Berlin knockout

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 14, 2011 - 11:30 AM

An art lover hunts for treasure on Museum Island, a hub of culture and war-ravaged buildings in the heart of the German capital.

I was perusing a gallery of art from ancient Cyprus when I first saw the bomb blasts. Even the lovely stone figure of Aphrodite, an impressive 2,000 years my senior, was no match for this, a room filled with weathered columns, vestiges of decorative plaster and shell-torn holes that once exploded through the room's southwest wall. I could clearly see the damage because it had been plastered over and covered with slightly lighter paint.

I'd never heard of this place -- the remarkable Neues Museum, a World War II ruin brought back to life -- until my boyfriend returned from Berlin with a book detailing its recent 10-year, $300 million restoration. As I flipped the book's pages, oohing and ahhing over its luminous images of crumbling stonework and decaying friezes, I became fascinated by the peculiar past of this history museum.

Built between 1843 and 1855 on orders of a Prussian king, the Neoclassical Neues Museum (named "new" because it followed the nearby Altes Museum, or "old" museum, by about 30 years) was lushly appointed with Greek mythology-themed frescos and hieroglyphic ceiling paintings, designed to complement the king's growing collection of ancient Grecian treasures and classical antiquities.

Years later, the Neues became a casualty of Allied bombing during World War II. In another stroke of bad luck, it was parceled to the government of East Germany. For the much of the next 60 years, its crumbling chambers were left exposed to the elements.

Sturdier sections served as storage facilities for the city's other museums, especially the other four museums on Berlin's Museumsinsel, or Museum Island.

Walking through the exhibit space 12 months after I first saw that book, I witnessed firsthand how the decaying building has been imaginatively restored. Between 2003 and 2009, the British modernist David Chipperfield undertook the task of rebuilding this broken museum. He never endeavored a copy of the original. Rather, he sought to preserve the building's checkered history, the original opulence as well as the wreckage.

The result? Architectural accolades (the building most recently claimed the 2011 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture/Mies van der Rohe Award in April) -- and a building with better stories than many of the objects it holds.

Nefertiti's domed showroom

The Neues drew me to Berlin, but the city itself has its own fascination. I was struck by the stark character of the western half of Berlin's downtown. There is some interesting contemporary architecture, but the scene is dominated by beige office complexes and generic glass towers. I preferred the east side with the compact, more urban feel of its neighborhoods and the charming patina of its old brick buildings.

From the Brandenburg Gate, I marched eastward along Unter den Linden, the city's most beautiful tree-lined boulevard, to see the sights of the former Soviet sector. I passed the onetime site of the Stadtschloss, a royal palace that was razed by the German Democratic Republic in 1950. A placard there notes the government's plan to rebuild the mammoth edifice (groundbreaking is planned for 2014). Next I crossed the newly restored Schlossbrücke, or palace bridge, and saw the scaffolding that surrounds the famous Berlin State opera house. Finally, I landed at my destination, Museum Island and its cluster of five classical museums, each badly damaged during World War II but none so badly as the Neues.

Though I was somewhat intrigued by the displays of Egyptian works at the Neues, in particular the museum's showpiece, a vibrant bust of Nefertiti that dates to 1334 B.C., I was more intrigued by the renovation. I spent less time admiring Nefertiti than I did her private showroom: a dark, parlor-like vestibule with decayed domed ceiling and reconstructed skylight. I kinked my neck by lingering so long on the cracked frescoes that cling to the coffered walls.

Later, I shuffled through the museum's so-called Greek Courtyard, one of two atria at the heart of the building. I was looking upward toward the wraparound frieze that depicts "The Last Days of Pompeii" when I nearly collided with an exhibition of recent archaeology: 11 pieces of so-called degenerate art, or modernist sculptures confiscated by the Nazis during the 1930s. These were uncovered in January 2010, during excavations for a new Berlin subway station. Among this tattered bunch, the standout is Marg Moll's 1930 "Dancer," now fractured in a few places but curvy and smooth in others--just lik the Neues.

In another gallery, I admired the whimsical curlicue pattern of the ceiling. Here, too, the roof was destroyed, so Chipperfield simply rebuilt it using hollow clay pots -- these put less weight on the room's compromised pillars, plus they lend an earthy appeal to the fussy décor. Chipperfield's masterstroke, though, is the museum's elegant main stairway, a geometric study of steps and ramps, where the walls are made of bricks salvaged from old German buildings. I was gaping at the gorgeous thing when a museum guard approached and directed me toward the exit. I hadn't finished combing the building for old bullet markings but, alas, the Neues was closing for the day.

Tour of Museum Island

The next morning, I resolved to see as much of Museum Island as possible. The Neues is one of the greatest buildings I have ever encountered, but with it being my last day in Berlin, its neighbors deserved a look.

I started at another of Berlin's dazzlers, the Pergamon Museum and its jaw-dropping array of archaeological architecture, most famously, the gigantic Pergamon Altar. A reconstruction of a sprawling terrace that once graced an ancient acropolis, the altar features copious columns, a vast staircase and a stone frieze depicting Olympian gods at battle. After World War II, the Red Army famously seized the altar. Soon enough, though, it was returned to the Pergamon, which had been built to house the altar between 1910 and 1930. I spent 2 1/2 hours climbing all over the piece. And I was awed by two of the museum's other city-sized displays: the brilliant blue Processional Way of Babylon and the delicately carved Mshatta Façade.

Of the island's five museums, I was apathetic about just one. In reading about the Bode Museum, I was put off by its collections of Byzantine and early Christian art. So I set out for the Altes Museum, the area's oldest building, a work of Greek-inspired classicism by the iconic German painter and architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. But I got lost and found myself standing before the Bode and its enormous, heavily ornamented dome. An imposing baroque structure, it was designed to look like it rises from the river Spree. I decided to enter.

Once inside, I found I had the place to myself, whereas the Neues and Pergamon had been packed. I relished the silence while perusing a gallery of Italian Renaissance altars. By the time I reached the German classicism gallery, with its stodgy Madonnas and oak-paneled ceilings, I was ready for a change of scenery.

Soon I was skipping through the colonnades that frame the Alte Nationalgalerie, a temple-like building on a plinth. There, finally, was a collection that hooked my attention: a stash of 19th-century sculpture and painting. It was a lucky thing, too, since the building's 2001 renovation was a straight-up rebuild, the ravages of World War II simply erased. As I entered, I saw all the trappings of a proper old German (or British) art museum: dark marble, white banisters, red carpets.

"Der Deutschen Kunst," said the inscription on the building's exterior. "For German Art." I was not surprised, then, to find the place concentrated with Teutonic works, including some lovely landscapes by Schinkel. I also saw minor works by Renoir, Gauguin, Degas and Cézanne, though I was most attracted to the work of an obscure Austrian artist.

In 1876, Franz von Defregger completed a Dutch-inspired history painting titled "Tyrolean Home Guard Returning Home in the War of 1809." At first glance, it was not much -- an aesthetically fine but unremarkable rendering of young soldiers marching through a small downtown. When I leaned in, I started to appreciate the nuance: I saw that one soldier happily gallops, one looks stoic, another slogs as though his bones are too heavy to lug. I ended up fixating on the panicked expression of a young woman -- she's tucked in the shadows, but I recognized that she's searching the faces of that troop, as if looking for a boyfriend or husband. After 15 minutes like this, another museum guard materialized and, alas, it was time again to go. For me, the art of the Altes pales beside the architecture of the Neues, but this expressive painting, I will always remember.

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis writer.

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