A photo-essay on the German capital in six parts.

4. Kunst

Anyone without a taste for castles, cathedrals and canvases is going to find European tourism pretty dull; and since Berlin has few of the first two, that puts a lot of pressure on the paint. Fortunately, the city has museums and galleries galore; even better, a €10 pass buys you three days' entry to all of them. We had seven days in Berlin, three of which Jane spent at a conference, leaving me free to see anything I wanted. As usual, I wanted kultur und kunst.

I've been visiting Europe's galleries for half of my life. Being the son of an artist has something to do with it, but there must be more to it, or else I would have stopped going the day after leaving home. The fact is, I like art, old and new. I like anything that makes me look at the world in new ways.

Having seen the National Gallery, the Tate, the Prado, the Uffizi, the Louvre, the Courtauld, the Met, the Smithsonian, the this, the that, over the past seventeen years, it would be easy to get blasé about Old Masters; and in some cases I have. Life is too short to stare at a wall of 18th century syrup just because the name plate tells you this is the best 18th century syrup going; nowadays I'll march past whole rooms and corridors of that stuff, quickly scanning the walls to catch the occasional gem. With a few exceptions (Goya, Turner, Raeburn), I'll happily skip most European oils from 1700 to 1860.

Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie is fairly heavy on that period, and the syrup is heavy Germanic syrup at that; best avoided. In the main room on the top floor, though, is a small collection of large Impressionist canvases, Renoirs, Monets and Manets; a tiny proportion of what you'd find in Boston or New York, whose galleries imported late-19th-century French sunlight by the crateload, but still worth seeing.

The best pre-20th-century collection is undoubtedly the Gemäldegalerie, amalgamated from the former galleries of East and West Berlin. Canvases were easier to hide from the bombs than buildings, so everything is still here: a whole room full of Rembrandts; selections of just about every Italian, Spanish and Dutch old master you'd want; and more medieval religious imagery than you can eat.

After seeing so much of this in so many places, my brain has sifted it all into one giant artistic database, linking up works by the same artist spread across the world, comparing new ones seen to the old, and putting them into their contemporary context. As a result I find myself admiring some of the 'second rank' masters as much as or more than the first. I love Rembrandt, but am just as happy to see Hals (the Hals Museum in Haarlem is worth the short train trip if you're ever in Amsterdam); Monet, but also Manet; Vermeer, but also de Hooch. They may not have the smash hits, but they definitely have the backlist.

The first rank, too, take on a new light the more you see of them. The Gemäldegalerie's roomful of Rembrandts features some of his well-known meticulously detailed early works, as well as famous later paintings like The Man in the Golden Helm (no longer considered Rembrandt's, but if it isn't by him, it should be). But the real revelation was Jacob Struggling with the Angel [344k], which looks nothing like other Rembrandts I've seen: yet there his signature is in the bottom-right corner. The exceptions can be more interesting than the expected.

I always look in the gallery shops for postcards of paintings I've particularly liked, but am almost always disappointed. Striking works by non-'name' painters are usually missing; lesser works by 'names' are too; and the colour reproduction is often poor. The Gemäldegalerie's selection was okay, but one of its most memorable works was, perhaps not surprisingly, absent.

It was a painting of a mythical figure who once made frequent appearances in European art, compensating for the gaps in subject matter in standard biblical and saints tales. An artist with a taste for gory wounds and extreme violence could always turn to St Sebastian, the martyr shot to death by arrows; but an artist with a taste for bestial pornography had to rely on Leda, the woman of Greek legend seduced by the god Zeus after he appeared in the form of a swan (that was her story, anyway).

The Gemäldegalerie has a smiling Leda sitting naked under a tree in a sunny field, legs apart and facing outwards, with a flapping white drake parked in front of her like a feathered viola. If this was a movie, the director would be locked up—or he'd be a finalist in Funniest Swan Videos. As it is, he's Correggio.

Those who complain about distasteful themes in modern art are at least five hundred years too late.

25 July 2002 · >>next>>

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