thomas m wilson

Alte Nationalgallerie

August 19th, 2023

Another wonderful building on Museum Island is the old national gallery building. King Freidrich Wilhelm IV had the idea of a temple-like building raised on a plinth decorated with motifs from antiquity, and that is the Alte Nationalgalerie we have today.

I think the lawn in front of this temple to the arts must be one of the nicest spots to sit in Berlin (you can see WW2 bullet holes on the fluted column in the left foreground).
Abbey among Oak Trees
Caspar David Friedrich 1809/1810

Perhaps the most well known German painter in the world today is Caspar David Friedrich. His painting from the early nineteenth century ‘Abbey Among Oak Trees’ is in my opinion the best darkly Gothic painting of all time. Seeing it in the full size original you are struck by its ineffable force, its spiritually poised atmosphere of mortality and mystery. Monks gather under the ruins, and the early dawn light. My intuition is to not try to describe the painting too much as much of its pleasure is in one’s own individual reception of it.

Flute Concert with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci
Adolph Menzel 1850 – 1852

I have mentioned before that the man who is very central to the history of Germany and of Berlin, Frederick the Great, was an excellent composer of flute music, and player of the flute. In the audio guide to this painting they have helpfully included some eighteenth century flute music, and standing in front of this very large canvas and listening to the music the candle lit atmosphere of cultivation and good taste of that long lost world, conjured by Menzel so perfectly in this painting, comes through strongly. Gorgeous.

Balcony Room with a View of the Bay of Naples
Carl Gustav Carus circa 1829/1830

I for one can think of few better things than having a room that gives onto an old harbour town quay, with the sea beyond, and a guitar laying nearby. I’m clearly not the first person to love this ensemble.

‘Cherry tree in blossom’ by Auguste Renoir, 1881

This painting by Renoir took me by surprise. So much luminous colour and beauty. How could you not be lifted up by this if you saw it on your wall every day, showering you in colour and abundance? Possibly the painting that has startled me most with sheer pleasure and warmth.

After the Rain
Gustav Klimt 1898

Thanks to a special exhibition I was able to also see some of the paintings of Klimt, on loan from Vienna. The above painting really struck me with its lambent glow and strange beauty. Unfortunately that is hard to recognise on an electronic screen.

The Alte Nattional Gallery had a long line outside when I went. However if you really want to experience great art and you are in Berlin, I suggest heading to the Gemaldegalerie, which is what I did next…

Altes Museum and Neus Museum

August 18th, 2023

One of the world’s great museum entrances has to be the Altes Museum in Berlin. Stone eagles sit in a row above the entablature, and 18 ionic columns line the portico. A huge granite basin sits in front. This was the king Friedrich Wilhelm the thirds idea, and his architect Schinkel realised it. Built by 1830, it was a relatively recent idea that the middle classes, newly confident, should have access to great culture.

The granite basin in front of the Altes Museum is 7 metres across. They were obviously looking to go to the level of the ancient Egyptians in scale for this one.
You then enter a great rotunda, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, and ringed by statues of the Greek gods.
Next you would have walked through a doorway and are greeted by what is in my opinion the jewel of German archeology: the boy praying, an original Greek bronze.

The ‘boy praying’ statue is from around 300 BC, and was found in Rhodes. By 1503 it had ended up in Venice, and then cycled through the hands of aristocrats around Italy, was owned by Charles the first in England at one point, and by French royalty later. Eventually Fredrich the Great had it at his palace in Potsdam where he could see it from his desk in his study. Luckily in a more democratic century it is accessible to all of us plebs, if you make it to Berlin.

The Neus Museum next door was the idea of the next king, Wilhem the fourth. It was badly hit in the war, and rebuilt in part, leaving the bullet holes on the outside, in the early 2000s.

In the Neus Museum next door I was struck by the splendour of this marble statue of Helios, god of the sun. It had to be lowered by a helicopter through the ceiling! Its eyes are piercing.
The second of the great bronzes held by Germany, Xanten Boy. This figure would have carried a tray full of luxurious foods.

The sculpture above, Xanten Boy, was found by fishermen on the banks of the Rhine river near Xanten in southern Germany in 1858. He wears a crown of grapes, flowers, pomegranate and fruits of the field. He would have been present holding a tray at a Roman banquet. He probably comes from the first century AD. Perhaps he was dropped into the river when someone had stolen him and was making off. Imagining the bronze sculpture in place in a Roman banqueting room you start to get an idea of how old is the idea of presenting beautiful food and drink to one’s guests as a gesture of abundance and celebration.

Humbolt Forum

August 17th, 2023

The Humbolt Forum is a reconstruction of the baroque palace that was here in an earlier epoch. Afterwards an ugly socialist concrete rectangle took its place. But as of the last two and a half years you can sit in the Lustgarten and look in the direction of the Humbolt Forum and see an elegant stone building in every direction. Sometimes going forwards requires going back.

One of my favourite places in Berlin is the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, the Museum for Asian Art. This is on the top floor of the Humbolt Forum.

A new sculpture on a window pediment, on an inner courtyard of the Humbolt Forum, 2020. All the carvings required for this building caused a minor renaissance in these skills.

In one of the early sections of this museum you will find Buddhist sculpture and art from north-west Pakistan. Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the Gandhara civilisation here in 327 BC, and brought Hellenistic influences in the art. So much of what I saw here was Greco-Buddhist art and sculpture. You can see the robes or the poses or other aspects of the representations of the Buddha having strong Hellenistic influences as you walk around this section of the museum. West melds with East, East melts into West.

The relief carving below was one of my favourite works. A perfect example of the power of meditation to rise above negative emotions.

When assailed by the turbulent feelings of anger, fear and aggression, symbolised here as the ‘troops of Mara’, the Buddha could find serenity through meditation. Gandhara, Pakistan, 2-3rd century.

Seven months ago, at the end of 2022, the below stone gate was finished. It was only officially inaugurated four months, at the end of April. But it is one of the coolest things in Berlin: a 1:1 reproduction in beautiful red German sand stone of the Gate of Sanchi. The Gate of Sanchi is one of the high points in the history of world architecture. It is 10 metres tall, 6 metres wide, and weights 150 tons – and the original is one of the oldest stone structures in all of India. In the 1860s, British Lieutenant Henry Hardy Cole made a cast of the East Gate of Sanchi, the main portal of an ancient stupa, for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Imagine how hard it would be to make a plaster cast of something this big! When the British came upon this gate the site was neglected by the locals – no longer Buddhist – and lay in total ruin. What a testament to the curiosity about the world of the archeologists of England that they bothered to do this, and that Germany has just paid almost two million Euros to recreate this and put it in the heart of their city.

The Gate of Sanchi, outside the new Humbolt Forum building. These were actually milled with a CNC routing machine (a robot basically), based on scans of a nineteenth century cast made Germany had bought from Britain, and then hand finished by stone carvers. They used the Rhine land red sand stone I had seen in the castle at Heidelberg – so this is a testament to Germany’s love of archeology and art and technology and travel all together.
The goddess Shiva holds creation in his left hand, destruction in her right, and tramples on ignorance below. Natajara, the dancing shiva, from South India, 19th century (Humbolt Forum).

Perhaps my favourite works in the museum are the eighteenth century Chinese paintings on silk. Images to stand in front of and empty one’s mind. I slowed down and focused on the brush strokes that transported me to mists and space, silence and beauty.

Two figures contemplate the void. Two ships pass by in the distance. Are we forever alone, even as we are together? Wang Yun, 1715, ink and colour on silk (Humbolt Forum).
Wu Hong, 1723 (Hubolt Museum)

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