the aerial bombardment of Berlin in 1944.
Ludwig Justi, whom the Nazis had dismissed from office after coming to power in 1933, was appointed Director-General of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) in 1946; in 1950 he was reinstated as the Director of the Nationalgalerie on the Museumsinsel in East Berlin; and he was assigned the task of rebuilding the collection. Already in 1947, the Municipality of Greater Berlin had tasked Justi and Adolf Jannasch with assembling a collection of modern art for the “Gallery of the 20th Century,” and it was established in 1948, before the city’s final division.
The administrative division of Berlin into East and West 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 acquired for the “Gallery of the 20th Century” to the Nationalgalerie on the Museumsinsel Berlin; these works are now a permanent part of the collection. Vera-Maria Ruthenberg served as deputy director following Justi’s tenure, and she was succeeded later by directors such as Willi Geismeier and Peter Betthausen, who expanded the collection to include more art from the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, as well as works produced in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Among the acquisitions were works by Lovis Corinth, Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, and Oskar Nerlinger, among others. Major exhibitions focused on art from the Romantic period through Expressionism, including shows devoted to Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Adolph Menzel, and Charlotte Berend-Corinth.
In 1957, the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, 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 architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the works could finally be presented in a permanent home, together with works acquired after 1949 for the “Gallery of the 20th Century”, at the site of today’s Kulturforum. Werner Haftmann, the first director of the Neue Nationalgalerie, faced the task of bringing together these holdings to form a coherent collection, and to regain the organisation’s international reputation both through new acquisitions and by organising exhibitions that would complement the permanent collection. Haftmann’s own biography is an example of continuity from the National Socialist period into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany): Like many other people who worked in the cultural sector and for the state, after 1945 he had chosen to conceal and deny significant, disturbing information about his work for the Nazi regime. His work and legacy are now the subject of renewed research that seeks to establish a more complete history and examine its meaning.
Dieter Honisch took over as director of the Neue Nationalgalerie in 1975. He continued to expand the collection, was able to re-acquire a number of works confiscated in 1937, and built the collection of contemporary art. Together with the Berlin lawyer Peter Raue, in 1977 he re-established the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie, and this patrons’ association has supported the Nationalgalerie ever since by making key acquisitions and funding major exhibitions.
Following German Reunification, the collections of the two Nationalgaleries (East and West) were merged in 1992. Their combined holdings now comprised over 6,000 works, and in 1993 a significant reorganization was carried out. Today, the holdings are on display at the six institutions that comprise the Nationalgalerie, which are distributed across three separate boroughs of Berlin. The Alte Nationalgalerie and Friedrichswerdersche Kirche are situated in Mitte, the Neue Nationalgalerie and Hamburger Bahnhof – Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart are situated in Tiergarten, while the Museum Berggruen and Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg are located in Charlottenburg
The historical Alte Nationalgalerie is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Museumsinsel and reopened in 2001 after extensive renovation and restoration. It is home to one of the most significant collections of art of the “long nineteenth century,” ranging from Romanticism and Classicism to Secessionist movements. In autumn 2020, following eight years’ restoration, Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Friedrichswerder Kirche was re-opened to display a selection of sculpture ranging from Schinkel’s era to the German Empire.
The Neue Nationalgalerie, an icon of architectural modernism built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe from 1965 to 1968, is dedicated to art of the twentieth century. After nearly fifty years of use it was gut-renovated and restored by David Chipperfield Architects from 2015 to 2021. Continuous accessions to the holdings of twentieth- and twenty-first-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 where trains between Berlin and Hamburg once arrived and departed, into a “Museum für Gegenwart” (a “museum for the present”). It opened in 1996 as a further exhibition venue for the Nationalgalerie. Beginning in 2004, the Hamburger Bahnhof also presented the vast Friedrich Christian Flick Collection in the adjacent Rieckhallen (a former storage and loading depot), with selections featured in thematic and monographic exhibitions. The loan agreement with the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection ended on 30 September 2021. Nevertheless, 268 works will remain in the Nationalgalerie’s collection as a gift.
The collection of Heinz Berggruen has also been on display since 1996, presented in the western Stüler building opposite Charlottenburg Palace in a permanent exhibition entitled “Picasso and his Time.” Berggruen, a 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 assembled a unique collection of modern art which complements the works that were already in the collection and rounds out the Nationalgalerie’s European modernist holdings. Most of his collection was purchased for the Nationalgalerie in 2000.
Opposite the Museum Berggruen is its architectural counterpart, the eastern Stüler building. The Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg was opened here as a centre of Surrealist art in summer 2008. The exhibition chiefly presents outstanding works from the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Like the Museum Berggruen across, the museum owes its existence to the efforts of private individuals – Otto Gerstenberg and his grandson Dieter Scharf – and their passion for collecting art.
The twin buildings in Charlottenburg were built by the same architect, Friedrich August Stüler, who went on to design the Alte Nationalgalerie.
Efforts to expand the Nationalgalerie’s collections were renewed with vigour under the 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 twentieth-century art. In response, the federal government approved the construction of a new building for the Nationalgalerie at the Kulturforum: the Museum of the Twentieth Century. The Swiss architectural partnership Herzog & de Meuron was declared the winner of a two-stage design competition. Construction work began in 2021, with the building’s opening planned for the second half of this decade.
The new building at the Kulturforum will make it possible to put the Nationalgalerie’s diverse holdings of twentieth-century art on permanent display for the first time. These holdings encompass all the major European and North American art movements of the twentieth century, including key works in the evolution of Expressionism, international Conceptual Art, and Land Art, as well as sprawling multimedia installations. A major focus will be art from Germany, including movements such as New Objectivity and the Zero group, as well as art produced in the GDR and film, video, and media art. The new building will also feature the Marx Collection with its dual focuses on American and European art from the 1960s to the 1990s. In addition, the collection of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, comprising mainly of Surrealist and Abstract Impressionist works, will be on permanent display.
The Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings) and the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library) will have dedicated exhibition spaces in the new museum, showcasing graphic works, poster and book art, objects from the archives, and twentieth-century architectural models.
In addition to flexible exhibition spaces, there will be a large media and events hall to host stagings of performative works and film screenings. The relationship between art and music will also be in focus, with a separate dedicated space.
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.