Revisiting “The Lost Museum: Berlin Sculpture & Paintings Collections 70 Years After World War II”
A Story of Appearance, Disappearance, and Reappearance
I published this in 2015 on a website which ironically disappeared from the web. Some of my exhibition images also appeared in a Berlin Museum catalog, the SPK Magazin. Through Gmail, I recovered the content to share this newly edited version. Appearance and artistic existence are heightened…Read on!
On a blustery day in late March 2015, I took refuge in Berlin’s Bode Museum for an insightful, curator-led tour of an exhibit called “The Lost Museum, Das Werschwundene Museum.” The German term verschwundene could also be translated as missing or disappeared.
Appearance, disappearance, and reappearance are recurrent themes in this unconventional and thought-provoking exhibit. As an art lover who relocated to Germany from the USA, I was intrigued by the tragic premise, that many of Berlin’s artistic treasures lost in World War II could still be seen.
But I underestimated something: the enormous power and emotional impact of displaying something wantonly damaged and considered gone.
Directly after the war ended in 1945, hundreds of world-class artworks were destroyed or damaged in two fires, ironically while being held for safe-keeping in a military bunker in Friedrichshain, Berlin. This astonishing exhibition contained fragments of that art collection. How was that feat achieved?
This exhibit began with an account of the painstakingly careful documentation of the Wilhelm von Bode Museum’s master artworks that were evacuated during the war to mines and bunkers to avoid collateral damage. In a devastating twist of fate, these very works were exposed to a harrowing set of traumatic insults: loss, fire, and theft. “The Lost Museum” engagingly explored complex international, urban, military, and cultural factors that contributed to such a catastrophe.
Mr. Julien Chapuis, deputy director of the museum’s sculpture collection and the exhibit’s curator, worked with a gifted team of restorers to innovatively represent these missing pieces, previously deemed too brutal to display, and pieces that were considered lost.
The Bode Museum’s access to accurate molds or casts of original treasures in the Gipsformerei, Berlin museums’ plaster cast studio, has been cleverly utilized to recreate new versions. Master paintings that were destroyed are reproduced as monochrome, high-resolution full-size images from careful prior documentation. Selected works also became (temporarily) available on the museum’s website for perusal.
These bold acts combined brought back into public consciousness and art historic discussion, pieces that were deemed lost forever.
Mr. Chapuis, who ambitiously created this powerful exhibit in just 10 months, walked me through the six thematic rooms, explaining the show’s remarkable origins and discussing the layered relationship between war, art history, and restoration. Mr. Chapius sought to bring back the cast collection of treasured art, sacrificed in the cultural casualties of World War II, despite controversies as to how or whether to repair the damage.
With Germany’s reunification, it became possible to connect the damaged art from the Friedrichshain district in East Berlin with the Gipsformerei in West Berlin.
The show’s opening was specially timed in two ways: 70 years after World War II and simultaneous with the Renaissance Society of America’s 61st annual meeting in Berlin. This overlap enabled a group of Renaissance scholars to appreciate these works and bring them further into the cultural spotlight and dialogue.
Loss, Restitution, and Remembrance
The exhibit’s first room named “Loss and Restitution” told the history of the interplay of German, Russian and American forces on this artwork, and explained the artwork’s evacuation and restitution. We saw the detailed cataloging efforts behind the evacuation to the Zoo and Friedrichshain bunker to avoid damage. Photos of the formerly pristine collection were juxtaposed with now damaged busts and heads. The resultant facial expressions of the damaged sculpture were harrowing– as if witness to a crime.
After a controversial military decision in 1945, some of the art was relocated from the bunkers to a mine in Thuringia. Larger paintings had to be removed from their frames before shipment to the bunkers or the mine. Some of the artwork from the mine was eventually rescued and returned.
But in bitter irony, the removed frames survived in the basement of the nearby Pergamon museum, while the paintings themselves burned in the two fires in the Friedrichshain military bunker. Their remains were shipped to Russia before returning to Berlin.
The second room entitled “Remembrance” mounted full-size black and white prints of these lost paintings. At the entryway was Botticelli’s Madonna and Child with Candle-Bearing Angels. Its gilded, enormous, round frame was a testament to the importance that Wilhelm von Bode bestowed upon it.
This was one of the fortunate frames that survived. Standing among these monochrome versions of Renaissance giants like Botticelli, Andrea del Sarto, and Caravaggio, I felt a deep ache for the missing color palettes that the original paintings, such as a joyful and harmonious Botticelli, could convey. Listening to a discussion of each painting on the audio tour breathed some life back into these ghostly shells.
Three-dimensional Memory and Restoration
The third and fourth rooms, “Three Dimensional Memory” and “Restoration,” explored what happens to marble sculpture when subjected to intense heat, as in the unfortunate fires. A well-documented but disappeared Madonna and Child by Antonia Rossellino came back to life through a complex museum mold technique based on the original piece. The exhibit examined the restoration process, specifically how the restorers overcame issues of discoloration and fragmentation.
Throughout the exhibit, restoration techniques and ethical concerns surrounding restoration emerged. Exhibition signage and the audio tour were essential in supporting this discussion. Experts could explain the intrinsic aesthetic value of these lost paintings and damaged sculptures; they described restoration techniques and challenges – like how to deal with melted marble or the oddity of broken fragments of one piece of art that emerge from three different locations.
The narration also raises fascinating questions: How do you show what you have lost and no longer have? In what state should you show a damaged piece of art? Should you restore it to the artist's intentions or let its battered state tell the story?
How do you show what you have lost and no longer have?
Among the two most moving pieces was an Italian bust of a typical Renaissance nobleman, whose face now looks like that of a burn victim.
The second was a Cupid sculpture, a symbol of love and innocence, with obvious bullet hole damage in its temple. Apart from showing the insult to the human body, the exhibit raises the sensitive question of context.
The audio tour delved deeper: For example, imagine it is the 1950s in Berlin. Was it the right time to show such injury with war wounds still fresh? How much restoration should be done? How should curators account for alterations that cannot be undone? Even 70 years later, I still felt a visceral and psychological reaction to seeing these damaged works.
“Sometimes the damage is so severe, that we have the tendency to not be able to look beyond the condition.”
The fifth room explores the question of how the damaged condition of art can block the viewer from the intention of the artist. As the audio says: “Sometimes the damage is so severe, that we have the tendency to not be able to look beyond the condition.”
The sixth and final room called “New Beginnings” captivated me. This room used to house Wilhem van Bode’s collection of Rubens paintings — all gone. Remains of the Mannheim High Alter, an enormous Baroque masterpiece by artist Paul Egell, were in conjunction with an interpretation of its remains by modern British artist Marc Alexander.
The altar’s original gold cross had melted into a dark stain that remains on the wood. Alexander created a nine-panel red and black painting with drip marks at the top to convey the intensity of the fire that damaged the altar. In the vacuous space left by the missing cross, the viewer must supply their own version of what is holy.
By interpreting and changing the original, Alexander released the artwork from its historic period into the present. As the artist comments in the audio: “Objects should not be held hostage to certain periods of time.” In this sense, the atrocious harm the work suffered actually becomes liberating and transforming. I found myself ending the tour on an uplifting note of how we can transcend time and space through art.
“Objects should not be held hostage to certain periods of time.”
Berlin and Beyond
This exhibition had a special appeal to Berlin residents wishing to explore what once filled their museums. But it also had universal appeal to anyone interested in preserving the memory of these missing art treasures, or those curious to see how to resuscitate art.
I wanted to honor these rare objects and contemplate what they represent, both as the artist may have intended and as evidence of difficult moments in history. I hope this essay does that. Thanks for reading.
What to Watch Next…
The George Clooney film ‘Monuments Men’ is about the rescue of artworks from the mine in Thuringia. It’s interesting because the artworks sent to the mine were rescued by the Americans and returned to Berlin in the 1950s. The contents of the bunkers and the Zoo were shipped to Russia at the end of the war and returned in the 50s as well.
This was a look back into the work I did before joining the startup & VC world. If that’s your boat, then follow me, Elisheva Marcus, for more. All photos by me. ✌️