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Romanticism: Roots of Modernity. The Altes Museum in Berlin: An Institution of German Romanticism.

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Romanticism roots of modernity

Romanticism: Roots of Modernity

The Altes Museum in Berlin:

An Institution of German Romanticism


Before the 19th century, the activity of collecting art was concentrated in two principal groups of people: the aristocracy--especially royalty--and the clerics of the church. Great collections of art were built up by the papacy in the Vatican palace and by the rulers of many nations.

The great collection of art housed in the Louvre in Paris today is the legacy of the Bourbon dynasty. Francis I invited Leonardo da Vinci to live and work at his court. When Leonardo died, his works became the property of the court, which is why the Mona Lisa and other paintings of his are part of the Louvre collections today.

The royal houses of Spain, England, and other countries also assembled collections of art as did minor aristocratic houses.


There were several conditions commonly associated with the kind of collecting practiced by royalty.

• Collecting was haphazard, since it reflected the taste and choices of successive rulers who added to the collection; it was therefore often viewed as a record of dynastic power.

• Collections were housed in palaces and thus not accessible to the public, except by invitation.

• Collections were personal or family possessions and therefore not always well managed or conserved.

• Collections were not carefully curated so that information about individual objects was sometimes lost.

• Collections were not systematically or scientifically preserved so that damage to works of art might occur without appropriate repairs.


At the end of the 18th century, two important changes took place with regard to royal collecting.

First, with the demise of the Bourbon dynasty, after the French Revolution, the Louvre Palace became the Musée Centrale des Arts with the former royal collections open to the public. The Louvre was opened as a museum in 1793 and immediately became a form of popular entertainment in Paris.

Second, a different attitude about acquisition and mounting of collections arose in Prussia, partly as a result of advice given to the Prussian King Wilhelm III about collecting and partly as a result of the decision to commission Karl Friedrich Schinkel to design an appropriate building to house and display the collection.


Several events, persons, and factors played key roles in the history of the museum project.

• In 1786, the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts was reorganized by Friedrich Anton von Heynitz.

• The Prussian rulers had always allowed artists to study their private collections

• In 1797, the architectural historian Alois Hirt, a professor of fine arts in Berlin, delivered a birthday address to the king in which he called for a single centralized picture gallery, in keeping with other major monarchies in Dresden and Vienna, which would be available to scholars and students for study and copying.

• The Prussian collections were decimated by the Napoleonic wars, leading the king’s advisors after 1810 to suggest a systematic plan for rebuilding the collection.

• The rapid expansion of the collections demanded a new museum by 1822


Two fundamentally different conceptions of the museum arose in response to the decision to build a new structure to house the Prussian collections.

Alois Hirt proposed that the museum be principally a support for the Berlin Academy of Art, its galleries available to students each day--a kind of refuge from the world and a place to gain inspiration: a temple of the muses. The public at large would be admitted within restricted hours on certain days. This was due in large part to the bad reputation of so-called public museums, such as the Louvre, which were not necessarily suitable environments for the display and study of works of art.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, however, suggested that the museum was not an institution for entertainment or the display of wealth and personal, even dynastic power. Rather, it should “awaken [in the general population] a sense of fine art as one of the most important branches of human civilization.” It should educate the public.


Schinkel’s view of the museum as a cultural institution prevailed. The next question concerned the site. Schinkel proposed a very dramatic site on the island in the Spree on which the Lustgarten was located. The model of the museum to the left of center faces south toward the royal palace. To the left (east) is the cathedral of Berlin. The clear message is that art exists on the same level as church and state.


This is the original disposition of the Spreeinsel with a canal cut across it from west to east along the north side of the Lustgarten.

Schinkel proposed widening the west arm of the Spree and using the soil acquired to fill in the canal as the site for the new museum.

This meant that the Lustgarten and its three structures--palace, cathedral, and museum--would be a complete institutional representation of Prussian culture at the end of the grand boulevard called Unter den Linden.


This is the view from Unter den Linden, looking east. The plan shows the second and final organization of the landscaping in the Lustgarten in front of the museum.


This is how Schinkel envisioned the museum, as one would first encounter it at the bridge leading from Unter den Linden onto the Spree island and the Lustgarten.


The model for the Altes Museum was the Temple of Apollo Didyma at Miletus, a large temple of the Ionic Order, built in the II-Ic BC.


From the eighteen-columned portico one may view the cathedral and (originally) the palace.

The ascent up the steps separates the visitor from the everyday world and the commonplace, an experience reinforced in the portico and entry sequence.


Upon entering the museum, the visitor encounters the spatial surprise of the central rotunda. This form, based on the Pantheon Temple of ancient Rome, is meant to give the visitor a sense of awe by its overwhelming architectural grandeur. It is also meant to convey a religious connotation to the art displayed in the building. The association of art with the sacred, already implied by the exterior of the museum, is brought to full expression in the rotunda.


The arrangement of the works of art followed a scheme unlike any other museum or gallery in Europe. A systematic installation placed the works in historical and chronological arrangement. A clear curatorial plan guided the acquisition of new works to fill in gaps and extend the collection into desired areas.

Thus, the works were displayed in such a way that viewers could understand the collection and enjoy it intellectually as well as emotionally.

Sculpture was displayed on the ground floor and placed against the structural columns so that the viewer could walk around the piece and view it three-dimensionally. Painting was displayed on the upper floor and was mounted on movable partitions or screens that could be re-configured, if desired.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Altes Museum in Berlin set a precedent for all major museums and galleries up to the present.


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