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Second World War

The Bode Museum reborn in Berlin after nearly 70 years

The vast collection of sculptural works removed on the outbreak of World War II are now back on view in the newly-restored building

Berlin. The Bode Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island re-opened on 19 October providing a showcase for the world’s greatest presentation of post-classical European sculpture, Byzantine art, coins and selected paintings. As British Museum director Neil MacGregor pointed out at the opening: “Only the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris attempt something comparable. But they haven’t dared to collect such a large number of objects...Europe can now behold its aesthetic, religious, intellectual and political history for the first time in three-dimensional form.”

It is now nearly 70 years since works of art were hastily evacuated from the Bode Museum, on the outbreak of World War II. The building was then bombed by the Allies. Although the museum re-opened under the communist government, Berlin’s collection was split and the buildings of Museum Island were badly neglected.

The post-war story of the Berlin museums is symbolised by the fate of a 1465 sculpture of the Virgin and Child, by Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden. During World War II, the two wooden figures became separated. When the Iron Curtain descended, the Madonna remained in East Berlin, but the Christ Child ended up in West Berlin. Now the two are reunited in the Bode, and the work is once again complete.

The restored Bode is spectacular. The Baroque-style building has been thoroughly renovated, yet preserves its original atmosphere. The presentation is engaging and the integration of sculptures and paintings is a success.

Visitors enter under the Great Dome, beyond which are two long suites of galleries, to the left and right. These join up at the end, under the Small Dome, and a sweeping staircase leads to a similar configuration of galleries on the upper floor. Six rooms are devoted to the coin collection, with the other 60 for sculpture and selected paintings, divided by geographical region and ranging in period from Late Antiquity (300AD) to Neo-Classicism (1800). In the heart of the building is the “basilica”, in Florentine Renaissance style, which houses large Italian altarpiece paintings in niches.

Divided by history

The restoration of the Bode can only be understood in the context of its past, which in turn is a reflection of German history of the last 100 years. Designed by Ernst von Ihne, the museum was opened in 1904 for the Prussian imperial collection of paintings and sculpture. Originally named the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, it was commissioned by Wilhelm II, in honour of his father, Friedrich III. Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the kaiser abdicated, and the country became a republic.

In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II, most of the contents of the Berlin museums were evacuated, to be stored in locations ranging from anti-aircraft flak towers on the outskirts of the city to a salt mine in Austria. Six years later, with the defeat of the Third Reich, works of art recovered by American and British forces were moved to Munich, before being returned to Berlin. Art in areas occupied by the Red Army were taken to the Soviet Union. Although some were restituted in 1956-57, others still remain in Russia. Many of Berlin’s works of art were also looted by private individuals or destroyed during the fighting.

Meanwhile, the division of the city was formalised in 1949, with the establishment of two Germanys and a divided Berlin. Two separate museum organisations were established in Berlin, and Museum Island fell inside the German Democratic Republic. The communists briefly considered demolishing the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, to modernise the area associated with the kaiser’s rule. Fortunately, the museum escaped demolition, although its name was changed, and in 1956 it was renamed the Bode Museum, after Wilhelm von Bode, its first director.

War damage inflicted by Allied bombing destroyed nearly all the museum’s roof and much of its interior. The building was gradually restored, although much of its original character was lost. Grey linoleum was placed on the magnificent tiled floors and the wooden Renaissance ceilings were disfigured by layers of paint. There were ambitious plans to completely modernise the interior, but fortunately these were thwarted by financial constraints.

The reunification of Germany in 1989 led to a complete rethink of the Berlin collections, which had been divided on both sides of the Wall. There was a proposal to move the newly-united paintings collection to the Bode, but instead it was decided that it would be used primarily for sculptures, along with Byzantine art, coins and some paintings.

The Bode closed in 2000, for a six-year renovation masterminded by architects Christoph Fischer and Heinz Tesar. The cost of e162m has been entirely funded by the German state. Behind the scenes, a modern climate control system has been introduced. The rich colours of the two domed areas have been reinstated and much of the original grandeur has been returned. Although many of the gallery walls have had to be rebuilt (because of their poor condition and the need to insert modern services), the original configuration has been retained.

Altogether 1,700 works of sculpture are now on show, with 150 paintings and 4,000 coins. The display is slightly sparse, but this allows the art to be seen at its best (although specialists will find that many secondary items remain in store, where they can be seen by appointment). The order of the rooms is sometimes confusing, but considering the awkward layout of the building and the geographical and chronological extent of the collection, this is inevitable. The Bode’s newly-built basement will eventually be linked to an underground Archaeological Promenade that will run the entire length of Museum Island.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 174 November 2006