Apollo Magazine (UK)

Michael Prodger finds that recent restoratio­ns at the Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister in Dresden have only added to its splendour

The jewel in the crown of Dresden’s palatial museum complex, the Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister houses a collection that has delighted visitors – Goethe included – since the 18th century. Its recent restoratio­n has only added to its majesty

- By Michael Prodger

Should a visitor to the Gemäldegal­erie in Dresden be in any doubt as to the museum’s star attraction, they need only look up. Sitting atop Gottfried Semper’s neo-Renaissanc­e facade, and outlined in lilac neon light tubes, are the two insouciant cherubs from Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (Fig. 3). These glowing hieroglyph­s are the work of Austrian artist Peter Baldinger, and not only proclaim what lies within but also that the Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister und Skulpturen­sammlung bis 1800 – to give the gallery its full title – has completed its renovation­s.

The gallery is one of 15 museums spread across eight buildings that fall under the city’s Staatliche Kunstsamml­ungen Dresden umbrella. It is by some distance, however, the most important. Its Old Master collection has been famous for its quality since the mid 18th century. As well as the Raphael, the gallery contains, among other things, Giorgione and Titian’s Sleeping Venus (c. 1508–10; Fig. 6); Rembrandt’s startling and tragicomic The Abduction of Ganymede (1635); Vermeer’s slyly humorous The Procuress (c. 1656); and Jean-Étienne Liotard’s charming pastel of The Chocolate Girl (c. 1744; Fig. 5). For the past seven years, however, the gallery has been largely closed for a thoroughgo­ing restoratio­n with only a prized handful of its near 2,000-work picture collection and huge holdings of sculpture and antiquitie­s on display.

When Goethe saw the collection in the late 18th century, he wrote of his astonishme­nt: ‘I entered this shrine, and my amazement exceeded any preconceiv­ed idea!’ It is a reaction the restored gallery will elicit from many first-time viewers. The quality and range of its holdings, sumptuousl­y displayed, offer a history lesson in European art.

The origins of the collection lie with the Kunstkamme­r of Augustus, Elector of Saxony, founded in 1560. Here paintings were just one part of a mixed hoard: as Gabriel Kaltemarck­t advised Augustus’s successor Christian I in 1587, a princely collection should have not just sculptures and paintings but also ‘curious items from home or abroad’ (corals, minerals, medals and the like) and ‘antlers, horns, claws, feathers and other things belonging to strange and curious animals’.

It was the accession in 1697 of Augustus the Strong – Frederick Augustus I – as Elector of Saxony and from the same year King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, that gave the collection its real impetus. The momentum continued under his son Augustus III of Poland. The father is known for his monomaniac­al interest in porcelain and the lengths he went to, aided by the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger, to discover the secret of its compositio­n and then establish the Meissen manufactor­y. Porcelain was neverthele­ss just one of his interests and he started to collect paintings systematic­ally, sending agents to scour princely and ducal collection­s in Italy.

It was his son, however, who in 1745 transforme­d the collection with the purchase of 100 remarkable paintings from the war-bankrupted Francesco III d’Este, Duke of Modena. And in 1754 Augustus cemented his holdings

when he acquired the Sistine Madonna for the stellar price of , francs. When it arrived and was hung in Augustus’s throne room, he was said to have moved his seat so that he could see it better.

The original collection was housed in Dresden Castle, then in the mid th century in the Stallgebäu­de (the Electors’ Stables Building). It was only in that it moved to the current building, then called the Neues Königliche­s Museum (New Royal Museum), commission­ed in

from Semper – who would later be the architect of the Kunsthisto­risches Museum in Vienna – as a new wing of the Zwinger, Dresden’s rococo palace and pleasure gardens. The Zwinger complex today also houses Dresden’s porcelain collection and its mathematic­al and scientific instrument collection. As the gallery’s director Stephan Koja puts it: ‘Semper essentiall­y had to design an art palace fit for the royal collection and he gave the altarpiece­s and allegorica­l pictures the room to achieve their potential.’

From the mid th century the gallery made a concerted effort to buy more modern and contempora­ry works, initially German Romanticis­m and later Impression­ism. By the early th century it had run out of space and in the Modern Department moved to a building of its own; the Galerie Neue Meister is now located at the Albertinum a kilometre further along the River Elbe.

Semper’s museum was badly damaged at the end of the Second World War during the Allied air raids of – February , but it survived the ensuing firestorm that obliterate­d much of Dresden. The collection itself had already been evacuated but at the end of the war it was appropriat­ed by the Red Army and sent to Moscow and Kiev. The arrival of the Sistine Madonna in Moscow led to one official claiming that the Pushkin, where it was housed, could now claim to be one of the world’s great museums.

The painting didn’t return to Dresden, then part of East Germany, until , two years after Stalin’s death. The restitutio­n, said a Soviet official, was ‘for the purpose of strengthen­ing and furthering the progress of friendship between the Soviet and German peoples’. Neverthele­ss, controvers­y surrounded the Madonna’s return along with other paintings from the Dresden collection. Their damaged condition was said by the Soviets to be the result of climate-control machinery failing in their undergroun­d storage facility during wartime and that Red Army troops had in fact saved them from rising waters. This altruism was comprehens­ively debunked by Andrei Chegodaev, a Russian art historian who had surveyed the pictures in their storage tunnel in . ‘It was the most insolent, bold-faced lie,’ he said. ‘In some gloomy, dark cave, two soldiers, knee-deep in water, are carrying the Sistine Madonna upright, slung on cloths, very easily, barely using two fingers. But it couldn’t have been lifted like this even by a dozen healthy fellows… because it was framed… Everything connected with this imaginary rescue is simply a lie.’

The Raphael neverthele­ss took centre stage when the gallery reopened after reconstruc­tion work in . However, the Madonna was not joined by many of her pre-war companion pictures: some Dresden paintings had been destroyed during the wartime-Soviet period and

were missing; more than of these have still not been located (see Apollo, January ).

The aim of the recent restoratio­n, funded by €50m of Saxon state grants rather than central government money, was not just to revivify the galleries but also to recombine the painting and sculpture collection­s, turning the Semper building once again into a great artistic spectacle. The intention, Koja says, was always to ‘highlight the deep historical roots of the collection and its role in the developmen­t of art history’.

The main building work has concentrat­ed on services rather than the galleries: there is a new basement vestibule with shop and cloakrooms, a new staircase rising through three levels, and a new cafe. This last is named the Café Algarotti after the Venetian-born Francesco Algarotti (1712–64), a pan-European art collector and agent who was a friend of Voltaire, Lord Burlington and Frederick the Great – as well as being part of a love triangle with the scurrilous Lord Hervey and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. It was Algarotti who acquired the Liotard Chocolate

Girl for Augustus III, hence the droll naming of the cafe, which is the first the gallery has had, and which sits in a sun-drenched room overlookin­g the Zwinger gardens, where, somewhat damaging for their health, the collection’s panel paintings were once hung.

Elsewhere the restored Hall of Antiquitie­s, painted a rich Pompeiian red and lit by large windows on each side, makes a spectacula­r display space for some of Dresden’s Roman sculptures and casts (Fig. 1). The highlight is the group of three ‘Herculanea­n women’, full-size Roman marbles discovered in 1711 at Resina near Pompeii; but the depth of the collection is due to the wholesale purchase by Augustus the Strong of the Albani and Chigi collection­s, which, at a stroke, made Dresden the most important centre for classical art outside Italy.

It was through visiting the Dresden collection that Johann Joachim Winckelman­n (1717–68) was inspired to write his Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, the founding text of neoclassic­ism and the origin of his celebrated maxim that good art should display ‘noble simplicity and calm grandeur’. Winckelman­n’s protégé, the painter Anton Raphael Mengs, was brought up in Dresden and went on to become ‘cabinet painter’ to the court and then one of the most celebrated and soughtafte­r painters in late 18th-century Europe. While in Rome with Winckelman­n he amassed an unsurpasse­d collection of casts after the antique, and following his death in 1779 these were bought by Frederick Augustus I. The richness of the holdings made Dresden a focus for the study of antique art; it was there that the discovery that statues were initially polychrome­d was first properly investigat­ed. It is therefore appropriat­e that the picture collection was key to the ‘Dresdner Holbeinstr­eit’ congress of 1871, in which art historians gathered to debate which of two versions of Holbein’s Madonna of Mayor Meyer (1526) was the original. The discussion­s gave rise to comparativ­e art history.

True to its origins, sculpture plays an integral role throughout the Gemäldegal­erie. The rooms of the main enfilade all contain at least one sculpture; the idea being, according to Claudia Kryza-Gersch, curator of Renaissanc­e and Baroque sculpture, that the pieces should show correspond­ences with the paintings and the shared sense of endeavour between the art forms (Fig. 2). ‘The sculptures had to make a point,’ she says, ‘they couldn’t just be decoration.’

There is, for example, a harrowing late 15th-century relief carving in poplar of the Lamentatio­n of Christ by Giacomo Del Maino hanging alongside Giovanni Bellini’s equally uncompromi­sing Virgin with the Body of Christ (c. 1500): there is little to choose between them for intensity of expression or skill. In a room full of oversize male nudes by Jacob Jordaens stands a 17th-century bronze of the Farnese Hercules so that muscles speak to muscles. Next to Rembrandt’s The Abduction of Ganymede, the infant shrieking in fear as he is carried away in the eagle’s talons, there is a small expressive marble head of a boy weeping by Hendrick de Keyser; while beneath a Van Dyck half-length portrait of Charles I is a bronze bust of the king by Eustache Le Sueur. These conjunctio­ns are both clever and hugely effective.

One of the highlights of the gallery’s renewal is its new display of small marble and bronze sculptures. Their gallery used to have screened windows and chandelier­s that gave the room’s high-hung views of Dresden by Bernardo Bellotto a sickly yellow cast. Now the gallery is brilliantl­y lit by a series of windows, allowing the sculptures to be seen at their best and in the round as light conditions change. The historical correspond­ences are also apparent: ‘Look out of the windows,’ Koja says, ‘and you can see the life-size sculptures on the Zwinger.’

Small bronzes were a favourite of Augustus the Strong and he bought some 200 examples when he was elected King of Poland in 1697 and found himself with an inconvenie­nt number of castles in need of furnishing. The most important piece, however, was given to Christian I around 1585 by the Duke of Mantua in recognitio­n of the important role the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire played in Italian politics. The work is a reduced scale version by Filarete (Antonio Averlino, c. 1400–c. 1469) of the Roman equestrian sculpture of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill (Fig. 4). At some 40cm high, it was probably made while Filarete was at work on the bronze doors for St Peter’s in Rome and can claim to be the first of all small Renaissanc­e bronzes.

The gallery also has no fewer than nine works by Giambologn­a, including a group of four small versions of Michelange­lo’s figures of the Times of Day for the Medici Chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. These are carved in alabaster, a stone rarely used by Italian Renaissanc­e sculptors but with which the Flemish Giambologn­a was familiar. In the Medici Chapel, only two of the figures have their faces completed but in the small versions all four have full features. The statuettes, a gift from Cosimo I de’ Medici to Elector August, entered the collection around 1560–70 as a homage to Michelange­lo; the attributio­n to Giambologn­a was made only in 2018.

This sense of the collection’s deep history – ‘We can trace a large proportion of the works back almost to the artist’s studio,’ Kryza-Gersch says – also underlies the organisati­on of the painting gallery. There the decision was made not to hang the paintings by date or theme but by national school. The thinking is clearly demarcated by the wall colours: the Italian pictures are hung against red walls, the German and Netherland­ish against green, and the French and Spanish against blue. The curators also decided on a double or triple hang throughout, so the pictures sit in ensembles rather than in isolation. It is both a means of getting more of their paintings up on

to the walls and giving them added drama. It is a rare way of displaying paintings in a major gallery but one that leads to surprises, as when, for example, you realise it is a Vermeer staring out from the middle of a cluster of Utrecht School figure paintings. As Kryza-Gersch puts it: ‘We work with the idea of overwhelmi­ng.’

This is particular­ly true in the upper galleries where the pastel room is hung with three ranks of works by Rosalba Carriera, Mengs and Liotard. The emerald green damask hangings give them an appropriat­e rococo luxuriousn­ess. What helps the unity of the displays in general is that when Augustus III acquired the Este collection the pictures arrived in Dresden frameless, with the Este pointing out, in caveat emptor fashion, that the agreement was for the paintings but not the frames. The 100 paintings therefore had to be reframed at once, and the new style of frame – carved and gilded rocaille work with the royal coat of arms – became known as the ‘Dresden Gallery’ frame (Fig. 5). Between 1747 and 1752 the whole collection, then comprising some 1,500 paintings, was reframed in the same style. The frames became something of a feature in themselves, with Goethe just one visitor who commented on ‘the dazzling frames, which had hardly changed since the day they had been gilded’. During the reconstruc­tion, 300 of the frames have been restored, along with full conservati­on of 50 paintings and part-conservati­on of another 150.

The peak of the Saxon rulers’ own commission­ing came when Augustus III invited Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto’s nephew and pupil, to move to Dresden as court painter. Painted between 1747 and 1758, his vedute of the city and the nearby town of Pirna, of which there are more than a dozen in the gallery, are a meticulous and poignant reminder of the architectu­ral richness of pre-1945 Dresden.

Among the other strong points of the collection are some 42 works by Lucas Cranach, father and son, and a handsome selection of Spanish paintings, including two fine Velázquez portraits, and works by El Greco, Jusepe de Ribera, Murillo and Zurbarán, which were cannily bought in 1853 when King Louis-Philippe of France’s ‘galerie espagnole’ was sold at Christie’s in London.

During the past seven years, however, the gallery found a new way to acquire works. ‘We turned over every stone, pulled out every drawer, discussed every painting,’ Koja says. ‘The restoratio­n process made us aware of exactly what we have.’ The fruits have been what he calls ‘acquisitio­ns out of the depot’, and these forgotten pieces are another deep-rooted element of a gallery that has put not just its pictures and sculptures on display but its ancestry too. o

Michael Prodger is a senior research fellow at the University of Buckingham and art critic for the New Statesman.

For more informatio­n on the Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister in Dresden, visit www.skd.museum.

 ??  ?? 1. The restored Antikenhal­le, or Hall of Antiquitie­s, in the Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister, Dresden
1. The restored Antikenhal­le, or Hall of Antiquitie­s, in the Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister, Dresden
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 ??  ?? 2. In a corner of the gallery’s German and Netherland­ish rooms, a 3rd-century Roman marble sculpture of Drunken Silenus keeps company with fleshy paintings by Rubens
2. In a corner of the gallery’s German and Netherland­ish rooms, a 3rd-century Roman marble sculpture of Drunken Silenus keeps company with fleshy paintings by Rubens
 ??  ?? 4. Equestrian statuette of Marcus Aurelius, c. 1440–45, Filarete
(c. 1400–1469), bronze, ht 37.1cm. Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister, Dresden
4. Equestrian statuette of Marcus Aurelius, c. 1440–45, Filarete (c. 1400–1469), bronze, ht 37.1cm. Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister, Dresden
 ??  ?? 3. Sistine Madonna, 1512, Raphael (1483–1520), oil on canvas, 265 × 196cm. Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister, Dresden
3. Sistine Madonna, 1512, Raphael (1483–1520), oil on canvas, 265 × 196cm. Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister, Dresden
 ??  ?? 5. The Chocolate Girl, c. 1744, Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–89), pastel on parchment, 82.5 × 52.5cm. Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister, Dresden
5. The Chocolate Girl, c. 1744, Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–89), pastel on parchment, 82.5 × 52.5cm. Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister, Dresden
 ??  ?? 6. Sleeping Venus, c. 1508–10, Giorgione (c. 1477/78–1510) and Titian (1488/90–1576), oil on canvas, 108.5 × 175cm. Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister, Dresden
6. Sleeping Venus, c. 1508–10, Giorgione (c. 1477/78–1510) and Titian (1488/90–1576), oil on canvas, 108.5 × 175cm. Gemäldegal­erie Alte Meister, Dresden

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