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  • Essential artworks: Berlin’s masterpieces of art history


Essential artworks: Berlin’s masterpieces of art history

Berlin hosts some real artistic masterpieces. Treat yourself to a crash course in art history and visit these historic wonders of world culture. Just don’t ask where they got them. 

Potsdamer Platz (1914), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Neue Nationalgalerie. Photo: IMAGO / Heritage Images.

As one of the major capital cities of Europe, Berlin is steeped in history, with its many museums and galleries hosting some real wonders. Let’s get to know some of the most historically important artworks that you can only see in Berlin.

The bust of Nefertiti

The bust of Nefertiti (1345 BCE), Thutmose (?), Neues Museum. Photo: IMAGO / IPON

The bust dates from 1345 BCE, and depicts Nefertiti, whose name means “the beautiful one has come forth”. Although she was the wife of Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, not all that much is known about Nefertiti. But historians believe she might have been a foreign princess, the daughter of future Pharaoh Ay, or of Egyptian royal birth herself. While the bust wasn’t found with any inscriptions, it can clearly be identified as Nefertiti by her characteristic crown, which she wears in other surviving depictions.

So how did it come to Berlin? This treasure was *ahem* discovered by Ludwig Borchardt in 1912 as part of excavation financed almost exclusively by Berlin entrepreneur and patron James Simon (the guy whose name is on the sleek new visitors centre today). Simon was one of the wealthiest men in Prussia – and he obtained sole property rights to everything the German excavators uncovered in the dig. The bust was in almost perfect condition when uncovered in the former capital city of Amarna.

The story of how the bust of Nefertiti came to be in a German museum is unsurprisingly dodgy. After keeping it in his private collection for 8 years, Simon gifted the bust, along with the rest of the Amarna finds, to the Berlin Museums in 1920. It’s heavily contested, but the Berlin Museums still own Nefertiti today, and in 2012, put on a massive display of the Amarna objects to celebrate 100 years since the “discovery”.

  • Neues Museum, Bodestr. 1-3, Museum Island, details.

Straßenbahnhaltestelle / Tram stop / Fermata del Tram: A monument to the future (2nd version), Joseph Beuys

Straßenbahnhaltestelle / Tram stop / Fermata del Tram: A monument to the future (2nd version) (1976), Joseph Beuys, Hamburger Bahnhof. Photo: Sangiovese / Unsplash.

A long, rusty length of rail, four broad sections of corroded pipe, and part of a 17th century cannon make up this large-scale sculptural installation. At the end of the cannon there is a cast iron head of a man wearing a sorrowful expression. All these elements are laid out flat, parallel to one another on the ground.

First created for the German pavilion at the 37th Venice Biennale in 1976, this is the second version of Beuys’ famous installation, with the first part of the permanent collection at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands. The concept for Straßenbahnhaltestelle came from Beuys’ meditations of his childhood in Kleve, northwestern Germany.

Growing up, Beuys spent many hours waiting next to an unusual monument at the town’s main tram stop. Nearby, there was a memorial to the Thirty Years War, Cupido’s Column, constructed from old cannons and bomb fragments. Beuys was fascinated by the statue. For Straßenbahnhaltestelle, he combined part of a cast of Cupido’s Column with sections of the tram line where he waited as a child, creating this quietly mournful installation.

  • Hamburger Bahnhof, Invalidenstr. 50-51, Mitte, details.

Potsdamer Platz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Potsdamer Platz (1914), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Neue Nationalgalerie. Photo: IMAGO / Heritage Images.

This iconic work of German Expressionism was painted by German painter and printmaker Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 1914. Near life-sized, the painting depicts two sex workers posing on a traffic island as they look for potential clients around Berlin’s busy Potsdamer Platz. Kirchner started Potsdamer Platz just months before the outbreak of WWI, and what’s remarkable about the painting is that, even through the artist’s Expressionist style, the street scene clearly resembles Potsdamer Platz at the time.

Focusing back on the women in the foreground, they seem to be telling two very different stories. The figure in blue looks younger and unabashedly faces the viewer head-on, while the woman we see in profile appears older and haggard, but nevertheless poses confidently. 

  • Neue Nationalgalerie, Potsdamer Str. 50, Mitte, details.

Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All), Caravaggio

Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All) (1601-02), Caravaggio, Gemäldegalerie. Photo: IMAGO / Leemage.

The title of this famous painting, which comes from Virgil’s Eclogues, roughly translates to “love conquers all”. The Cupid figure grins mischievously at the viewer, standing above an assemblage of objects which symbolise what Caravaggio sees as the trappings of life.

A lute, violin, sheet music and manuscript represent the arts. A crown and armour stand in for political power and authority. A compass illustrates science and discovery. A flower on the floor even embodies the natural world. For Caravaggio, even the highest ethical and intellectual pursuits are no match for earthly love. Caravaggio’s Cupid doesn’t quite fit the mould of the innocent, winged baby we’re used to seeing depicted. This figure is deliberately mature, and his pose is a pretty clear message that when Caravaggio talks about love here, he’s talking about the physical kind.

  • Gemäldegalerie, Matthäikirchplatz, Mitte, details.

Feeding the Ducks, Mary Cassatt

Feeding the Ducks (c. 1895), Mary Cassatt, Kupferstichkabinett. Photo: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders Public Domain Mark 1.0.

One of the few female artists to be a recognised member of the Impressionist group, the American painter Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania, but spent most of her adult life in France. Alongside  Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot, she was described by Gustave Geffroy as one of “les trois grandes dames” (the three great ladies) of Impressionism.

When she made the etching Feeding the Ducks around 1895, she was already experimenting with charcoals and colour pencil drawings. Cassatt was heavily influenced by the composition of Japanese printmaking, which was becoming hugely popular in Europe in the 19th century. She experimented with placing her figures away from the centre of the composition, giving the scene a naturalistic feel.

  • Kupferstichkabinett, Gemäldegalerie, Matthäikirchplatz, Mitte, details.

Portrait of Walther Rathenau, Edvard Munch

Portrait of Walther Rathenau (1907), Edvard Munch, Berlinische Galerie, © Sammlung Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin. Photo: Oliver Ziebe, Berlin.

When Norwegian artist Edvard Munch arrived in Berlin in 1892, controversy followed. The painter’s exhibition at the Verein Berliner Künstler that same year was closed after just a few days when conservative members of the association were horrified by his style of painting.

This 1907 portrait depicts the Jewish-German art collector and politician Walther Rathenau, who was assassinated by early Nazi extremists when he was foreign minister of the Weimar Republic almost two decades later. The son of Emil Rathenau who founded AEG, and great-nephew of painter Max Libermann, Rathenau was an important figure in late 19th century Germany. Apparently, he was struck when first seeing the portrait, reportedly remarking: “A disgusting fellow, isn’t he? That’s what happens when you let yourself be painted by a great artist, you become more like yourself than you are.”

  • Berlinische Galerie, Alte Jakobstr. 124-128, details.

Das Eisenwalzwerk, Adolph von Menzel

Das Eisenwalzwerk (1872-75), Adolph von Menzel, Alte Nationalgalerie. Photo: IMAGO / UIG.

Mostly known for his epic paintings of grand battle scenes, Adolph Menzel’s Das Eisenwalzwerk (or Moderne Cyklopen) depicts a banal industrial workshop with the kind of drama and scale usually only reserved for grand history paintings.

Another anomaly: Although Menzel found a buyer while the painting was already in progress, it wasn’t a commission for a wealthy industrialist, as was the case with other industrial scenes painted at the time. Paintings like these were designed to romanticise factory labour, so that when they were shown in galleries at the time, the (usually upper- and middle-class) patrons could imagine that the work going on in Europe’s rapidly emerging factories was a lot more dignified than it actually was. Essentially, old-school ‘art washing’.

The idea for the painting came to Menzel when, years earlier, he made a study of two foundry scenes, bursting with embers and smoke, for another composition. At this time, Germany’s industrialisation was accelerating. The scene itself, while at first seeming chaotic and full of turmoil, actually reflects the different stages of shift work and the cyclical nature of factory labour. At the focal point of the composition, a few workers try to control a hunk of flaming iron with tongs. To the right of the burning furnace, another group eats and drinks during a hurried break. Over on the left, workers wash off soot and smoke. These three stages in the workers’ day are crammed together into the composition like an endless cycle.

  • Alte Nationalgalerie, Bodestr. 1-3, Museum Island, details.