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the Gemäldegalerie

The Titian Room, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, 2007. From left: Paris Bordone, Virgin Enthroned with the Child and the Saints, 1535; Paris Bordone, Two Chess Players, ca. 1540; Titian, Girl with a Platter of Fruit, ca. 1555; Titian, Venus with the Organ Player, ca. 1551. Photo: Christoph Schmidt.

THIS SUMMER, old-master paintings were—for once—a hot topic. The Gemäldegalerie, the branch of Berlin’s state museums long celebrated for its world-class collection of late-medieval to eighteenth-century art, might soon have a new purpose: housing a collection of Surrealist art recently donated by prominent Berlin collectors Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. Lacking sufficient exhibition space to display these works or funds for a new building, the city’s foundation of state museums, the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, decided to use the Gemäldegalerie to display the Pietzsch Collection, prompting concerns that the old masters would be put into storage indefinitely. Many were shocked by this nonchalant willingness to drop a superlative collection for what is widely considered a mediocre one: The German media debated the decision for months, and Harvard’s renowned medieval art historian Jeffrey Hamburger organized an |www.change.org/petitions/stiftung-preussischer-kulturbesitz-berlin-reconsider-the-plan-to-empty-the-gemäldegalerie-of-old-masters|international petition|, which has received more than thirteen thousand signatures, encouraging the foundation to reconsider its plan. Eventually giving in to public outrage, the Preußische Kulturbesitz backpedaled, claiming that it will only make the move once it has found a new space for the present collection.

Whatever happens to the Gemäldegalerie, this case reveals the lasting trauma of German history. The scars left by the nation’s fascist past are still painful, the urge to smooth them over still urgent. In 2000, a similar impulse led Berlin to acquire Heinz Berggruen’s exquisite group of Picasso, Matisse, and Klee paintings in an effort to fill the gaping lacuna in its public collections resulting from Nazi Germany’s violent rejection of “degenerate” modern art. For the merely average Pietzsch collection, the city now even appeared willing to give up one of major historical importance: The Gemäldegalerie originated with the Prussian kings and grew to its unique range and quality in the late nineteenth century, when the pioneering art historian Wilhelm von Bode turned it into a teaching collection of European art, with representative works from almost every significant period, region, and artist, including Jan van Eyck, Titian, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. It seems as if no price is too high for what Germans call the Neue Normalität (“new normality”), meaning a condition in which they are finally relieved from Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the constant pressure to work through the Nazi past.

More than simply correcting the historical record, the drive toward the Neue Normalität has also encouraged a relentless pursuit of contemporaneity, as if an ostentatious open-mindedness about all things related to contemporary culture is a civic duty that could banish memories of Third Reich conservatism. Every German small town is proud of the local kunstverein, maintained only by its members, which stages ambitious exhibitions of living artists. And in their state theaters Germans willingly endure the most avant-garde productions, the likes of which wouldn’t survive even on Off-Off-Broadway.

But something else is at stake. Contemporary culture has, of course, become an engine of economic development. This summer, more than 850,000 visitors (not only the usual art-world suspects but thousands of ordinary Germans dutifully fulfilling their cultural obligations) migrated to provincial Kassel to see the latest incarnation of Documenta, arriving with special train tickets offered by the Deutsche Bahn, which sponsors the event. This connection between the cultural and the economic is even more pronounced in Berlin, which has never fully recovered from the economic hardships of the war and its postwar division. Yet it is precisely this depressed state that attracts young people and artists from all over the world: The city—which Mayor Klaus Wowereit famously called “poor but sexy”—continues to offer low rents and a remarkable number of alternative spaces for artistic experimentation. In return, this emphatically contemporary creative scene has made Berlin attractive to tourists, who by now provide the city with a crucial economic lifeline.

Old masters are not considered sexy, however. The Gemäldegalerie hardly makes the cut on most tourists’ to-do lists. Receiving barely more than 250,000 visitors a year—a depressingly low number for a collection of this size and quality—the building often feels like a wasteland. Without a Mona Lisa or the prestige of, say, the Uffizi or the Prado, the traditional old-master collection is increasingly marginalized in an otherwise buzzing art world. But its languishing is symptomatic of what one might call a broader “contemporary turn” in global culture. This turn has many facets, ranging from the rapid changes in modes of perception resulting from new media to the glamorous art market and its connection to celebrity culture. To become hip, museums everywhere struggle to keep up by turning to modern and contemporary works. In this regard, replacing the old masters with the Pietzsch Collection merely responds to popular demand and may even make sense from an economic point of view.

All is not lost for the old masters. The uproar over the Gemäldegalerie indicates that even in Berlin’s particularly intense environment, where economic pressures converge with the massive trauma of German memory, a general appreciation of culture persists (ironically, this caught the Preußische Kulturbesitz by surprise). Yet the contemporary turn is a global phenomenon, deeply entrenched in the mechanisms of late capitalism: The culture industry pushes ever more powerfully for the new because such an obsession with the contemporary paves the way for an unabashed embrace of the market. In Germany, longing for a historical amnesia that could finally replace Vergangenheitsbewältigung with Neue Normalität may have accelerated this development. But Germany’s case is less an aberration than the suggestion of a not so distant global future.

Based in New York and Berlin, Benjamin Paul is a critic and assistant professor of Renaissance art history at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.