Displaying What Isn’t There

by lowepj33

As readers of my last post will know, a trip to Museum Island is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of time in Berlin, and as this 19th century classically-designed version of South Kensington on the Spree is in the midst of a 20-year reconstruction project that will see each component collection refurbished, each visit brings you face to face with something new.  On this visit I was able to re-visit the Neues Museum (see the previous post) and marvel again at its carefully-modulated mix of ruin and conservation framing the exhibits.  There was also time to see the Altes Museum, with its wealth of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman artifacts and then on to the Bode Museum for one of the most moving exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time.

Ordinarily, the Bode Museum houses the sculpture and decorative art collections of the island: like the Victoria and Albert, in a way, all housed within an ornate late-19th century palatial design.  Until 27th July 2015 it is also staging an exhibition on ‘The Vanished Museum’ (Das Verschwundene Museum) which explores the fate of those works of art left in Berlin at the end of World War Two.  Seventy years after the end of the war, the visitor is reminded of how artworks become ensnared in the ebb and flow of conflict, whether seized as booty or destroyed.  In many cases it’s an exhibition of what isn’t there any more: but paintings lost in the April 1945 fire at the Friedrichschain bunker (where many paintings from the Berlin collections had been stored for safekeeping) return to view as full-size black and white photographic reproductions, mounted on the walls in place of their original selves.  Surviving only as black and white illustrations in books, they are restored to their original dimensions, leaving the viewer with monochrome masterpieces by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Rubens and others, alongside sculptures blackened by flames, majolica panels literally re-fired by the heat of the inferno, and Renaissance statues broken down to maimed trunks where once they stood intact.

In room and after room we are reminded of what is lost, or only partially reclaimed, when a city falls.  Those works taken back to the USSR by the returning troops have, in some cases, been returned, but often after the kind of ‘restoration’ that left them looking worse than when they were looted, so they are being restored again with modern techniques and aesthetic values.  Touring the exhibition is like watching an inverted tale of the ‘Monuments Men’: where the emphasis is on what is lost as much as what is saved.  Of course, the fate of artworks is hardly the greatest of the tragedies that Berliners had to endure in the closing weeks of the war and the long years of its aftermath, but as the city rebuilds itself after years of division, and becomes again the great capital that it was long before the years of Nazi terror, to be reminded of the fate of a hundred or so paintings and statues is a poignant reminder of how the things we often believe to represent the best of us get caught up in our worst moments.  In putting these ‘vanished’ works back on display, the Bode Museum has given its visitors a thought-provoking exhibition of things that we can only see imperfectly.

If you are in Berlin between now and the 27th July, I can’t recommend this exhibition highly enough.  If not, details of the exhibits, and an excellent multimedia gallery of its contents, can be found at this link: