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Into the Open

Interview with Ralph Gleis, Head of the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin

The desire to walk across the Friedrichs Bridge onto the famous Museum Island seems to be contagious this morning. People flock to the Alte Nationalgalerie, purchase their tickets, and climb the stairs to the exhibition. And it has only been a few minutes since the art museum opened its doors. ...

... “This is what we hoped for,” Ralph Gleis comments about the outstanding visitor response to the exhibition Wanderlust in Berlin. In the following interview, the head of the Alte Nationalgalerie speaks about an important prerequisite for creativity and artists who are seismographs of changes in society—as well as about what the cooperation with Volkswagen means for him.

Mr. Gleis, what motivates so many people to visit the exhibition Wanderlust?

We show magnificent landscape paintings, and each one tells a powerful story. All around us, we see visitors of all ages. Hiking seems to be a topic that transcends art. We thus reach very many people—also those who enjoy spending time in nature. After his visit, one gentleman wrote to me saying that our exhibition was like a short vacation for him. Only the silence of the mountains was missing, because of the many visitors.

How did you come up with the idea of dedicating an exhibition to the theme of hiking?

This idea has been circulating for some time already in the Alte Nationalgalerie. The idea became a project when we succeeded in securing a very special loan from the Hamburger Kunsthalle for our exhibition: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, the most outstanding artist in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. We then put together an international, epoch-spanning exhibition—starting with Romanticism and Caspar David Friedrich and extending up to classical modernism and Emil Nolde.

In what ways are hiking and art related?

In the eighteenth century, hiking was a new cultural technique, and artists were among the first to put on their hiking boots. Not only to discover new motifs in nature, but also to stimulate their creativity. Hiking is not a predetermined journey from A to B. It is a path into the uncertain, because you accept an unknown goal—and this is a key prerequisite for creative processes. Going into nature and transferring the impressions made there directly into sketches and, from the middle of the century—with the invention of the paint tube—capturing it on canvas on site, was downright revolutionary. Landscape painting was suddenly a field of experimentation, and the artists enjoyed this new sense of freedom.

Why did you make the painting by Caspar David Friedrich the point of departure for the exhibition?

His Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is a figure that every one of us can identify with. As though you yourself were standing on the top of the mountain and had this magnificent view over the mountain landscape right in front of you. You get the impression that the painting opens a window into another world.

What do you mean?

Art is always a reflection of society, and artists like Caspar David Friedrich were seismographs of radical social change. Sometimes artists are observers who analyze these processes in their pictures—and sometimes even protagonists who advance these processes.

Which artists belong in this category?

Hiking was an expression of a whole new attitude towards life, an expression of freedom. The large-format painting Bonjour Monsieur Courbet depicts the painter confronting his most important patron as a self-determined artist: with a walking stick and gaiters. The painting with a self-portrait of the artist as a hiker demonstrates his pride and independence. In 1855, the World’s Fair in Paris was the first to showcase art on a large scale. And Courbet was so free as to present more than forty of his own works in an independent showroom—today, we would call it an “off-space.”

Dr. Ralph Gleis in front of the painting "A Mountain Climber" by Jens Ferdinand Willumsen in the exhibition "Wanderlust", Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

The tour through the exhibition ends with the painting A Mountaineer by Jens Ferdinand Willumsen. Why?

For the portrayal of the theme of hiking from Caspar David Friedrich until this time, about a hundred years later, this painting creates a good closing link. Against the backdrop of a high mountain landscape, the Danish artist painted his wife in a larger-than-life format. With a wide skirt and a comfortable pullover, she demonstrates that hiking was not solely a male domain. Women also hiked self-confidently through nature—without purpose and goal, which for a long time had been considered unseemly. In Denmark, the Mountaineer is an icon.

Why is it important for us to deal, through artists and landscape painting, with a time that goes back hundreds of years?

We are connected by a similar emotional state. Like the people on the turn from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, we live in an age, in which velocity plays a major role and which many perceive as being highly accelerated. Much is changing: socially, politically, technically. And so, we also try to wangle some free space, much like the artists at the time, who went into nature to connect with themselves and decelerate.

Do you enjoy hiking?

I often walk to work. I enjoy doing this because it’s the best way for me to think about things.

Volkswagen has a long-standing partnership with the Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. What does the cooperation mean for you?

It is incredibly important that we have a partner in Volkswagen, with whom we can realize such exhibitions—without any provisions. It gives us the freedom to choose topics that we consider relevant. We cultivate an atmosphere of exchange in order to develop ideas together and make decisions together. What can come of this is demonstrated by this project: an exciting exhibition that inspires many people.

  • Rolling Studio

    The „Mobile Studio“¹ for the educational work of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

    Discovering art, developing ideas: The “Rolling Studio” is a creative workshop on four wheels. A few weeks ago, Volkswagen handed over the VW Multivan to the Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It supports the cultural education work in the six sites of the Nationalgalerie. The vehicle was converted according to the ideas of children: They expressed their wishes with drawings. During the exhibition Wanderlust, the mobile creative workshop is in action for the first time. Young exhibition visitors currently use it as an open-air studio, where they can transform their impressions of the artwork they encountered in the museum into their own images.

Fuel consumption:

  1. Transporter box van BlueMotion, 2.0 l TDI engine with 110 kW, fuel consumption in l / 100 km: urban between 7.5 and 7.1, outside between 5.2 and 4.8, combined between 6.1 and 5.6. CO2 emissions in g / km: combined between 158 and 147