Old masters compete for space in Berlin | Scene in Berlin | DW | 20.07.2012
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Scene in Berlin

Old masters compete for space in Berlin

Berlin has been given a fortune worth of modern art - but doesn't have room for it. DW's Breandáin O'Shea says the treasures from Pollock, Magritte and co. shouldn't be stuck in the basement.

Eine Frau betrachtet am Donnerstag, 3. August 2006, in der Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin waehrend der Vorbesichtigung einer Rembrandt-Ausstellung das Gemaelde Maedchen am Fenster von 1645. 227 Werke des Kuenstlers werden anlaesslich des 400. Geburtstags des niederlaendischen Malers vom 4. August bis 5. November in der Berliner Ausstellung gezeigt. (ddp images/AP Photo/Markus Schreiber) ---A woman looks at the painting Girl in the window dating from 1645 by Dutch artist Rembrandt during a preview for an exhibition at the Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2006. 227 art works of the artist are shown in the exhibition from Aug. 4 till Nov. 5, 2006 on occasion of the 400th birthday of Rembrandt. (ddp images/AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Gemäldegalerie in Berlin Rembrandt

What a predicament! Someone wants to give you their art collection that contains some of the greatest works of the 20th century and is valued at 150 million euros - but you don't know where to put it.

That is exactly the dilemma currently facing Berlin's national museums and it's a quandary that's sparked a fiery debate among Germany's art experts.

Enter multi-millionaire Heiner Pietzsch. Pietzsch, 82, and his wife Ulla own an art collection described by critics as an "outstanding selection of classic modernism." Hardly surprising, as the Pietzsch Collection contains paintings by many of the 20th century's top artists: Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dalí to name a few.

Pietzsch, who made his fortune in wholesale synthetics, is prepared to donate his magnificent collection to Berlin on two conditions - that the works stay together and, most importantly, do not end up in storage. And it's this request that has put the museums in a very tricky situation, as they simply don't have the space to house the enormous collection.

Cramped quarters

"It's not the problem of this private collection, it's a problem that the National Gallery has faced for years and years and years," Bernd Lindemann, the director of Berlin's Gemäldergalerie, told me.

"There is simply not space enough for the whole collection. You know we have a beautiful building - the Mies van der Rohe building, which is where the national gallery is at the moment," he added. "And this building is already too small for the collection we have."

Heiner and Ulla Pietzsch

Pietzsch, pictured with his wife, says giving doesn't always bring joy

Understandably, the museums don't want to say no to Heiner Pietzsch's generous offer. So it was suggested that the Gemäldergalerie's move its collection into storage until a more appropriate building can be built on Berlin's renowned museum island to house the collection. This would then free up space to exhibit the Pietzsch collection. But the proposal is causing a storm among Germany's art experts.

Initially I, too, was surprised by the idea and decided to take a stroll through the Gemäldergalerie collection to see for myself the caliber of the exhibits. The building that currently houses the collection was opened in 1998 and has room to display around 1,500 of its 3,000 works.

Like so many of Berlin's art institutions, the Gemäldegalerie is an unpretentious jewel. Just five minutes into my visit, I was blown away by this exceptional collection that includes some of the finest works of Dürer, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt and Caravaggio to name but a few. There's also an extraordinary collection of works by British artists - something not found anywhere else on the continent.

Too valuable to hide

Then it strikes me that, by combining the Gemäldegalerie's current collection with those of the Pietzsch collection, Berlin would have an art gallery equal to any found in Paris, London or New York.

Still, I agree with the open letter the German Association of Art Historians wrote to Germany's minister for culture, Bernd Neumann. They say that placing the Gemäldegalerie's collection in storage would deprive the world of some of its greatest artworks.

"These plans rob the world of one of its finest and, despite its wartime losses, most comprehensive collections of Old Masters," the letter says.

"You can be assured that this will not happen," Bernd Lindemann assured me. "We will not hide the paintings for generations. That's totally impossible. We hope that we can start with the new building in a short time."

A Miro work from the Pietzsch art collection

Miro is among the artists represented in the Pietzsch collection

Dampened joy

It's hard to believe that such a debate is even necessary in a country that prides itself on its vast wealth of culture. In Berlin alone, there are over 170 galleries and museums of all shapes and sizes.

Admittedly they're all competing for funding in difficult economic times, when money for the arts is not a priority. Many provincial theaters, opera houses and orchestras, once considered crucial elements of Germany's cultural landscape, are being forced to close down due to funding cuts. Is it really possible that Berlin is incapable of providing a space to exhibit what must be one of most remarkable art collections of the 20th century?

"For the first time I'm learning that giving doesn't necessarily bring you joy," Heiner Pietzsch told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung a few days ago.

And yes, I also think that a gift should bring joy. I empathize with art enthusiasts the world over who don't want to miss out on the great works of Berlin's Gemäldegalerie collection. But there's a danger that we might end up not being able to enjoy the paintings of Magritte, Miró, Pollock, Ernst and Dalí if Berlin doesn't find a solution soon.

Author: Breandáin O'Shea
Editor: Kate Bowen

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