Essential Architecture-  Berlin

New National Gallery


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe


Potsdamer Strasse 50 Berlin-Tiergarten


1962 to 1968


Modern Miesien


steel frame with coffered rib roof


  This interior view of the Neue Nationalgalerie's ground floor shows the play of light off the reflective floor, as well as the animated red LCD tracks on the ceiling.
  'It's not a concept that can easily be explained'... Vanessa Beecroft stands in front of VB55 at the New National Gallery, Berlin. Photo: Arnd Wiegmann/ Reuters
Her critics accuse her of exploiting women. Her fans praise her as a bold and daring feminist. Either way, the queues to see Vanessa Beecroft's latest work in Berlin were extremely long - hardly surprising, one suspects, given that the art on offer involved 100 naked women.
The performance was the biggest ever staged by Beecroft, a 35-year-old New York-based conceptual artist who has been staging nude tableaux vivants since 1993. Gradually, they have attracted increasing attention, to the point where a Beecroft performance is now a major international arts event. She has sometimes dressed her naked models in high heels and garish red, yellow or platinum wigs. At the preview of her latest show, Beecroft said that she had tried this time to keep her models as "natural" as possible. For her latest performance, entitled "VB55" and staged in Berlin's New National Gallery, the women were wearing see-through tights. What, though, was it all about? And did the show - introduced by two German professors - amount to anything more than soft porn for intellectuals?

"I want the women to be slightly hypnotised, so they appear removed and detached from the audience," she says. "It's not a concept that can be easily explained. I would say it includes embarrassment, shame, violence and abuse. There is a feeling of embarrassment, no matter if the viewer is a man or a woman." Is she embarrassed by her own performances, then? "Yes, I am."
Certainly, there is plenty about Beecroft's work that is voyeuristic. But the most interesting aspect is almost its cold and calculating cruelty: the public performance lasted for three long hours. Apart from the odd stretch and yawn, the women are instructed to remain as still and silent as possible. They are warned not to "act sexy". Towards the end they can lie on the floor. At the preview, attended by dozens of journalists and TV crews, several of the "girls", as Beecroft calls them, sat down exhausted. Most looked distinctly bored.

For VB55, ordinary women aged 18 to 65 were chosen, rather than professional models; the artist also used more women than ever before. Their hair colours - red, yellow and black - were picked to allude to Germany's flag.

"I didn't mind being naked. After a while you don't even notice. The problem is that nobody told us how to look," one 27-year-old volunteer, Nina Petereit, grumbled afterwards. "The artist gave us no direction. I didn't find it very structured." She added: "It was also really cold and the vegetarian food they gave us was awful."

Prior to being sent out to stand naked before the public, the women were rubbed in almond oil, the rather bizarre result being to give them shiny breasts. "I consider my performances to be one body of work stored in different parts of the world," Beecroft explains. "It's almost like an experiment in directing, in an almost brutal and violent way, women in front of an audience ... There are references to paintings, images, movies and texts."

Not everyone shares her high opinion of her work, however. One critic said that there was nothing wrong with women taking all their clothes off, but that in Beecroft's case the result was "trivial", "cliched" and "unchallenging". Others, though, detect hidden influences from classical painting - Rembrandt, Holbein, Della Francesca, have all been mentioned - as well as Renaissance sculpture and European cinema. (Beecroft says she is a keen admirer of Helmut Newton and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.) Each of her shows is exhaustively videoed, with photographers allowed to take close-up shots, a practice that verges on the creepy. Dealers then flog the results. The performances are titled in strict mathematical sequence after the artist's initials (VB01, VB02, VB25, VB55 etc).

Beecroft, a petite figure in a buttoned-up raincoat, made no mention of her long struggle with bulimia - one factor, surely, in her almost callous use of female nudity. The daughter of an Italian mother and British father, she has had an obsessive relationship with food since her early teens. She has admitted to crash-dieting with amphetamines, taking anti-depressives, smoking to keep her weight down, and exercising compulsively. Her first show in 1993 was based on her Book of Food - a diary she kept between 1983 and 1993 detailing everything she had ever eaten. The diary was placed in the middle of a Milan art gallery; Beecroft then directed 30 women, most of them fellow art students dressed in her own clothes, to move around it. This first "performance" became the template for future shows. Over time, an element of nudity crept in, to the point where a Beecroft performance would now seem inconceivable without it. As her reputation grew, fashion designers such as Miuccia Prada, Helmut Lang and Dolce & Gabbana began providing her with clothes.

These days, Beecroft doesn't strip off herself and join her models; she did, however, recently pose naked at her rural home in Long Island, which she shares with her husband Greg Durkin, 28, and their sons, Dean and Virgil.

Whether her work is any good or not, though, there is no doubt that Beecroft's latest venue was well chosen. The modernist New National Gallery or Neue Nationalgalerie was designed by Mies van der Rohe, and is one of Berlin's most prestigious buildings. It is completely transparent - allowing passers-by to stare at a lot of naked flesh. Indeed, a group of Italian schoolchildren gawped dumbfounded through the glass after turning up at the preview by accident.

Copyright The Guardian Monday April 11, 2005
Neue Nationalgalerie is a museum for classical modern art in Berlin, with main focus on early the 20th century. The museum building was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and opened in 1968.

Nearly all of the museum's display space is located underground. The ground floor, which is the only floor above the surface, serves principally as a lobby and ticket sales area. Nevertheless, the lobby contains the most dramatic interior design in the museum: the walls of the museum are almost entirely glass, interrupted only with slim metal structural supports, and the white natural light transmitted through these walls reflects off the dark, highly polished floor. The ceiling, constructed as a grid of dark metal beams, is decorated with long lines of LCD displays, which continuously scroll abstract patterns down their length.

The unusual natural illumination, coming from around and below the viewer rather than above, and the continuous suggestion of motion in the ceiling, combine to shock the viewer out of his or her usual way of seeing, perhaps preparing the audience to bring a fresh eye to the art housed below. Yet, at the same time, the simplicity and rigorously pure geometry of the space's rectangular forms makes the design seem tranquil, rather than obtrusive. This careful balance is typical of Mies van der Rohe's mature style.


The main exhibition spaces of Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie lie below the terrace that supports the famous minimalist glass and steel enclosure for temporary exhibitions. The building provides a marked contrast to the other buildings of the Kulturforum, of which the Nationalgalerie is the only building not designed by Hans Scharoun. The comparison between Scharoun’s constructivist, expressionistic Philharmonie, Kammermusiksaal, and Staatsbibliothek, and Mies’ minimalist gallery is a short essay in competing views of modernism in the 1950s and 1960s.

The austerity of Mies’ composition is commonly seen as an appropriate interpretation of a classical system of columns and beams, with little reference to the function of the building except for the transparency afforded by the use of large expanses of glass and sinuous structural steel. The Neue Nationalgalerie is often compared with the Altes Museum, designed by Schinkel, Berlin’s most well-known 19th century architect. Similar to the Nationalgalerie, the Altes Museum (in classical architectural language) is as mute about its function as it is attendant to its geometry.

Along with Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion, the Neue Nationalgalerie is considered one of the foremost examples of structural abstraction emblematic of the International Style.

Jay Berman 1999


How to visit

The Neue Nationalgalerie is south of the Tiergarten and west of Potsdamer Platz, next door to the Philharmonie.

Ubahn/Sbahn: S1, S2, U2

Station: Potsdamer Platz

The New National Gallery is one of three principal venues holding and exhibiting the collections of the National Gallery, the others being Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie), currently under renovation (9/99), and the Hamburger Bahnhof, carved out of a redesigned railway station. The Old National generally holds nineteenth century collections, the New holds twentieth century modernist work, and the Hamburger Bahnhof is the venue for contemporary art.
The New National, completed in 1968, is handsomely housed in a classic Mies van der Rohe Bauhaus box of steel and glass, with the main galleries located below street level in rooms whose only windows are a wall of glass in the rear facing a sculpture garden. The upper, street level is surrounded by open terracing where additional significant large scale sculpture is displayed, including the delightful Calder (see photo, left), Tetes et Queue (Heads and Tails) and a massive Henry Moore bronze, Archer, sadly defaced with graffiti at a recent viewing.
With the great size of the museum's accumulated collections, only part of its holdings will be on display at any given point of time. Special exhibitions, which include both works from the collections and works borrowed from others', also may be seen, such as the fascinating current show exploring themes in twentieth century German art (and its non-German influences), an exhibit that spreads over all three venues of the National Gallery, through January 9, 2000.
The New National's segment of the exhibit, Matter and spirit, "highlights the dematerialisation of art under the influence of philosophy, religion, scholarship, and science and at the same time outlines the development of art into a sheer boundless expansion of our consciousness and faculties of perception." Make of that what you will; a stroll through the gallery is richly rewarding with an interesting selection of works, many from the permanent collections. The keystone work of the exhibit is a great American painting, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue IV, a huge Barnett Newman canvas from 1969-1970, two large rectangles, primary red and primary yellow, separated by a narrower band of dark blue. Newman, a powerfully influential participant in midcentury abstractionist development in New York, is seen as tremendously influential on German art as well.
In a somewhat lighter vein, there is a delightful group of paintings by Paul Klee. His 1920 Harlequin on the Bridge displays the typical charm and wit of this Swiss master. Less familiar is a larger work, Unfangen (The Embrace), 1932, which is totally abstract with a pointillist look and evokes Aboriginal "dreamings." A large new installation piece by Raffael Rheisberg, Antiquity Doesn't Know Us, arranges over 100 architectural elements in carefully composed lines on a painted white base.
Other artists with substantial representation in this show are Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polk, Wassily Kandinsky, and Max Beckman. There is a group of works from the optical art explorations of the early 1980's, with lots of fluorescent intensity. But the section that most struck this viewer was a selection of recent works exploring the deconstruction of the human form. A "C-print," a digitally manipulated photograph by Aziz + Cucker called "Chris" is a large sized photo of a man's face; its super-realist look is confounded by the missing eyes and mouth, replaced by natural looking morphed continuations of the skin patterns. Effective and disturbing. A bronze has the figures of two women each missing the lower part of one leg and, nearby, mounted on the wall, two bronze heads of the women with a toe lodged where their foreheads meet. The figures are beautifully rendered; the images are curious, edgy, provocative.
With ambitious exhibitions, scholarly (and very serious) curation, and a major collection to draw on, the New National Gallery must be seen as a required - and highly pleasurable - stop on the art lover's itinerary.