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The island of Enlightenment

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, praises Berlin's newly reopened Bode Museum as the world's finest collection of European sculpture

The Bode Museum at the northern tip of Berlin's Museum Island. Photo: Atelier Tesar

Berlin's Museumsinsel is perhaps the most important museum complex in the world. It is a monument, or rather five monuments, to one of Europe's supreme intellectual achievements, the idea of a Kulturgeschichte that could embrace the whole world. It was an ideal realised over 130 years, and reduced to ruins in four. Its recovery is of crucial importance to how we think about ourselves now and every step of that process of renewal is of significance far beyond Berlin. The latest phase is the re-opening this week of the northernmost house, forming the tip of the island, formerly the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, now the Bodemuseum.

Inside the Bode Museum. Photo: Florian Profitlich.

As you move towards the majestic curve of the entrance porch, the imperial building rises to meet you. Literally so, if you are approaching in a wheel-chair: for by an elegant feat of engineering, in the most ingenious disabled access arrangement I have ever seen, a section of the pavement is electrically raised up, the steps in front of it level out and you enter on the flat. Grandeur remains intact, but can be accessed by all.

It is emblematic of the great achievement of this hundred year old building's renewal. A monument of confident Wilhelmine rhetoric has been restored with such historical devotion that you know it to be in every detail authentic; with such intelligence that you discover that all the health and safety elements now required have been deftly, almost invisibly, incorporated; and with such sensitivity, sympathy and conviction that this baroque vocabulary, punctuated throughout by Prussian military heroes, far from intimidating the visitors, exhilarates them and above all welcomes them. You know that this is a palace in which great things live. Astonishingly, you feel it is a palace designed for you.

Sculptures from the Florentine Renaissance. Photo: Jörg P. Anders

The things are beyond compare. The collection divided at the end of the war between east and west has been reunited in the building created for it, along with all that has been acquired over the last six decades. The result is the largest and most comprehensive display of European sculpture anywhere, a building in which you can walk through the history of European carving and modelling from the fall of Rome and the early years of the Byzantine Empire to the Enlightenment optimism of Frederican Berlin with all the major countries represented. Only the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Louvre even attempt something similar. But neither has dared to put so many objects on display together. The V & A's display, though magnificently coherent, exhibits far less; while in the Louvre, the national schools are at such a great distance from each other that you cannot sense a narrative that embraces the whole continent. And in both, the glorious south German chapters of the story are seriously under represented. It is no exaggeration to say that in the new Bode Museum, Europe will be able for the first time to read its history – aesthetic and religious, intellectual and political – in three-dimensional form.

Andrea del Verrocchio, Sleeping Youth; Tilman Riemenschneider, The risen Christ appearing to Mary Magdalen

Of course the visitor may decide to focus on the sheer beauty of the many masterpieces. But to go from Verrocchio's "Sleeping Youth," basking in his naked adolescent beauty, to the nearly contemporary Riemenschneider relief of "The risen Christ appearing to Mary Magdalen" is to see two different thought-worlds of Europe around 1490, each given supreme formal expression, and immediately to apprehend their power and their dynamic. Leygebe's 1683 statue of "The Great Elector of Brandenburg as Saint George killing the dragon" perfectly embodies Brandenburg's providential survival and expansion in the chaos of mid 17th century Europe – providential at least as far as Brandenburg was concerned. As the Elector is wearing the Order of the Garter, bestowed on him by Charles II of England, it also reminds the viewer that Brandenburg has now become a Protestant great power. And this little image (28 cm high) is cast not in the grandiloquent bronze that Louis XIV would certainly have chosen, but in tough, no-nonsense (dare one say Bismarckian?) iron. You could hardly have a clearer resume of Germany after the Thirty Years War.

Desiderio da Settignano, Bust of Marietta Strozzi, ca. 1460

At the end of the story is an equally eloquent symbol of a new world: Houdon, the most celebrated portrait sculptor not just in France but in Europe, gives us the marble bust of Dorothea von Rodde-Schlözer, the first woman in Germany to be a doctor of philosophy, and whose intellectual and literary salon dominated Enlightenment Lübeck. Her assured, bürgerlich gaze makes it very clear that when the narrative resumes in the collections of the Alte Nationalgalerie a few hundred yards away, it is going to be a very different one.

At every step of this journey, you will meet masterpieces. And the word meet is the correct one, for each object has been skilfully placed at the best possible height and angle to allow the viewer to engage with it both visually and affectively. Hundreds of plinths have been specially made to achieve optimal presentation. The result is an unobtrusive triumph, all attention focussed on the work of art. Professor Arne Effenberger and his team deserve congratulations and, above all, thanks. The religious works, particularly those intended for private devotion, are the great beneficiaries of this approach. The small fragmentary torso of Giovanni Pisano's "Crucified Christ" is pinned at just the right height for the sunken head and twisted body to generate maximum pathos, as you bend closer to see whether the suffering is over and the eyes closed in death. The sculptor set out around 1300 to involve the spectator in the unspeakable agony of the crucifixion, the sheer physical cost of salvation: the skill of the Berlin curators has enabled him to succeed still today.

Nicolaus Gerhaert von Leyden, Die Dangolsheimer Muttergottes, before 1473. Photo: Jörg P. Anders

Where possible, works are shown without glass and indeed without barrier, a brave decision that transforms the emotional experience of the visitor. Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden's "Dangolsheimer Muttergottes," made in Strassburg around 1465, almost enfolds the viewer in the generous, protective folds of her mantle as we look up at the Child she holds out for adoration. In a glass case, or distant behind a barrier, all this would be lost.

The re-opening is accompanied by a splendid publication on 100 Meisterwerke des Bodemuseums published by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It must be hoped that money will also be found for the extensive programme of public education that this collection and this installation so much deserve.

It is rare, very rare, for a museum to be named after its first director. But Wilhelm von Bode, who supervised the museum's construction and installation, and whose name replaced the Kaiser Friedrich Museum when the building re-opened in the 1950's, was no ordinary director. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he revolutionised the presentation of European material culture by showing in this museum great sculptures, paintings and applied arts in the same space, to suggest the overall aesthetic of an era and conjure the spirit of an age. A century on, the historical galleries of the V & A and the period rooms of American museums are an enduing homage to Bode's achievement in Berlin, which survived until the removal of the collections for safe keeping in 1939.

The Mother of God, ca. 1290

Should something of this have been recreated in the newly re-opened Bode-Museum? Around the world as in Germany, that has for the last decade been the subject of intense debate. Actual re-construction of Bode's ensembles was of course out of the question: the wonderful natural light is on the ground floor frequently too strong for modern conservators to allow furniture or textiles to be shown, and as not all rooms are air-conditioned, vulnerable early panel-paintings cannot now responsibly be displayed in them. But within these limits, many hoped that the great riches of the Gemäldegalerie and Kunstgewerbemuseum would as far as possible be combined with the sculptures. That would undoubtedly produce one of the wonders of the world: with its riches both north and south of the Alps, Berlin could present the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe as nowhere else could dream of showing them.

Laurent Delvaux, Biblis and Caunus, after 1733

But the Gemäldegalerie and the Kunstgewerbemuseum have recently been lavishly, if problematically, housed in the Kulturforum. The pictures, indeed, have hardly had time yet to settle into their new home. The Bode Musuem could not house all three collections, and there is no chance of more space near the Museumsinsel for many years to come. So it was decided perfectly reasonably to keep the collections separate, and to allow the Skulpturensammlung to spread its collection throughout the building, which it now shares with the much smaller Museum Für Byzantinische Kunst and with the Münzkabinett, which in a few rooms presents a survey of its collections and a selection of its highlights.

Donatello, Putto with a Tambourine, Siena 1429. Photo: Jörg P. Anders

Something of Bode can nonetheless be felt in the new house. The Byzantine collections, comprising mosaics and sculptures in many media, mesh beautifully and intelligently with the early Italians. The famous 'Basilika', designed with side-chapels and altar-bases to evoke an Italian church, has been recreated, but, since there is no air-conditioning, it is now without the magnificent furniture or the important altarpieces painted on panel. Through the rest of the collection, there are indeed some loans from the Gemäldegalerie, and these totally vindicate Bode's approach. They are always apposite, and illuminate the sculptures exactly as he would have hoped (especially in the 18th century French and South German galleries). But they are all secondary works, far below the quality of the sculptures. Some are copies. Would it be possible one day to lend some great paintings, above all in the early Italian Renaissance, where the Gemäldegalerie has such strength and depth, without diminishing the visitor experience at the Kulturforum? Hopefully the generous lending between the houses that has so successfully begun can be developed further.

Antonio Canova, Dancer, Rome 1809-12. Photo: Antje Voigt

If the paintings leave you hoping for more, the same is even truer where the applied arts are concerned. Liturgical silver and gold would complement the great carved altar-pieces, providing the central Eucharistic ritual that the sculptures were designed merely to accompany. Goldsmith's work and, later, porcelain are so often in fact small scale sculptures that it seems artificial – and it is certainly unhistorical – to display them in entirely separate buildings. Would the (disturbingly) few visitors to the Kunstgeweibemuseum really suffer if some pieces of the Welfenschatz and the Lüneburger Ratssilber joined the German church sculptures on the Museumsinsel and if Meissen figures were shown as masterpieces of 18th century Kleinplastik?

These are matters for the future. For the present, we have a magnificent collection to delight and to instruct us – effectively, a completely new collection as nobody under 80 could have any clear recollection of it together. Traditionally, sculpture museums struggle to attract large numbers of visitors – even the Bargello in Florence, or the great polychrome sculpture museum in Valladolid. But in the Bode Museum, the range of the collection is so great, the quality so high and the presentation so inspired, that we must hope that the public, which it has so imaginatively sought to serve, will take it to its heart. As was the hope a century ago, it is now once again possible on the Museumsinsel to follow, through masterpieces, the tale of sculpture through ancient Egypt Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome and then in western Europe to the end of the nineteenth century. It is quite a story, and it is one we all need to study. Floreat insula!


The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on October 19, 2006.

Neil MacGregor is Director of the British Museum. - let's talk european