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A Brief History of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin

What is the Neue Nationalgalerie?

The Neue Nationalgalerie is a Collection of avant-garde art, including works by Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí and Paul Klee, in an iconic Modernist building in Berlin that was designed by Mies van der Rohe.

Neue Nationalgalerie

Neue Nationalgalerie, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons


Neue Nationalgalerie History

A museum blessed with the presence of great painters like Picasso and Klee ought to itself be designed to a high standard; thankfully, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s building more than lives up to what it contains. The Neue Nationalgalerie was one of the last projects completed by the eminent modernist architect, and the only one for which he returned to his original homeland of Germany after his exile-emigration to the United States.


Built in the 1960s on behalf of the Berlin Senate, the museum was intended as a cornerstone of the Kulturforum (or Culture Forum) complex, situated on the border of the former West Berlin. With its glazed glass windows and steel slab roof, the pavilion possesses an almost ethereal quality; it appears to float serenely above the ground, reflecting Mies’s love for fluid, open and light-flooded spaces. However, in all its radiance, the structure belies the fragmented and often dark political past with which its own story is entangled.


In the years following German surrender in 1945, the Nationalgalerie’s prized collection was managed by the Greater Berlin Authority, having previously been held at Berlin’s Museum Island before a stint at the Kronprinzenpalais (or Crown Prince’s Palace). In 1949, as the country divided itself in two ideologically and politically, the collection, too, was split. In response, the West Berlin government established a so-called ‘Gallery of the 20th Century’, in an attempt to reconstruct and expand their portion. It was Mies van der Rohe they called upon to create a repository to showcase their reassembled collection of contemporary art, together with a sister collection of 19th-century work, discovered after its seizure from the capital during the tumultuous years of war.


Mies left Germany in the 1930s, driven into exile by the Nazis, who despised his ideas. However, the ceremonial laying of the gallery’s foundation stone in 1965 saw the luminary return to his birth country for the first time after having fled to the United States, followed by another visit for the construction’s climax: the hydraulic raising and mounting of the steel roof. Since its official opening in September 1968, the Neue Nationalgalerie (or New National Gallery), as it was christened in optimism, has remained a constant while the built environment surrounding it has been subject to dynamic change, transforming over the decades into a cluster of architectural curiosities, including the Staatsbibliothek (or State Library), the Kammermusiksaal (or Chamber Music Hall), and – just around the corner – the glistening high-rises of Potsdamer Platz.


Within the Neue Nationalgalerie you’ll meet the pivotal figures of the 20th-century avant-garde. German highlights include Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Expressionist Potsdamer Platz and the grossly disfigured card players in Otto Dix’s Die Skatspieler. Dix’s nightmarish work was a commentary on the intense trauma felt by the German nation after the First World War. Like many paintings of this era, George Grosz’s grotesque The Pillars of Society is also deeply political. In this scathing work he satirises Germany’s corrupt bourgeoisie, the elite classes who supported Fascism. For those who might prefer something a little less political, don’t miss the gallery’s magnificent collection of American colour field painting. It includes stunning work by Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Mark Rothko, as well as Barnett Newman’s impressive Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV.


However, slowly and invisibly, and despite its status as a listed monument, the Neue Nationalgalerie has gradually been decaying. In 2012, David Chipperfield Architects were enlisted to embark on an extensive and sensitive refurbishment process encompassing repair, renewal, and modernization, all within the guiding principle of minimal intervention. After a decade, the emblem of the International Style that Mies spearheaded opened its doors once again, ready to share its treasures with both nostalgic visitors keen to return and a new generation of art lovers.


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