Berlin Arts

The Berggruen Museum

On the top floor there is a flat where the old man himself lived.

Not a bad solution for old age, walking around a gallery talking to visitors, explaining the paintings one’s collected. And in the morning, there is the thrill of descending the great stairwell from the illuminated cupola. It feels more like a princely residence than the old barracks of the Prussian King’s “Garde du Corps”. All that is missing are some comfortable sofas, music, and a liquor cabinet. It’s a shame, though, to be under constant surveillance by the staff guarding all the Picasso, Klee, Matisse and Giacometti. Or else one could really have some fun.

Heinz Berggruen (1914-2007) suffered both excitement and pain before his lofty retirement. He was born to an acculturated Jewish-German family from Wilmersdorf in Berlin, spent time in France as a youth, then escaped the Nazis in 1936 to study at the University of California–Berkeley. He blossomed in the art world of San Francisco, met Diego Rivera, and had a month-long affair with Frida Kahlo. During the Second World War, his language skills were put to the service of the US Army Signal Corps, and he returned to Germany as an enemy soldier. With Berlin, and his family’s home, in ruins, he chose Paris as his next port of call in 1947, opened a bookshop on the Ile St-Louis, and became friends with Paul Eluard, and, most importantly, Picasso (he later collected 130 of his works). As an art dealer, Berggruen made his name famous. A large part of his remarkable collection was given to the city of Berlin in 1996.

Walking through the collections I notice two things. The first is how beautifully put together this collection is, especially the Picasso galleries.

In one room Picasso’s women recline, in the next they are all sitting in conversation. African sculptures are displayed to elucidate his studies for Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. The museum is small but one can see all the most important phases of Picasso’s changing style: from blue to rose to surreal and so forth. A story is told, and a formal unity also conserved ––no small feat for such a small gallery.

One also notices how completely Berggruen turned his back on the Americas and American art. Berggruen once said: ‘I am neither French nor German, I am European’. I think it’s odd he does not mention America in this self-identification, the country where he had his education, where he started his career, had his first marriage and children ––the country of which he was an army veteran. Isn’t it odd, considering just how important American modern art was in the 1950s, precisely the time when he began collecting?

Berggruen’s concerns, not just in terms of art, but also personal, were very much focused on the ravaged European continent. Berggruen eventually found his way back to the country of his birth as an old man. He strongly rejected the idea that Jews should not return to live in Germany. “Understanding and tolerance are traditional Jewish virtues… One can no longer turn one’s back on the country of Dürer and Goethe, Beethoven and Brahms, Gottfried Benn and Max Beckmann”.

In this way, the museum is, he said, a ‘gesture of reconciliation’ with the people of Berlin, and he sold the paintings to the city for a seventh of their then market value of 1.5 billion marks.

Meanwhile, the Berggruen name is still familiar around the German capital. Heinz Berggruen’s son, Nicolas, is one of the world’s most eccentric men of wealth, famous for his rejection of worldly things. He is known as the ‘homeless billionaire’, because he lives in hotel rooms.

I wonder if he has thought about taking over his father’s rooftop flat above the museum, above so many beautiful things that provide a still and seemingly eternal company ––a place his father eventually settled after so many years banished from home.


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Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.