With around 450 galleries presenting over 6,000 artists a year in 3,000 exhibitions, Berlin has the biggest art scene in Europe
A quarter of a century after reunification and its redesignation as the capital of Germany, Berlin has changed beyond recognition since its dark days as a divided city. It nucleus has shifted back to ‘Mitte’, the original city centre enveloped by the Communist East Germany, where a massive redevelopment programme has resulted in perhaps the world’s densest concentration of art institutions, a former railway station now shows art installations where trains once came and went, important new art museums have appeared and where the once forlorn and deserted streets of East Berlin have been revived with seemingly wall to wall galleries.
Please note: Several museums in this article are run by Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (SMB), or Berlin State Museums, which was established after reunification to manage the city’s collections. Split up during and after WWII and displayed in various locations in both East and West Berlin, they have been reunited and in some cases rehoused.
Most art-seeking visitors make a beeline for Museum Island, where an ensemble of five monumental buildings have been undergoing refurbishment in Europe’s biggest cultural development. The buildings here represent 100 years of museum architecture and their collections span a vast period, from prehistory to the 21st century. Resembling a cluster of Greek or Roman temples, the complex has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The buildings were severely damaged during the final weeks of WWII, when they found themselves in the Russian sector, later the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. Reconstructed in stages over four decades, their complete rehabilitation is the subject of a master plan hatched after the fall of the wall and still a few years from completion.
Named after its spiritual founder, gallery director Wilhelm von Bode, the Bode Museum is situated at the tip of Museum Island, where it hugs the banks to give the impression of rising from the River Spree. When it first opened in 1904, it was the first museum to display painting and sculpture on an equal footing. The Bode Museum holds a number of collections, including Byzantine art from the 3rd to the 15th century, European painting and one of the largest sculpture collections anywhere, dating from the early Middle Ages to the late 18th century.
Raised on a plinth decorated with motifs from antiquity, the Old National Gallery holds art of the 19th century. The permanent exhibition covers the German Romantics, including an entire room devoted to Carl David Friedrich, and a selection of French masters such as Monet, Manet, Cezanne and Renoir. There are also examples of Biedermeier in Germany and Austria, Classical Sculpture, Symbolism and Neoclassicism. At one end of the building interconnecting, oval-shaped rooms on all three levels make for an intimate connection with the works. Viewing some Berlin cityscapes, it is heart-breaking to see what has been lost.
Other museums on Museum Island are: the New Museum, home to the Egyptology and ancient art collection and eye-poppingly refurbished by the British architect Sir David Chipperfield; the Old Museum, which holds the Collection of Classical Antiquities in a permanent exhibition of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art; and the Pergamon Museum, which houses the Museum of the Ancient Near East, the Museum of Islamic Art and parts of the Collection of Classical Antiquities. It is world famous for its reconstructions of ancient structures such as the Ishtar Gate. (Please note: Due to building works there is currently no access to the Pergamon Altar, considered the greatest Hellenistic Greek masterpiece in the world.) Completimg the group, and due to be reopened in 2019, is the New National Gallery, home to 20th century European art. Originally designed by Mies van der Rohe, it is undegoing a major refurbishment, also by Chipperfield.
Next to Museum Island, the Kulturforum on Potsdamer Strasse is the most important cultural complex in Berlin. Built when it stood near the wall on the west side, the brash, brick and concrete complex was designed to impress East German snoopers. Today, it would be kindest to say that is was a building of its time. Luckily, the contents are anything but mundane.
The Gemäldegalerie (Old Masters Paintings Gallery) holds one of the most important collections of European art, from the beginnings of panel painting in the 13th century to the neoclassical period around 1800. Systematic collecting has enabled it to present the history of European painting in all its schools and epochs. Originally located in the Old Museum, the collection has had a colourful history since its foundation in 1830. Split up for many years, it was reassembled in the Kulturforum in 1998. About half of the 3,000 or so works are on display at any one time. A list of artists represented sounds like a roll-call of European greats, from (deep beath) Botticelli, Caravaggio, Rubens, Velazquez, Poussin, Watteau and Holbein to Dürer, van Eyck, Brueghel, Raphael, Titian, Vermeer and Cranach. There’s a whole roomful of Rembrandts, putting it among the world’s largest collections.
Across the way is the Museum of Decorative Arts, the oldest of its kind in Germany, where the collection provides a systematic overview of the masterpieces of European design and object art from the Middle Ages to the present through porcelain, tapestries, furniture, stained glass, majolica, silverware and more. Here you’ll find everything from a 12th century domed reliquary to a 1958 ice cream cone chair designed in Copenhagen. New additions include an extensive fashion gallery and a department dedicated to Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
From here it’s a short walk to Potsdamer Platz, where you’ll find Contemporary Daimler. (On the way, look out for Keith Haring’s outdoor sculpture, ‘The Boxers’, which belongs to the collection you are about to see.) Since 1977 the German car manufacturer Daimler has been acquiring contemporary art ‘as a full part of Daimler’s self-image and cultural profile’. Now shown in the beautiful Haus Huth, a rare survivor of WWII. the Daimler Art Collection represents the spectrum of major 20th century art developments, primarily in the field of abstraction, including installations, photography, video and sculpture. The collection, which is free to view, includes some 1,800 works by 600 artists. Displays change four times a year. Outside, look for eight large sculptures, also part of the collection.
For an excellent overview of a century of the city’s artistic output, head for the Berlinische Galerie. The upper floor of the white, minimalist, arguably Bauhaus-influenced building hosts Art in Berlin 1880-1980, a chronological presentation in a series of interconnected rooms, each dedicated to a particular theme such as The Dawning of the Avant-Garde, Berlin During National Socialism, A City in Ruins and West Berlin: Art in the Shadow of the Wall. The ground floor hosts special exhibitions.
To the west of the city opposite the Charlottenburg Palace there are three charming museums based around private collections.
The Bröhan Museum covers Berlin art from between 1898 and 1919 and reflects those turbulent years in German society and the conflict between tradition and modernity. The focus is on three decorative styles – Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Functionalism – in the decorative and fine arts. Founder and collector Karl Bröhan is credited with making a significant contribution to the rediscovery of art from this period.
Next door is the intimate Museum Berggruen, where rooms arrayed around a central rotunda allow a circular tour of each of the three floors. Dedicated to modernism, it has over a hundred works by Picasso, providing an overview of his artistic development. They include ‘The Seated Harlequin’ (1906) from his Blue Period, a study for ‘Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon’ and numerous portraits of Dora Maar. You can also see works on paper, cutouts and bronze sculpture by Henri Matisse, a roomful of works by Paul Klee, small works on paper by Cezanne and pieces by Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, Georges Braque and many others.
Across the street, its jutting, angular roof, in contrast to the surrounding buildings, suggests that something different is on display in the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection, which is dedicated to works by the Surrealists and the artists who preceded and succeeded them. They include the movement’s main protagonists such as Man Ray, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali. You can also see classic Surrealist films by Luis Buñuel and Dali as well as works by contemporary artists who reference Surrealism in their work. You can’t miss the Sahure room with its pillars from the eponymous ancient Egyptian temple themselves providing a Surrealist touch.
Opened in 1996, the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum of Contemporary Art – Berlin (to give it its full title) occupies the former train terminal for the Berlin-Hamburg line (‘Bahnhof’ is German for station), built in the mid-19th century. One of the largest museums of its kind in the world (the main hall itself is a cavernous space ideal for large scale works), it now houses the state’s contemporary art collection in rotating presentations accompanied by special exhibitions. The West Wing is devoted to an ensemble of large scale sculptures by Joseph Beuys, which is unique in the world, alongside works by Anselm Kiefer and others. The East Wing, where a large, barrel-vaulted painting gallery was added, is an airy, light-filled space, as art should be shown in. Dominated by Warhol’s ‘Mao’ (1973), it also has pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and many others.
The main hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum of Contemporary Art – Berlin with Richard Jackson’s ‘5050 Stacked Paintings’
About a hundred metres from Potsdamer Platz, the Martin Gropius Bau (‘Bau’ is German for building) is often described as one of Germany’s most beautiful historic exhibition buildings. It’s also one of its biggest, each side measuring 70 metres. Officially opened in 1881 in the neo-Renaissance style, it has been war-damaged, reconstructed and refurbished. A grandiose atrium decorated with mosaics and the coats of arms of German states surround the exhibition rooms, which have hosted works by Ai Weiwei, Anish Kapoor, Paul Klee and many others.
Photography enthusiasts will find the city’s two best galleries within a short walk of one another near the famed Zoo Station.
C/O Berlin has been located since 2014 in the Amerika Haus, formerly the US cultural centre. Its refurbishment of the building was rewarded with the Berlin prize from the Association of German Architects. On opening night the line stretched for over 200 metres. C/O Berlin shows up to twenty solo and group exhibitions a year of work by internationally distinguished photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Anton Corbijn, Sebastião Salgado and Stephen Shore. You can read about the exhibition featuring works from the Susanne von Meiss Collection at the C/O Berlin on our Artblog.
The Museum of Photography features over 1,000 images donated from his collection by Berlin-born Helmut Newton shortly before his death, including fashion photographs and colossal nudes. The museum, which doubles as a home for the Helmut Newton Foundation, also shows changing exhibitions from the city’s photography collection.
For a spot of gallery-hopping, head for Auguststrasse in Mitte (city centre), which is lined with them from one end to the other. This is also where you’ll find two of the most interesting art spaces in the city.
Located in a former cheese factory, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art is a warren of rooms and cavernous spaces on multiple levels with bare walls and brick floors, perfect for showing light installations, wall art, film and video. There is a cafe in a glass-encased extension and a neon sign strung across the front of the building proclaims in German ‘Your country does not exist’.
Next door is the ME Collectors Room Berlin, home to the collection of chemist and collector Thomas Olbricht. Comprising painting, sculpture, photography, installation and new media, the collection includes greats such as Cindy Sherman (read about the exhibition on our Artblog) and Gerhard Richter alongside relative newcomers like Grayson Perry. Exhibitions are designed to no less than ‘transport the visitor into a realm of sheer astonishment’.
HOW TO GET THERE
Ryanair flies direct from Glasgow to Berlin daily excl. Saturday. Fares from £24.99.
WHERE TO STAY
One of two hotels in 19th century houses a few doors from one another run by the same company (the other is the Blue Home), the Ackselhaus has 16 beautifully themed rooms – Rome, Cairo, Africa Deluxe, Beach House and so on – with many imaginative touches. Located in the trendy Prenzlauerberg district, its terra cotta facade and Mediterranean-style back garden give it a southern European feel. Breakfast is in the Blue Home a few doors up the street in the charming Cafe del Mar, with its wooden Art Nouveau facade facing the street.
With a rooftop neon sign proclaiming ‘Life is beautiful’, you would be right to expect something a bit different at the 25 Hours Hotel, where the rooms are playfully designed in urban and jungle themes. Jungle? Well, from the north side, guests have a view of the famous Berlin Zoo, so you may wake up to a distant lion’s roar or ape noises. As you breakfast on the rooftop terrace, you might spot a group of antelope or a flock of exotic birds.
25 Hours Hotel.