Berlin Museum’s Plan to Replace Old Masters Raises Uproar

Plan would display modern art and store old masters paintings for years

Christian Schlierkamp
Epoch Times Staff
Created: July 24, 2012 Last Updated: August 27, 2012
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On the outside, the 14-year-old Gemäldegalerie in Berlin is not a pretty sight, but inside it is a perfectly planned, high-tech space for the old masters collection it houses. (Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

On the outside, the 14-year-old Gemäldegalerie in Berlin is not a pretty sight, but inside it is a perfectly planned, high-tech space for the old masters collection it houses. (Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

BERLIN—A cultural foundation in Berlin has stirred up a storm with its plans to move the Gemäldegalerie’s entire collection of old masters paintings, one of Europe’s greatest, with half of it going into storage. A donated collection of 20th-century art will replace the 3,000 heritage works, a decision that is angering art historians and art lovers around the world. 

The emptied-out Gemäldegalerie, in the Kulturforum district of Berlin, is slated to host Heiner Pietzsch’s private collection of 20th-century art, which he donated to Berlin under the condition that it would always be on public view. 

Pietzsch’s collection, valued at $190 million, according to The Guardian, features “classic modern” works, including paintings by Mark Rothko, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí. 

Using the specially designed museum for 20th-century modern works ‘would be like using a Rolls Royce as a delivery van for veggies.’

The museum currently displays a cultural timeline of high art dating from medieval times (A.D. 1200) up to the early 19th century: masterpieces by Caravaggio and Canaletto, Giotto and Botticelli, but also Lucas Cranach, Rogier van der Weyden, and Rembrandt, to name a few.

The biggest bone of contention is that only a portion the old masters paintings and sculptures will be displayed, and there is no assurance of a new appropriate venue to house them in the future.

The decision has met with rising protests from art historians and the public, both inside Germany and abroad.

An open letter to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation by the Association of Art Historians, with 4,500 signatures, reads: “These plans … rob one of the world’s finest and, despite its wartime losses, most comprehensive collections of Old Master paintings of its unique capacity … to present more than 500 years of European painting history in encyclopedic scope in works of the very highest quality.”

Another ongoing petition letter, initiated by Jeffrey Hamburger, professor of German art and culture, Harvard University, has been signed by 11,185 members of the art world. Hamburger believes the art works have become pawns in a political chess game.

Artist James Gurney, famous for his New York Times bestseller “Dinotopia,” and an Art Renewal Center living master, reported the case on his blog GurneyJourney, one of the most read art blogs worldwide. He thinks having half the collection in storage would be a tragic loss.

“Art museums have an important responsibility to keep a broad range of historical artwork available on view for the benefit of scholars, art students, and the public,” he told The Epoch Times.

In response to the opposition, Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, said to German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau that he was surprised by the rising criticism. He said at first that the foundation would only consider the plan if it were temporary—for five or six years.

If the plan is carried out, half of the Gemäldegalerie inventory is supposed to be displayed at the Bode Museum on Berlin’s Museumsinsel (museum island), while the other half, plus half of the Bode Museum’s sculpture collection, will have to be kept in storage.

Critics say the move should only be started once an adequate new museum is found or built.

“It must be a key for a key. One wouldn’t move into a tent if told that his new house wouldn’t be started, if ever, until after 2018,” said art historian Eberhard König in a statement.

Lengthy Timeline 

Later in the same interview, Parzinger admits the timespan for a new building is at least seven to nine years. The earliest date for an official architectural announcement would be 2016, followed by at least four to five years of construction. 

This is considered by some to be a gross understatement. It could very well be indefinite, considering Berlin’s mountain of debt, and the stop-and-go construction chaos that surrounded the rebuilding of the old Stadtschloss castle. It was destroyed in the 1950′s, being declared as a symbol of “Prussian militarism” by the GDR regime in East Germany by the socialists.

Art restorers are also deeply concerned about moving and storing the sensitive old paintings, according to a Berliner Morgenpost report.

“For this immense castling of the most precious and most sensitive works of art, a complex plan has to be established,” the restorers’ union said in the report.

A Culture Fight

The Gemäldegalerie, which only opened 14 years ago, is considered an architectural masterpiece with highly developed technology designed to create a perfect climate for the old paintings. 

As Niklas Maaks of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung puts it, using the specially designed museum for 20th-century modern works “would be like using a Rolls Royce as a delivery van for veggies.”

Defending the controversial plan, Parzinger told the Franfurter Rundschau he is “not impressed … by standardized letters that can be signed with a mouse-click and then sent on.”

Meanwhile, Bernd Neumann, state minister of Culture and Media, is calling for a new master plan to restructure all of Berlin’s art museums. The original master plan from the 1990s was to relocate the old masters paintings to the Museumsinsel, but it was too small.

Politicians are getting on board too, with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) promising to listen to the public and push forward the location issues. 

The most prominent director of the old masters collection of paintings, Wilhelm von Bode, had wanted to combine the collections of sculptures and paintings into one building in 1904, with the opening of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum on the Museumsinsel, which has been renamed the Bode Museum.

Traditionalists have always promoted plans for the old masters to be exhibited all together. But such plans were neglected due to the immense space needed to combine and present the collections from East and West Berlin, and the money needed was instead already going toward the new building, the Gemäldegalerie. 

To view the paintings in the Gemäldegalerie, check out Google Art Project’s online gallery.

Jeffrey Hamburger’s petition is at

James Gurney’s blog is GurneyJourney.

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