Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ich Bin Ein Berliner (2)

2. Old, New, Newer

The Hackesher Markt train station is bustling when I stop for a morning coffee and a roll and then cross the nearby bridge to the Museum Island. It's a blustery day with fits of rain and as usual I am an hour early, so I walk around the Museum Island, glad I wore three layers of clothes under my wool-lined old Burberry.

The courtyard of the Alte Nationalgalerie and Neues Museum is surrounded by scaffolding and construction equipment. Tall cranes rise up behind the low Greek revival buildings. The Neues Museum, "new museum," which housed the oldest collection (including an entire Egyptian courtyard and the head of Nefertiti), was heavily bombed during WW2. The rebuilt structure opened briefly for the press in early March 2009, empty but completed, and will officially reopen later this year, with its Egyptian collections restored.

From the street I can see what British Architect David Chipperfield was able to do with the ruins. He has preserved what could be preserved and filled it out with stark and monumental stone. Through the great windows you can see the war-scarred walls and period details married to the modern skeleton which supports them. It reminds me of Carlo Scarpa's work on the Castelvecchio in Verona; not that they look alike, but in the way they both so brilliantly fuse the old and the new, the ruined and the rising.

The Bode-Museum (originally the "Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum") occupies the triangular northern tip of the island, a marble, double-domed Belle Epoque Imperial extravaganza completed in 1904. It is of particular interest to me because it houses the Gothic and Byzantine collections.

At the opposite end of the Museum Complex is the Altes Museum (photo at top), where the Egyptian collection is now housed. It contains the oldest stuff; the head of Nefertiti dates from 3300 BC. The Greek facade is a long, long row of columns, pocked and blotched with age and war, and behind them there is an immense red neon sign hanging over the door: "ALL ART HAS BEEN CONTEMPORARY." A simple thought, but one we often forget. The sign declares the intent of the Museum Island: it is a panoramic view of human civilization, each in its turn, from the oldest to the newest. The new is ever-changing, so the work continues and will continue.

I only have three full days left and I am obviously not going to be able to see everything, which is my usual m.o. I can't allow myself to spend all my time in museums; there is the entire rest of the city to see. That is also when I realize I will be back.

I start with the Pergamon Museum because it is so ambitious; it houses the reconstructed Pergamon altar (Greek, 2nd century BC), the Roman market gate from Miletus, and the Ishtar Gate from 6th century BC Babylon. I buy a 3-day pass to all the museums, a bargain at 19Euros. The middle-aged woman selling me the pass speaks very little English, but enough to show me that my pass contains an accordion-folded booklet. "All the museums on pass," she says, pointing. So I open it out, and behold: there are 57 museums run by the state that my pass will get me into. They are listed alphabetically, from Agyptisches Museum to Zuckermuseum, from the Ann Frank Zentrum to the Luftwaffemuseum. The Germans take their culture seriously.

The Pergamon museum is totally scaffolded, like a third of the buildings in Venice at any given time. In front, crowds of Italian students are queuing up, barely distinguishable from the German teenagers except for language. They claim the monumental stairs in front of the Pergamon altar and sit there, just like they do in PIazza San Marco, taking pictures of themselves and their friends.

At some point they even notice the art. You can't miss it. It is some of the most beautiful sculpture in the world. The frieze that runs around the temple base and the walls of the room is 371 feet long. Those 371 feet tell a ginormous tale of giants and gods and mortals. The Hellenes had so perfected their art, and were so in love with their ability to animate inert matter, that everything swirls with energy and motion. We are dealing, for the most part, with pieces, painstakingly reconstructed and mounted so that we can see as much as possible of the original conception. Every drapery fold shows the direction of an unseen wind. The bodies are all swept up in a titantic struggle with destiny.

In a gallery to the left of the altar, it says that in the third century BC a law was passed limiting the luxuriousness of tombs because they were becoming too ostentatious. The law limited the extent of the work to what ten men could do in three days, the ten x three law. Everyone of them was a masterpiece, every headstone and marble stele adorned, just as every fine house was adorned, with work not necessarily carved by a brand name artist, but by artisans who could have taught Michelangelo and Bernini a few tricks.

The scale of the reconstructed Roman market facade from Militus is staggering. The Pergamon altar is linear; this facade rises up two and half stories and has survived the earthquake that knocked it down centuries ago, its flawed initial reconstruction inside this museum, and the bombs falling on it at the end of World War 2. It is majestic and defiant; it has survived two thousand years almost intact. Three disabled German kids in high-tech wheel chairs are positioned around the gate, sketching it on large drawing pads while their mothers chat quietly.

You walk through the Roman gate to reach the Ishtar Gate. I have seen Greek before. I have seen Roman before. But I have never seen anything like this. You can't unless you come here. There aren't any left. It was built in Babylon during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC), in what is now Iraq. It is like an inspired fantasy of what ancient history should look like. The predominant color of the shiny tiles is a brilliant blue, the contrasting decorations in yellow, ochre and white. The gate and walls are decorated with dragons and bulls and lions in solemn procession. Ribbons of big white daisies festoon the wall at eye-level like the bathtub in a 1960s hippy commune.

Each of these monuments is timeless. The facade of the Altes Museum mimics the severe greek lines of the Pergamon Altar; the Roman gate echoes in a thousand cities around the globe. The Ishtar Gate could easy be from anywhere, at any time, from another planet or a parallel universe; it is a flight of technicolor fantasy for all time.

The Gothic and Byzantine collections in the Bode-Museum continue the line of beauty. It is thrilling to see the 13th and 14th century wood carvings in mint condition, so lifelike that you expect them to sneeze or fart, and so beautiful that they take your breath away. A 4th C. Byzantine apse filled with mosaics was transported from Ravenna and reconstructed. A "Gambling machine with scenes of chariot racing; Constantinople, VI Cent" looks like a heroic cash register with ramps instead of keys. The Byzantine marble of the Throne of Christ is empty, only his robe and crown remain on the stone cushion; while lambs look for him in vain. It is simple and moving; the space resonates with the absent figure.

It is impossible not to notice, on this journey through the artifacts of time, that art began in religion, from the caves of Lascaux to the Valley of the Kings to the Venus of Willendorf. It begins as an offering of praise and supplication to the power which created all things. It is also the artist's emulation of the godly role, the alchemical transformation of base materials into radiance. And it is an act of propitiation, to make that power smile favorably rather than manifesting storms, plagues, military defeats, and cosmic disasters. It is a celebration of the myriad beauty of the world around us, and a prayer for its continued and peaceful prospering.

From the temples, art moved to the homes of kings and men richer than the kings who ruled them. The "ten x three law" of tomb luxury is a measure of how far the net of artifice had spread by the 3rd century BC, and the haunting bust of Nefertiti in the Altes Museum is the perfect conflation of religion and politics for in Egypt there was no differentiation.

In one of the galleries there is a small sign which reads: "The new germinates from the old. While Christians banned images until 300AD, a Christian pictorial world developed after 200AD based on the foundations of pagan art." Thus was the artistic world of Byzantium born, marrying classical art with the new religion. This in turn met and married the Gothic, only to be resurrected by the Renaissance.

The imperial German monarchy stood in awe of the accomplishments of the Italian renaissance. The splendid Della Robbias and other masterworks of the period are housed in a basilica built inside the museum, which is based on the Franciscan basilica of SS. Salvatore e Francesco near San Mineato. The art in these museums is mostly in mint condition, and certainly better than the shape in which a lot of it was found, from the visible-only-with-a-magnifying-glass etchings in gemstones to the Ishtar Gate.

But what does it all mean?

Placard in the Bode Museum: "The basilica as a museum space."

It is specifically referring to the basilica built by the Kaiser to house these renaissance masterpieces. But like them, it resonates.

The religious motive is only one part of the equation. The other is the sheer human joy in beauty. The bare bones of a building, no matter how perfectly proportioned, and no matter what its function is, are there to be adorned, until they are as beautiful as they can possible be. This is Ruskin's maxim as he approached the topic of Gothic ornamentation. The sculptural and painterly arts (remember all these Greek and Roman marbles were painted with as much skill as they were carved) spread from temple to tomb to great hall and bed chamber. It is there to remind us that we are surrounded by sublime majesty and mystery, and that, at every level -- from the fragrant beauty of a sprig of lilac to the titanic life and death struggles on the Pergamon friezes -- this should fill us with joy and with Aristotle's cocktail of awe and terror.

This is man at his best, and it stands in pristine order in the center of the city that was the capital of man at his worst. The Germans understand its value; much of it survived both world wars and still stands. Since reunification the rebuilding and refurbishment of the Museum Island has been feverish and ongoing. The message is there to be read in these heiroglyphs. The human spirit, which stretches from the depths of depradation to the heights of ecstatic vision, is a mobius strip, and on that wild and bumpy ride we are offered the option to create or destroy in every instant. It is our choice, each and every one of us, every moment of our conscious life: love or death.

Thus the Museum Island is many things. It is a history lesson, a garden of delights, a cautionary tale, and one of the truly great collections of what we conveniently call art in the world.

"All Art Has Been Contemporary."


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