Berlin's Latest Art Blockbuster: The Most Beautiful French Come from New York

By Siobhán Dowling

Berliners are in for a treat this summer as yet another blockbuster art show opens -- this time it's French 19th-century masterpieces from New York's Met. But can the show live up to the phenomenon that was the MoMA exhibition in 2004?

Berlin is covered in an elegant French frosting of red, white and blue, and half-naked ladies coquettishly adorn thousands of posters across the city. Another sell-out art blockbuster show has just arrived in the German capital: This time French 19th-century masterpieces, all the way from New York City.

When New York's Metropolitan Museum recently undertook mammoth rennovations and an expansion of its historical Central Park home, built in 1880, it took the opportunity to send some of its world-famous collection's crowning jewels back to where they came from: Europe.

But this grand tour has only one destination: Berlin. Encouraged by the monumental success of an exhibition mounted by another New York art institution, MoMA, in the German capital three years ago, the Met sees the show as a chance to let Europeans know just what a fine collection is housed in the imposing Manhattan museum and, it hopes, tempt Berlin art lovers back across the pond to see its other treasures.

Europe's Art World Event of the Year

On Friday, Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie opens its doors to welcome visitors to what is being billed as one of the greatest events in the European art scene this year. The "Most Beautiful French Come from New York" features 150 of the most important French masterpieces from the 19th Century. "These are among our very best … the cream of the crop," Met curator Gary Tinterow told reporters on Wednesday, describing the show as "an unparalleled survey of the history of French painting in the 19th century."

The Met is home to the finest collection of 19th-century French art outside of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. While for many the first thing that comes to mind is impressionism, in fact the show is a survey of the entire century, touching on classicism, romanticism, impressionsm and realism. From Gericualt and Delacroix towards the start of the century, to artists such as Cézanne, Bonnard and Matisse in its closing years, offering a portent of the modernism to come. As the show's curator Angela Schneider emphasizes, France was the intellectual and creative center of the 19th century.

Peter Raue, the Neue Nationalgalerie's chairman of the board, described the exhibition as Berlin's "biggest and riskiest" ever. There have been no hiccups with transporting and mounting these priceless paintings, but there is a real financial gamble at play here.

Berlin's Big Bet

While the MoMA show was a resounding financial success, raking in profits of €6.5 million ($8.7 million), it had seven months to attract its 1.2 million visitors. But the Met show will be just over four months long and so has to sell at least half a million tickets to break even. As Raue told reporters on Wednesday, just because the show is shorter, doesn’t make the costs any less prohibitive: the show still has to be organized and the paintings still have to be shipped, mounted and insured -- an "enormous technical and logistical task." But will the Berlin public have the same appetite for these 'grandes peintures' as it did for the moderns? The early indicators are good -- 5,000 VIP tickets have already sold out and guided tours have been booked solid for weeks in advance. But it will take hundreds of thousands more visitors to recoup the €8 million the museum is spending to mount the exhibition.

The Neue Nationalgalerie is hoping to avoid one particular aspect of the MoMA show. In 2004 art lovers, not just from Berlin, but from right across Europe, queued for hours on end to see the modernist masterpieces. While most happily factored this in as part of the experience, this time out the organizers are hoping that things will run more smoothly. Same-day visitors to the show will be asked to take a number, then go off and do some shopping, have lunch or visit one of the many other galleries or museums located a stone's throw from the show. Their visiting times will then either be flashed on a monitor outside the museum or sent to them by text message on their mobile phones.

The Met show itself will include seminal works such as Ingres' "Odalisque in Grisaille," Courbet's "Woman with a Parrot," Manet's "Boating," Degas' "The Dance Class," Monet's "La Grenouillere," Gaugin's "Ia Orana Maria," and Rodin's sculpture "The Burghers of Calais." Some artists such as Courbet, Degas and Monet are getting entire rooms all to themselves.

The show aims to show the radical change in values that occurred over the century, when what are now seen as masterpieces were rejected by the dominant Salon, which was still wedded to the grand historical themes of the academy. Paintings that were scandalous at the time have become banal with their reproduction. But by putting academy paintings next to impressionism and fauvism it should be possible, even for today's jaded eyes to sense something of the revolutionary struggle towards modernism.

Berlin is also keen to emphasize that it was way ahead of the French in appreciating their own art. In 1896 Hugo von Tschudi, who just been appointed director of Berlin's National Gallery, became the first museum director in the world to start to collect artists such as Eduard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne. An accompanying show at Alte National Galerie will exhibit Berlin's collection of 60 works of French 19th-century art.

This could well be the last time that many get to see these works this side of the Atlantic. As Neue Nationalgalerie Director Peter-Klaus Schuster said on Wednesday to a thronged press conference: "There will never be a show like this again." The Met has already said that once the works of art are safely back in their newly renovated home, they will likely never leave the museum again.

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