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Culture

Old National Gallery Makes a Comeback

Berlin's standing as Germany's cultural capital will get a boost when one of its top museums, the Alte Nationalgalerie opens its doors on Sunday after three years of renovation.

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The museum was first opened in 1876 but has been restored to its former glory

It’s a proud moment for a city that spent DM 150 million ($70 million) on patching up the ornate neo-classical Old National Gallery. It was first damaged during the Second World War and then fell into dilapidation under decades of Communist rule.

"This project is not just an achievement for Berlin," Culture Minister Julian Nida-Ruemelin told a news conference in the gallery on Thursday. "It has cultural importance for all."

Lavish 19th century art spread

Three floors of prominent European art of the late 18th and 19th centuries: 440 paintings and 80 sculptures await visitors in the elegant gallery building, which itself is part of the attraction. Gleaming marble floors, ornate stucco ceilings and polished wood provide the right ambience while admiring the works.

Despite the gold-emblazoned dedication "To German Art" across the front of the gallery, the collection includes works by French impressionists such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. Much of the art toured Europe and America during the years of renovation.

One of the highlights is the romantic art section – paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, Karl Friedrich Schinkel and other lesser known German artists. Paintings by Max Liebermann and Levis Corinth as well as sculptures by Auguste Rodin, Johann Gottfried Schadow and Reinhold Begas amount to a formidable art display.

Bombed and neglected

Built to a sketch by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, the "Alte Nationalgalerie" first opened in 1876.

The building is perched on the Museum Island on the river Spree. It lies in the heart of the government district and what used to be Communist East Germany. The Old National Gallery has had a troubled past.

Bombed during World War Two, the museum’s collection was effectively gutted by the Nazis, who did not care for the modern expressionist pieces. Many of the other paintings were moved to the west during Germany's Cold War division.

The East Geman government didn’t consider it worthwhile to spend money to preserve the cultural gems on the Museum Island. The result was that the entire complex of museums including the Old National Gallery crumbled into near dereliction for decades.

Restoration, but can Berlin afford it?

Help arrived when the Prussian Cultural Foundation took over the rebuilding and renovation of the museum. But it’s common knowledge that the cash-strapped city of Berlin had to heave under the financial burden of seeing the repairs through to the end.

In 1999, the UNESCO identified the entire Museum Island as a world heritage site. With the Old National Gallery close to completed, the New and Old Museums as well as the Pergamon and Bode museums will undergo reconstruction and renovation. Two million DM are already earmarked for the ambitious plans.

But Berlin’s financial problems are far from over. The government has increased its stake to keep the renovation of the Museum Island going. However, the city still needs more money from both the federal government and other, richer German states.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of the Prussian Cultural Foundation hopes the grandeur of the Old National Gallery will help win over the wider German public to Berlin's cause: "This isn't just a temple to art. It is also our business card."

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