Since the end of February, a strange phenomenon can be witnessed in a corner of Berlin – a continuous line of people circling themselves around a glass building from early morning to late at night. In this city where crowds are rare and streets can sometimes be so empty you wonder if time has stopped and left you in an alternative world, to see a que (“schlange” in German – literally, a snake) somewhere other than town hall offices and cheap supermarkets can be quite a bizarre experience in itself. So what calls for such behavior? The bright pink sign gives it away: Das MoMA in Berlin.

Extensive renovations and expansion taking place at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has effectively freed much of the most famous art collection in the world to travel abroad. More than 200 of these masterpieces have found their temporary home here in Berlin, who’s museums and progressive art inspired Alfred H. Barr, MoMA’s founding director,in the 1920s in his vision of MoMA’s first collection.

Housing this collection is none other than Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie, the epitome of glass structures and in its day the largest suspended steel construction in Europe. The historical, personal (Barr originally wanted the Bauhaus architect to design his museum in Manhattan) and aesthetic fusion of Modernist art and architecture is impressive and the masterpieces are breathtaking. Though one has seen them time and time again in books or posters or in some other reproduced form, it is always shockingly fresh when they are seen in flesh. But going past the permanent ques (4 hours waiting time at its peak), hearing the news reports on record admission numbers (over 100,000 visitors in the first 20 days), and feeling the general buzz surrounding the exhibition, I couldn’t help but wonder: had the Berliners (and visiting tourists) always loved modern art so much?

The exhibition reads like a who’s who in modern art, from C_zanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Monet, to Picasso and Matisse, Kandinsky and Chagall, Mir_ and Dal_; contemporary American painters such as de Kooning, Pollock, Hopper and Newman; pop artist including Warhol and Lichtenstein; sculptures by Flavin, Judd, and Hesse; as well as local heroes such as Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and Georg Grosz.

There is an enormous satisfaction in seeing these pieces, each brushstroke, each subtly selected color, the scale, the size, and I don’t doubt for a second the pleasure and inspiration they bring to their audience, just as art should do. But for the many that had waited for hours for entry into this land of the artistic riches, it must also be irresistible not to relish in the “been there, seen that” factor; whether it be through boasting outloud or secretly smiling to oneself inside, there is a certain smugness to the thought, “I HAVE SEEN “THE DANCE””, or “The Boy Leading a Horse”, or “The Starry Night ” or “Gas”, or, actually, all of them at once! I have a sneaking suspicion that this is in fact, the x-factor behind the exhibition. Like the Eiffel Tower, or Big Ben, or Brandenburg Gate, the exhibition itself has become a monument to be visited and reported on at later occasions, an essential stopover for tourists, an obligatory call for locals. The smugness has now reach into the terrains of: “I have been to MoMA”.

But of course, it is also about art. MoMA in Berlin is like a modern art encyclopedia condensed into the basement of Mies’s small but perfectly formed building, and herein lies its beauty: unlike the Tate Modern or even New York’s MoMA itself, which are larger in scale and perhaps more comprehensive, MoMA in Berlin offers a compact blitz-tour through the key points in modernism, guaranteeing the significance of each and every piece, like a compilation album of the Beatles’s hits. Personally, the most moving moment for me was seeing Klimt’s “Hope II” and the gorgeously painted skin tones of the woman’s chest. THAT would be worth queing up for.

MoMA in Berlin
Date: February 20 – September 19, 2004
Place: Neue Nationalgalerie
Address: Potsdamer Strasse 50, 10785 Berlin-Tiergarten

Text and Photos: Kristy Kagari Sakai
Additional photos courtesy of Jens Liebchen

[Help wanted] Inviting volunteer staff / pro bono for contribution and translation. Please e-mail to us.