The collection of the Neue Nationalgalerie brings together an array of key artworks from the twentieth century by various artists from Europe and North America, including Francis Bacon, Max Beckmann, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Hannah Höch, Rebecca Horn, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Lotte Laserstein, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Edvard Munch, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Pablo Picasso, Gerhard Richter, Werner Tübke, and Andy Warhol. Among the Neue Nationalgalerie’s most famous and iconic works are “Potsdamer Platz” by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “The Skat Players” by Otto Dix, and “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV” by Barnett Newman.
The history of the Neue Nationalgalerie’s collection is intertwined with the turbulent political history of Germany. No other museum lost as many works through the actions of the Nazis as the Nationalgalerie (National Gallery) did. In the period 1937 to 1945 the collection lost more than 500 works: they were either confiscated, sold, or lost in the chaos of the Second World War. In their efforts to rebuild the collection, the two German states adopted very different strategies post-1945. In the West, the Municipality of Greater Berlin acquired numerous works for the “Gallery of the 20th Century,” primarily of modern art – the very kind of art that had been confiscated and disposed of by the Nazis a decade earlier.
When the Neue Nationalgalerie opened in 1968, its director, Werner Haftmann, was an art historian who already had a major impact on the reception and of twentieth-century art. But his biography is an example of the continuity that existed between the Nazi era and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). Like many others, 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.
Haftmann was assigned the difficult task of combining those paintings from the Nationalgalerie’s original collection of nineteenth-century art that had survived the war (either in the west of the city or in locations much further afield in West Germany) with those in the Gallery of the 20th Century. Haftmann’s long-term goal was to enrich this newly combined collection with new accessions that would gradually fill the gaps to form a unified whole. The rotating exhibitions and events held in the Upper Hall soon helped establish it as a primary cultural centre for West Berlin. The Neue Nationalgalerie’s second director, Dieter Honisch, took over in 1975 and dedicated himself to the task of closing the gaps in the collection of modern art and, crucially, acquiring contemporary works to bring the collection up to date. A particular focus in the collecting activity under his tenure was on international art movements such as ZERO, Nouveau Réalisme, Arte Povera, and Colour Field Painting. Stellar acquisitions under his directorship (which lasted two decades) included works by Lee Bontecou, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, Bridget Riley, Mark Rothko, and Frank Stella, as well as Barnett Newman’s last spectacular painting “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV.” It was also Honisch who, in 1977, re-established the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie, which continues to finance new accessions and numerous exhibitions. The donation in 1992 by the Munich gallery owner Otto van de Loo valuably enriched the collection with the wildly expressive painting of the artist collectives Cobra and Spur.
After the reunification of Germany, the museum buildings comprising the Nationalgalerie were radically overhauled and restructured. The holdings of nineteenth-century art held in the West, which up to that point were also exhibited at the Neue Nationalgalerie, were returned to the collection’s original home, where they had hung over a century earlier: the newly renamed Alte Nationalgalerie on the Museumsinsel Berlin (Museum Island Berlin). For art created after 1960 a new exhibition space was opened in 1996: the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin. The Neue Nationalgalerie was now enriched by many works that had previously belonged to the East Berlin Nationalgalerie, including many key works of modern art. As a result, the Neue Nationalgalerie boasts an impressive number of strong Expressionist paintings by such artists as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Mueller, Karl Schmidt Rottluff, Erich Heckel, and Emil Nolde. The collection also includes works by Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch, Natalia Goncharova, and Reneé Sintenis. The political art of Otto Dix and George Grosz and the works of Max Beckmann complete the survey of early modernism in Germany, a complex time of great political and social upheaval.
The Neue Nationalgalerie’s collection was also broadened with the addition of art from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), something which accentuates the unique character of the collection. For while the Nationalgalerie (West) had strived to rebuild its collection after 1945, the Nationalgalerie (East) had implemented an acquisitions policy that documented art production in East Germany over a period of forty years. Its collection included works by the most famous representatives of East German art, figures like Werner Tübke, Wolfgang Mattheuer, and Bernhard Heisig, as well as other works by artists such as Harald Metzkes, Walter Libuda, and Werner Stötzer. No other museum in Germany can lay claim to such a superb collection of iconic works produced during the fifty-year division of Germany.