Out with the Old: Berlin Evicts Its Collection of Old Master Paintings

The ongoing evolution of the art museum took a new turn recently, when it was announced that the venerable Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and its hundreds of Old Master paintings would have to find a new home. In order to acquire the Pietzch Collection, a group of works from Modern artists like Mark Rothko and Max Ernst collected by a German industrialist and his wife over the past few decades, Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie had to promise the Pietzches that their collection be displayed in its entirety. The only way to do this was to expand the Neue Nationalgalerie’s space at Berlin’s Kulturforum, by taking over the space occupied by the Gemäldegalerie.

Assurances have been issued that the Gemäldegalerie’s encyclopedic holdings covering the history of Western art – including paintings by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Dürer, Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Eyck and Vermeer – will not disappear into some basement. Rather, they will go on temporary display at the Bode Museum, a sculpture gallery on Berlin’s historic Museumsinsel. At present there is no word on when a new home for the Gemäldegalerie building will be built, for there are neither plans nor funds available for undertaking such a project.

The art world expressed shock this summer at the decision to evict the Gemäldegalerie, in order to obtain a collection of 20th century art. However it should not really surprise any of us that this could happen. After all, many of those voices expressing shock over this decision are the same voices who laud the work of certain modern and contemporary artists who demonstrate no artistic merit whatsoever. It was only a matter of time before institutions began to value such art more highly than the work of artists living centuries ago, many of whom worked in Christian themes.

Anyone who follows the art trade knows that for some time now, the market has shifted away from the Old Masters, thanks to several factors. The most obvious factor in this shift is scarcity. There simply are not enough high-quality Old Master paintings left in private hands coming onto the market, to be able to sustain the demand of would-be art collectors. New collectors are thus directed to collect in other areas, in order to drive up prices. This is one reason why the market for Impressionists and Post-Impressionists went through the roof twenty years ago, and why the same has been happening in Modern and Contemporary Art in recent years.

This is turn is tied to the practice of viewing art largely or even primarily as an investment. If in the past an aristocrat or magnate would purchase a Titian or a Poussin with no intention of ever selling it, unless involuntarily forced to do so, today’s collector is more likely to be of a mind to purchase a work to enjoy for today, and then sell it for a profit tomorrow. This explains the sense that one is watching a real-life version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in the art world, as we see prices for untested, contemporary art of questionable merit going beyond the point of reason.

However another factor in this shift is secularization. There is a greater market today for art whose subject matter is utterly incomprehensible, than for art depicting virtues or universal truths, let alone scenes from the life of Christ or the saints. Evocations of eternal beauty or Christian morality were gradually eliminated, as a godless civilization realized that without Faith, there was little it could celebrate in art. It is no accident that denigration and ugliness are more prominent features of our supposedly more sophisticated output of art over the past century. If there is so little hope or joy in modern and contemporary art, it is because those who create and promote it find so little to be hopeful or joyful about.

Though by no means a museum of Christian art per se, a substantial portion of the Gemäldegalerie’s holdings includes paintings of religious subjects. Like other museums of its type, such as the Louvre or the Prado, chronologically speaking the Gemäldegalerie starts out as an expression of the Christian Faith, and ends as an expression of personal ego. And while I enjoy seeing insightful portraits, still life studies, and sweeping landscapes at a great secular museum, I always find Old Master religious art in such a place to be a bit forlorn and devoid of meaning removed from their context. Try going to The Metropolitan Museum and kneeling down to pray the rosary in front of an altarpiece dedicated to Our Lady, and you will dealt with rather swiftly by security, or mocked by your fellow museum patrons.

The offer of the Pietzch Collection was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In one go, a substantial collection of Modern art became available which today would be cost-prohibitive for any museum to attempt to assemble. If that meant the Gemäldegalerie would have to go into exile for a time, then that was viewed as a non-unreasonable price to be paid. This is not a bonfire of the vanities, but rather a reflection of the fact that in the art world as in European society at large, values have changed. More’s the pity, those of us who care about such things might reasonably say to ourselves.

Unlike a private collection, a public art museum has to reflect the needs of the people whom it serves. If the people in question are increasingly secular and relativist, being unpersuaded of universal truths and standards, then institutions like art museums will naturally come to reflect that outlook, as old ways of looking at the world are put to one side. It should therefore not come as so great a shock that an ever-more secular Europe would value the beauties of its Christian past less than it does the ugliness of its secular present.


Visitors in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

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