With around 3,000 exhibitions a year, Berlin has the biggest art scene in Europe.
Since German reunification, a massive redevelopment programme in Berlin has resulted in perhaps the world’s densest concentration of art institutions. A former railway station now shows art installations where trains once came and went, important new art museums have appeared and the once forlorn streets of East Berlin have been revived with a range of independent galleries.
Most art-lovers make a beeline for Museum Island, where an ensemble of monumental buildings have undergone refurbishment in Europe’s biggest cultural development. Their collections span prehistory to the present day. Resembling a cluster of Greek or Roman temples, the entire complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Named after its spiritual founder, gallery director Wilhelm von Bode, the Bode Museum is situated at the tip of Museum Island, where it seems to rise from the River Spree. When it opened in 1904, it was the first museum to display painting and sculpture on an equal footing. The Bode Museum holds a number of collections, including Byzantine art, European painting and one of the largest sculpture collections anywhere.
Raised on a plinth decorated with motifs from antiquity, the Old National Gallery holds 19th century art. The permanent exhibition covers the German Romantics, including an entire room devoted to Carl David Friedrich, and a selection of French masters such as Monet, Manet, Cezanne and Renoir. There are also examples of Biedermeier in Germany and Austria, Classical Sculpture, Symbolism and Neoclassicism. At one end of the building interconnecting, oval-shaped rooms on all three levels allow for an intimate connection with the works.
Other museums on Museum Island are: the New Museum, home to the Egyptology and ancient art collection; the Old Museum, which holds the collection of classical antiquities in a permanent exhibition of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art; and the Pergamon Museum, which houses the Museum of the Ancient Near East, the Museum of Islamic Art as well as classical antiquities. The Pergamon is famous for its reconstructions of ancient structures such as the Ishtar Gate and the Pergamon Altar, considered the greatest Hellenistic Greek masterpiece in the world. The complex was augmented in 2019 with the opening of the David Copperfield-designed James Simon Gallery to serve as the new entrance building and hospitality centre.
Also on Museum Island, the Humboldt Forum is one of Berlin’s newest landmark museums. Incorporating two former museums – the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art – it has been housed since 2020 in the reconstructed Berlin Palace. At around $700 million, its total cost is believed to make it Europe’s most expensive cultural project.
Nearby off the famous Unter den Linden (Under the Linden Trees, the grand boulevard leading from the Brandenburg Gate to Mitte), the restored, 19th century Friedrichswerder Church is used to exhibit sculptures belonging to the Old National Gallery.
A couple of streets away is Berlin’s newest art museum, Deutsche Bank’s PalaisPopulaire. Housed in the 18th century Prinzessin Palais (Princess Palace), it presents works from the bank’s own 50,000-work collection held in hundreds of branches worldwide.
After Museum Island, the Kulturforum on Potsdamer Strasse is the most important cultural complex in Berlin. Built when it stood near the wall, the brash, brick and concrete complex was designed to impress East German snoopers. Today it would be kind to say that is was a building of its time. Luckily, the contents are anything but mundane.
The Gemäldegalerie (Old Masters Paintings Gallery) presents the history of European painting in all its schools and epochs, from the beginnings of panel painting in the 13th century to the neoclassical period around 1800. About half of the 3,000 or so works are on display at any one time and include still lifes, miniatures, portraits, landscapes, seascapes, battle scenes and religious tableaux.
A list of artists represented reads like a roll-call of European greats, from (deep beath) Botticelli, Caravaggio, Rubens, Velazquez, Poussin, Watteau and Holbein to Dürer, van Eyck, Brueghel, Raphael, Titian, Vermeer and Cranach. There is a whole roomful of Rembrandts, putting it among the world’s largest collections. If religious scenes are your thing, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven.
Across the way is the Museum of Decorative Arts, the oldest of its kind in Germany, where the collection provides an overview of European design and object art from the Middle Ages to the present through porcelain, tapestries, furniture, stained glass, majolica, silverware and more. Where else will you find a 12th century domed reliquary and a 1958, Danish-designed ice cream cone chair under the same roof?
Nearby is architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1960s masterpiece, the New National Gallery, the only building he designed in Europe after emigrating to the US in 1937. The steel, concrete and glass landmark, recently modernised by Britain’s David Chipperfield, is home to Berlin’s vast collection of 20th century European art. Opened in 1968, the gallery houses the very kind of art which caused it to lose so much of its collection which was deemed ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi regime, when over 500 works were either confiscated, sold or lost in the chaos of WWII. Rebuilt in the post-war years, the collection features an array of works by European and North American artists, including Francis Bacon, Max Beckmann, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Otto Dix, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol and many others.
From here it’s a short walk to Potsdamer Platz, where you’ll find Daimler Contemporary Berlin. (On the way, look out for Keith Haring’s outdoor sculpture, The Boxers, which belongs to the collection you are about to see.) Since 1977 the German car manufacturer Daimler has been acquiring contemporary art. Now shown in the beautiful Haus Huth, a rare survivor of WWII, the collection covers most major 20th century art developments, primarily in the field of abstraction and including installations, photography, video and sculpture – in all, some 1,800 works by 600 artists.
About a hundred metres from Potsdamer Platz, the Martin Gropius Bau (‘Bau’ is German for building) is named after the 19th century German architect, whose nephew Walter founded the Bauhaus movement. One of Germany’s most beautiful historic exhibition buildings, it is also one of the biggest. Entered through a grandiose atrium decorated with mosaics and the coats of arms of German states, its exhibition rooms have hosted works by Ai Weiwei, Anish Kapoor, Paul Klee and many others.
For an excellent overview of a century of the city’s artistic output, head for the Berlinische Galerie. The upper floor of the white, minimalist, Bauhaus-influenced building hosts Art in Berlin 1880-1980, a chronological presentation in a series of interconnected rooms, each dedicated to a particular theme such as The Dawning of the Avant-Garde, Berlin During National Socialism, A City in Ruins and West Berlin: Art in the Shadow of the Wall. The ground floor hosts special exhibitions.
To the west of the city opposite the Charlottenburg Palace there are three charming museums based around private collections.
The Bröhan Museum reflects the turbulent years in German society between 1898 and 1919 and the conflict between tradition and modernity. The focus is on three styles in the decorative and fine arts: Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Functionalism.
Next door is the intimate Museum Berggruen, where rooms arrayed around a central rotunda allow a circular tour of each of the three floors. Dedicated to Modernism, it has over a hundred works by Picasso, including The Seated Harlequin from his Blue Period, a study for Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon and numerous portraits of Dora Maar. You can also see works on paper, cut-outs and bronze sculptures by Henri Matisse, a roomful of works by Paul Klee, small works on paper by Cezanne and pieces by Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, Georges Braque and many others.
Across the street, its jutting, angular roof in contrast to the surrounding buildings suggests that something different is on display in the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection, which is dedicated to works by the Surrealists and the artists who preceded and succeeded them. They include the movement’s main protagonists such as Man Ray, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali. You can also see classic Surrealist films by Luis Buñuel and Dali as well as works by contemporary artists who reference Surrealism in their work. You can’t miss the Sahure room, where the pillars from the ancient Egyptian temple of the same name provide their own Surrealist touch.
The Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum of Contemporary Art – Berlin (to give it its full title) occupies the former train terminal for the Berlin-Hamburg line. (‘Bahnhof’ is German for station.) One of the largest museums of its kind in the world (the main hall itself is a cavernous space ideal for large scale works), it now houses the state’s contemporary art collection in rotating presentations accompanied by special exhibitions.
The West Wing is devoted to a unique ensemble of large scale sculptures by Joseph Beuys alongside works by Anselm Kiefer and others. The East Wing, where a large, barrel-vaulted painting gallery was added, is an airy, light-filled space dominated by Warhol’s Mao along with works by Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and many others.
Photography enthusiasts will find the city’s two best galleries within a short walk of one another near the famous Zoo Station.
C/O Berlin is located in the Amerika Haus, formerly the US cultural centre. The refurbishment of the building was rewarded with the Berlin prize from the Association of German Architects. On opening night the line stretched for over 200 metres. C/O shows up to twenty solo and group exhibitions a year by internationally distinguished photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Anton Corbijn, Sebastião Salgado, Martin Parr and Nan Goldin.
Nearby the Museum of Photography features over 1,000 images donated from his collection by Berlin-born Helmut Newton, including fashion photographs and colossal nudes. Doubling as home for the Helmut Newton Foundation, the museum also shows changing exhibitions from the city’s photography collection.
For a spot of gallery-hopping, head for Auguststrasse in Mitte, which is lined with them from one end to the other. This is also where you’ll find two of the most interesting art spaces in the city.
Located in a former cheese factory, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art is a warren of rooms and cavernous spaces on multiple levels with bare walls and brick floors, perfect for showing light installations, wall art, film and video. There is a cafe in a glass-encased extension and a neon sign strung across the front of the building proclaims in German ‘Your country does not exist’.
Next door is the ME Collectors Room Berlin, home to the collection of chemist and collector Thomas Olbricht. Comprising painting, sculpture, photography, installation and new media, the collection includes greats such as Cindy Sherman and Gerhard Richter alongside emerging artists. Exhibitions are designed to ‘transport the visitor into a realm of sheer astonishment’, no less.