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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Museum Berggruen in Berlin

What is the Museum Berggruen?

The Museum Berggruen is an exceptional collection of modern masterworks, boasting a range of pieces by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti.

Museum Berggruen Collection

You might not expect to find anything modern in such surroundings, but this grand Neoclassical building houses an exceptional collection of 20th-century art, focusing on four particular artists – Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti.

Museum Berggruen History

The building opened as a gallery in 1996, home to the extraordinary art collection of Heinz Berggruen, a respected Jewish art dealer and curator who collected work by some of the foremost artists of the 20th century. Forced to emigrate in the 1930s, he spent six decades in exile from his home city. During this time, he became a major art dealer in Paris, befriending the very artists who now form the core of this collection. When he finally returned to the capital in the mid-1990s, he offered his artworks on a ten-year loan to the Berlin State Museums. Berggruen received criticism by some who felt that, given the Nazi treatment of the Jews, the art dealer should not have helped found a new gallery here in Berlin. However, Berggruen thought it was the right thing to do, not least because the art on display was once classified as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis. The collection was eventually purchased in 2000 by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation with help from the German government, and is now part of Berlin’s enormous Nationalgalerie holdings.

The museum houses one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of work by Picasso, comprising more than 120 pieces that document the artist’s outstandingly diverse career. Look out for his Seated Harlequin, a visitor favourite. In addition to Picasso, there are over 60 works by Klee, and 20 by Matisse – the largest publicly exhibited collection in Germany. Works by Braque, Cézanne and Laurens are also displayed, as well as a fascinating collection of African sculpture and artefacts. Seeing these works exhibited beside those of the 20th-century masters will leave you in no doubt of their influence on the Modern aesthetic.

When you step inside, don’t forget to look up. An elegant staircase curves towards an impressive domed glass roof. On entry, you’ll be greeted by the lithe and towering form of Giacometti’s Large Standing Woman III. Berggruen continued to donate to the gallery during his lifetime, and this particular sculpture marks its 10th anniversary, and Berggruen’s well-deserved retirement from public life at the grand age of 92. Although Giacometti is best-known for these alien-like figures, if you’re lucky, you might also discover a lesser-known muse of his – the stray cat.

The two Neoclassical buildings that now house the Museum Berggruen and the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg (the art gallery 50 metres to its east) were designed in the 1850s by Friedrich August Stüler, the architect who went on to design the Alte Nationalgalerie. Notice the distinctive temple-inspired cupola crowning each roof. Originally commissioned by King Frederick William IV, the twin buildings were designed as barracks for his Garde du Corps, the personal bodyguard of the King of Prussia. They stand opposite his former residence, the magnificent Charlottenburg Palace. In 2013, the museum was expanded to include the former commandant’s quarters; you’ll find the buildings connected by a glass walkway. This fusion of old and new sits perfectly with the museum’s aesthetic.

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