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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin

What is the Hamburger Bahnhof?

The Hamburger Bahnhof is an art museum with a ground-breaking collection of contemporary art housed in a late 19th-century Neoclassical railway station.

Hamburger Bahnhof

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Hamburger Bahnhof Collection

Originally built as a railway station, the Hamburger Bahnhof now holds one of the largest and most significant collections of contemporary art in the world. In this outstanding assembly of creativity from the 1960s until the present day, painting is displayed alongside sculpture, conceptual installation beside sound and video art. Must-sees include Andy Warhol’s iconic Mao, Bruce Nauman’s neon light works and the obscure installations of enfant terrible of German art, Joseph Beuys. Don’t miss the gallery’s immersive artists’ rooms, showcasing the interdisciplinary creations of Conceptualists John Cage, Bill Viola and Rebecca Horn. For film and photography lovers, the gallery holds an unparalleled collection, including work by Rosa Barba, Melvin Moti, and the Düsseldorf School of Photography.

Hamburger Bahnhof History

The grand Neoclassical building was designed by architect Friedrich Neuhaus in 1846, as the terminus of a railway line between Hamburg and Berlin. Though it closed as a station four decades later, it set the architectural precedent for train-station design in Berlin throughout the second half of the 19th century. It’s now the city’s only remaining station from this period. It was redesigned as an exhibition hall in 1904, and opened again, fittingly, as a museum of transport and construction. Badly damaged by bombs during the Second World War, the unlucky structure then found itself bang in the middle of no man’s land during the years of Cold War division. Finally, after a lengthy reconstruction by architect Josef Paul Kleihues, the Hamburger Bahnhof reopened in November 1996 as a museum dedicated to contemporary art. The name of the collection, the Museum für Gegenwart (or ‘Museum of the Present’), is a reference to the Nationalgalerie’s former department of contemporary art that was closed down by the Nazis in 1937.

The Hamburger Bahnhof also holds the private collection of Berlin property developer Erich Marx. Marx wasn’t just a collector but a true patron of the arts. He was once portrayed by Andy Warhol, and gave financial support both to a young Joseph Beuys and to Cy Twombly, to ensure they could carry on making their art. His collection encompasses work by some of the best and most provocative 20th-century artists, including Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and Robert Rauschenberg.

In 2002, the Hamburger Bahnhof’s holdings were significantly expanded with the acquisition of Egidio Marzona’s study collection of Conceptual Art and the Italian movement Arte Povera. Just two years later, the museum had to expand again, this time to accommodate the enormous collection of Friedrich Christian Flick, whose long-term loan added over 1,500 works to its original holdings.

The museum aims to encompass and blur the boundaries between all disciplines. From Pop Art to Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism to Conceptual installation, the Hamburger Bahnhof is an unmissable visit for any fan of contemporary art. And if you weren’t a fan before, you may well leave as one.

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