The State Museums of Berlin and the Legacy of James Simon

  • by Michael Wood, BAR Contributor
  • Saturday October 25, 2008
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If you ever have a month on your hands and want to spend it surveying a wealth of art, evidently Berlin is the place to be. The city has the enviable status of being home to over 100 museums, including the State Museums of Berlin, a network of 15 institutions whose holdings were substantially augmented by the generosity of one man: James Simon. This fact, little-known outside Germany and a coterie of art aficionados, is driven home by a new exhibition at the Legion on Honor, The State Museums of Berlin and the Legacy of James Simon. On view through January 18, 2009, it's an appreciative tribute to the far-reaching cultural interests of perhaps the most generous art collector and philanthropist in Berlin history. (His descendant, Tim Simon, who lives in Pacific Heights, was instrumental in bringing the exhibition to the Legion.)

A German Jew and shrewd textile merchant who lost many members of his family to the Holocaust, James Simon was part of an esteemed Jewish tradition of giving and arts patronage that came to an abrupt halt with the ascension of the Nazis. Simon and his brother amassed their fortune by correctly predicting the American Civil War; they stepped into the breach to supply cotton when Southern production of the staple was interrupted. He donated most of his formidable collection, literally thousands of objects, to the State Museums of Berlin, but the show focuses on the nine that had the closest relationship to their benefactor.

The curators have divided over 140 objects, which include works dating from the 3rd millennium BC to the late 18th century, Old Master paintings, works on paper such as Japanese woodblock prints, European folk art, Renaissance and Baroque sculptures, plus Simon's personal stash, into areas of collecting. The Egyptian and Near Eastern antiquities are among the strongest sections in the exhibition, revealing Simon's major sponsorship of excavations and archaeological expeditions to Amarna, once the capital of the Old Kingdom, Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and the Near East. The slightly faded, delicate painted silks, brought back from a remote area of Turkistan, on the northern route of the Silk Road, are as fragile as old writing paper.

Yes, the mesmerizing limestone "Bust of Queen Nefertiti," found in 1912, is part of the collection, but, as the original was too fragile to be shipped, it's represented here by a replica. Adjacent to it is a beguiling study for Nefertiti, a work-in-progress that resembles a theatrical mask. The high cheekbones, elegant long neck and almond eyes emerged in this version, which lends insight into the craftsmanship of the Tuthmosis workshop, as does the finished "Head of a Princess," with its elongated skull and hollow, alien eyes. Another famous work, "Head of a Queen," from the Eighteenth Dynasty, is a tiny yet majestic wood sculpture of the regal Queen Tiy, an older woman who was Nefertiti's mother-in-law. Despite her small size, she's an imposing figure with an imperious expression, gold detailing and miniature headdress.

The Babylonian gallery, which features glazed brick reliefs of the Isthtar gate unearthed during the Mesopotamia dig, depicts a striding lion with teeth bared, a symbol of the king as well as a third century A.D. gold medallion, taken from Alexandria in 1902, etched with a portrait of a heroic Alexander the Great.

As pleasurable as it is to view these treasures, it's difficult not to be conscious of the dispute over the provenance of great antiquities that has been raging unresolved among major museums, collectors and dealers, some of whom have returned the artworks to their countries of origin.

Moving west and forward in time, there's the wonderfully robust, late 17th-century bronze that animates the athletic, epic struggle between "Tarquinius and Lucretia." Its underlying narrative is the rape of Lucretia, a woman who told everyone she had been violated, and thereby brought down a king. Yet another conflict, this one a titanic duel between the Archangel Michael and Lucifer, Heaven and Hell, comes alive in Luca Giordano's morbidly visceral, immense canvas, "Saint Michael" (1663).

But if there's a single motivating reason to make the trek out to the Legion, it's "In the Summer" (1868), an early Renoir that signaled where the master might be headed well before he was swept up in the Impressionist tide. It's a portrait of a solid, fleshy pubescent girl, who is certainly not an ethereal creature, with long, dark hair and one ivory shoulder bared, posed in front of greenery. She wears a striped skirt and a sullen expression as if she were impatient to be done with the sitting. The stunning painting has more defined edges and the luminosity is less pronounced than it would be in Renoir's later, Impressionist work.

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Michael Wood is a contributor and Editorial Assistant for EDGE Publications.

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