29 October 2012

Musea Berlin

Museums are a great joy of travel. I don’t understand the view that they are trivial fodder for tourists. Yes, tourists attend them. We certainly do and they are intellectual highlights of our trips, especially the famed museums. In some ways, I like to tick off great works, but even this is not a trivial exercise. Great works can be peak experiences, but nearby there are always lesser works that make a personal connection. For this trip, our key historical targets were in Berlin: the bust of Nefertiti and the Ishtar Gate, but we caught a string of others. We particularly like blends of history and art in our museums, rather than simple paintings on walls. I love the experience of visiting the lives of people of different eras or places in my galleries. As an example, I have a particular interest in safety pins after first discovering one in the Etruscan Museum in Perugia. A patent was granted on the safety pin in the US in the mid-1800s and they made the inventor rich, but they had existed before as clothes pins (fibulae) and more. They may not have had our technology in those days, but it’s clear they lacked nothing to our inventiveness and intellect. These discoveries excite me. I am writing this weeks after some museums and these things blur over time and visits, but what were the highlights?

The Bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum in Berlin was my overall highlight for this trip. It’s a near-life size, realist three dimensional head and neck that was prepared by a sculptor to inform later images. We don’t expect Egyptian art to be so lifelike but some is. This is a truly beautiful woman with long neck and dignified, confident presentation. Her skin is vivid despite its 3,300 years (I’m not sure how much is restoration) and there’s some damage. But this is a woman you could recognise and respect. She resides in a room by herself, behind glass, with several security guards and however many tourists. We had just a smattering of tourists, and just ourselves for several minutes. You can photograph without flash in German and Dutch museums, but not Nefertiti. Anyway, the photos don’t do her justice.

Megan had a life-long wish to see the Ishtar Gate. It’s in the Pergamon Museum along with a range of antiquities, mega and less so, including Germany’s answer to the Elgin Marbles, the Altar of Pergamon, as well as the Roman Gate to the Market of Miletus. These are big and imposing works. It always amazes me how the hand-hewn works of the past seem immense and impressive. You see it in cities, where 3 story church towers look tall and imposing while the 40+ story towers next to them are just functional boxes. My guess is that it’s size on a human-scale, rather than on an absolute scale, that impresses us. It fits with something I read on fractals, that fractals have detail at every level. Skyscrapers seldom have detail on the human level, just detail at a distance, so don’t impress us, as humans, at our scale. They are just big, not imposing. The Ishtar gates were part on an imposing entrance, colourful and tall. The market of Miletus was only one arch in a large town, but classically beauteous. The Altar was stunning with a tall staircase and surrounding reliefs telling mythical stories.

Museums of decorative art are favourites of ours after discovering the museum in the Louvre building. Again, this is history and art, but close to home: furniture, jewellery, clothing. The Berlin Museum of Craft and Design was closed for renovations. But we did attend the adjacent visual arts gallery, the Gemalderie, with its wonderful collections of paintings from late mediaeval through to early modern with particular strengths in early Italian, Golden-era Dutch and, obviously, north of the Alps.

Image of Bust of Nefertiti in Neues Museum, Berlin / Philip Pikart, 8 Nov 2009, from Wikicommons

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