An exhibit in the western German city of Bonn is showcasing national treasures from the country's eastern part and offering new material for cultural and national self-reflection.
East German collections have a lot to offer, including this Bauhaus chair
For the first time since the reunification of Germany in 1990, the Conference of the National Cultural Institutions (KNK) -- comprised of twenty-three nationally prominent institutions in the new German federal states and Berlin -- got a chance to showcase east German collections before a west German audience.
German religious reformer Martin Luther as portrayed by his favorite painter Lucas Cranach, the Elder
The exhibition, which opened on Sept. 30 at the Federal Art and Exhibition Hall in Bonn, is misleadingly entitled "National Treasures from Germany," even though all the works on display come from the country's eastern part and are not all of German origin.
The visitors are invited to embark upon a journey through five captivating centuries of art history -- from the Renaissance, Baroque and Enlightenment through Romanticism and the rise of national thought, all the way to Modernism. Two thousand square meters of exhibiting space display around 600 remarkable art objects, previously unseen in western Germany.
Fifteen years after the reunification, it was high time for such an ambitious project.
"People still totally undervalue the objects which are housed in the east," said KNK spokesperson Martin Roth. "Those are really outstanding collections. They deserve to have an international reputation, and we should clearly stress that."
More than just art
The exhibition highlights a wide range of art works -- from paintings by Raffael, Rubens or Caspar David Friedrich to Modernist gems by Kirchner or Beckmann. The goal of the exhibition, however, is not only to display valuable works of art, but also to offer a glimpse into how cultural values change over time, and with them the collections themselves.
Paperwieght elephant by Johann Melchior Dinglinger (circa 1710/20)
The first Kunstkammer -- cabinets of art and curiosities -- emerged in the Renaissance period as depositories of not only art objects, but also various tools and scientific devices. One such object, now on display in Bonn, is the Dresden world clock, a large device with 360 small dials, each for one degree of longitude. It comes across as both a technical and an aesthetic masterpiece.
Rooms filled with examples of Baroque opulence stand next to the ones exemplifying the restrained spirit of the Enlightenment. At the beginning of the Enlightenment section stands a marble bust of Goethe, who as a private citizen but also a cabinet minister in Weimar, had an important collection of his own. On display next to the beautiful pieces from the famous Anna-Amalia Library in Weimar are also the colorful screens which Goethe used for his experiments in chromatics.
The exhibit invites the visitors to ponder questions of cultural values and to reflect upon their own traditions. What is important and valuable in a particular period? What belongs to the canon? How does cultural identity change and how is a national identity formed in a country that for so long consisted of small states and principalities?
"I believe that this is an educational exhibition, because we are trying to show what German history is," said Wenzel Jacob, the museum's director. "But if you look closely into the history of Germany, you'll have to admit that in principle there is no such thing as a single German history. We were a region with many different individual interests -- a region which remained split even after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)."
A humane picture of Germany
"Nymph of the Fountain" by Lucas Cranach, the Elder
The National Treasures of Germany tells a fascinating story about the country's cultural history over five centuries.
"I hope that the image of Germany which emerges out of it is a humane one," Jacob said. "That image was humane 500 years ago and throughout history up to 1933."
The exhibition does not cover the period of Nazi Germany because, according to Jacob, "these topics have been often covered in various exhibitions."
And with the British curator Norman Rosenthal, an outside expert, one can from the start rule out any suspicion of national self-adulation.
The National Treasures from Germany will run until Jan. 8, 2006 .