The idea of Museum Island is itself something of an artistic fantasia. Across town a sparkling version of Antoine Watteau's most famous painting, "Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera" (1717), hangs in Charlottenburg Palace. (Another is in the Louvre.) Its depiction of leisurely folks enjoying enchanted pleasures on the remote island of love, far from the cares of the everyday world, seems almost to describe the place.
The 1968 Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery), meant for 20th century art, was the first museum to open in the complex. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the celebrated architect of the Neue, had fled Germany for the United States in 1937. Nobody could miss the symbolism of gracing a new cultural district with a Modern art museum designed by a Bauhaus architect. It was pointedly intended as atonement for Germany's past.
Half a century before, Nazi "cultural cleansing" swept away Modern art with charges of degeneracy, and the adventurous Bauhaus was closed. Now they were back — and in a profoundly moving way. Mies' Neue is a rectangular pavilion of transparent glass and black steel, standing atop a pedestal. Architecturally it reinterprets Schinkel's groundbreaking design for the Altes museum, but now in the modern, abstract language of industrial form. Everything old was new again.
Conceptual brilliance aside, alas, the Neue never functioned too well as an art museum. The fine collection of German Expressionist and other Modern art is shown in a warren of galleries inside the pedestal, while the glass pavilion above it is left empty — beautifully so.
Nearby the Gemäldegalerie, or Picture Gallery, is exactly the reverse. Marvelous exhibition spaces are inside an ugly bunker. A functional series of 72 rooms is housed in a 1996 design by Munich architects Heinz Hilmer and Christoph Sattler that exudes all the charm of your average state-university student union.
A long rectangular building flanks a central sculpture court. Galleries to the right chart Northern European art; galleries to the left do the same for the south. Most are bathed in shadow-free natural light filtered from skylights, showing to perfection 500 years of paintings, from early Renaissance to Old Masters.
The collection is staggering. Since reunification, works have been brought together from disparate locations in East and West Berlin. Now calmly established among the world's great European painting collections — and, on the day of my recent visit, blissfully short on other visitors — the museum offers unsurpassed pleasures.
There is quantity — eight paintings by Albrecht Dürer, for example, and 16 by Rembrandt — and abundant quality. The Dürer panels span 1497 to 1526, virtually all the Renaissance master's working life; the Rembrandt pictures are the best such assembly I've seen outside the Netherlands. And with a couple of Caravaggios, a pair of Vermeers, three Raphaels, great Frans Hals, Botticelli, Velázquez and more, the most strenuous difficulty is choosing where to linger.
Perhaps the place is in front of Jan van Eyck's crisply painted little panel that shows the Virgin Mary crowned and standing serenely inside the light-filled nave of a Gothic church.
Van Eyck casts her as a gentle giant who fills the soaring space — a remarkable invention that conflates Mary, Queen of Heaven, with the radiant interior of the church's otherworldly architecture. The triumph of spirit over matter is paradoxically embodied.
The last time I saw this little Van Eyck, it was housed in temporary quarters in suburban Dahlem, where Berlin's great ethnographic and folklore museums are found. Reunification has been accompanied by a lot of collection shuffling, and for the most part, the results have been terrific. (It helps that Berlin has a lot to work with.)
As things enter the 20th century, however, matters can get a bit dicey.
Heinz Berggruen, now 91, is a Berlin-born Jew who fled the Nazis in 1936 and later became an important dealer in Modern art.
In 1996, the Museum Berggruen opened across the street from Charlottenburg Palace. The city acquired his personal collection, grandly dubbed "Picasso and His Times," in 2000 for the below-market price of nearly $120 million. Some exceptional works by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, Klee, Braque, Matisse and Giacometti are on view. Not the least is a fantastic (and rare) 1906 Picasso Cubist landscape, inexplicably de-accessioned a few years back by New York's Museum of Modern Art.
But overall, the collection is patchy — its depth too shallow and breadth too narrow to sustain its own museum, the sort of place you'd only visit once. The works would have been better served integrated into a larger institution.
The late fashion photographer Helmut Newton was also a Berlin-born Jew whose family fled the terror, and last year his foundation opened in the developing Museum of Photography in a bland former library building across from the Zoological Garden.
A long-term installation of 150 Newton fashion photographs for Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace and others, together with the last editorial assignments he did for Vogue, includes some fine examples of his notorious fetish style of advertising imagery. Spike heels never looked spikier, and bustiers were never bustier. Enlarged to the size of big paintings, however, the photographs lose the startling jolt of intimacy that fuels their sudden appearance in the hand-held pages of a magazine. Their power wilts.