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Forgotten history: Bernhard Schulz on contemporary art museum in Berlin after the war

In 1945, as the war ended, Berlin’s former Preussische Museen (Prussian museums), once so magnificent before the Nazi era, lay in ruins. Works of art retrieved by the Western allies were being kept in storage at central collecting points in West Germany, their future unclear. Those treasures that fell into the hands of the Red Army in the areas it occupied had been transported to the Soviet Union.

In this depressing situation, the Magistrat—Berlin’s municipal authority, then still responsible for the whole of the city—decided, as early as November 1945, just six months after the capitulation, to establish its own collection, which was officially titled Galerie des 20. Jahrhunderts (Gallery of the 20th Century) from 1948 onwards. This collection survived in West Berlin until 1968, when it was absorbed by the newly founded Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). That the world-famous museum building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin’s Kulturforum, was originally commissioned by the West Berlin city authority for the Galerie des 20. Jahrhunderts has long been forgotten – as indeed has the very existence of such a municipal collection in the first place. Now its history is presented in full for the first time in Die Galerie des 20. Jahrhunderts in Berlin 1945-1968 (The gallery of the 20th century in Berlin, 1945-1968), edited by Christina Thomson and Petra Winter.

Originally the gallery was intended to be a “museum of living art”, in order to establish an “organic connection with the living currents of contemporary art”. Adolf Jannasch (1898–1984), the director of the Magistrat’s visual arts department, was perfectly placed to run it, with his close and ongoing links with Berlin artists and dealers. Ludwig Justi (1876–1957), as director of the Nationalgalerie from 1919 onwards, had built up its collection in the Kronprinzenpalais (Crown Prince’s Palace)—the first museum in the world dedicated exclusively to contemporary art. From 1946, Justi worked to regenerate the Nationalgalerie, from which the Nazis had seized more than 500 works, and Jannasch concerned himself with acquisitions for the newly created gallery. Limited resources forced Jannasch to focus on living artists, mainly from Berlin. Yet at the same time, he wrote, the gallery was intended to “gradually take the place of the former Kronprinzenpalais and thus offer a kind of reparation to the Entartete Kunst [degenerate art] that had been scorned and disenfranchised by the Nazis”.

The gallery had barely come into existence when it was torn apart by the political division of Berlin in 1948. The Nationalgalerie in the east of the city absorbed some of the works from the Galerie des 20. Jahrhunderts. In the West, under the auspices of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz – created by the federal government—a second Nationalgalerie, in addition to the one of the same name located in the eastern part of the city, was born in the early 1960s. This Nationalgalerie was provisionally housed in Schloss Charlottenburg, while the Galerie des 20. Jahrhunderts was allocated a building in the Bahnhof Zoo area, the heart of the city’s “New West” district.

Of particular interest are the acquisition policies followed by both Jannasch in the West and Justi in the East. A scan of their acquisitions—listed in this publication’s annex—corroborates the book’s core thesis that both sides were guided by the legendary Kronprinzenpalais as the preeminent museum of contemporary art. Only Werner Haftmann, director of the western Nationalgalerie from 1967 onwards, sought to forge links with mainstream contemporary art, with spectacular purchases of works by artists such as Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and Mark Rothko. Haftmann was, after all, a prime mover in the creation of the Documenta exhibition, which took place in Kassel for the first time in 1955 and then again in 1959 and 1964.

In April 1962 the West Berlin Senate decided to build a dedicated museum for “its” gallery, which resulted in the direct commission to the exiled Mies van der Rohe in Chicago. Yet at the same time it pushed through the merger with the Nationalgalerie, which was finally signed and sealed in late 1967, by which time the van de Rohe design was under construction. The Nationalgalerie received 350 paintings and sculptures from the Galerie des 20. Jahrhunderts. Yet Haftmann expressed his dismay at the collection’s “wretched depletion” with respect to 20th-century art; he thought the task of filling the gaps left by the Nazis’ barbarism would be “accomplished only with difficulty and over the long term”. Nonetheless, at the opening on 15 September 1968, he conceded that the Galerie des 20. Jahrhunderts and the Nationalgalerie had always been moving towards convergence, “because they both had the same guiding model: the former Kronprinzenpalais collection”. Both Jannasch and Justi preserved the tradition of Modernism at a time when many were reluctant to look back at the barbarism of the National Socialist regime, keeping their sights instead fixed solely on contemporary art.

• Bernhard Schulz is the art critic of Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin

Die Galerie des 20. Jahrhunderts in Berlin 1945-68

Christina Thomson and Petra Winter, eds

Deutscher Kunstverlag, 368pp, €49 (pb); in German only