Gallery of Old Masters
Meister Bertram, Altaraufsatz und Retabel des ehemaligen Hochaltars derPetrikirche in Hamburg,1379/83
Within the Old Masters Collection four areas in particular have been a focus since the founding of the Hamburger Kunsthalle. North German Art around 1400 is one of them. 17 th Century Dutch painting has become a focus thanks to a donation in 1879, to which important works could be added at a later stage. The collection of Italian paintings dating from 1350 until 1800 largely stems from the Collection Wedells. Some works of French painting of the 16 th to 18 th Centuries have been acquired in the second half of the 20 th Century, but they form inhomogeneous smaller complexes.
Exhibitions of the more recent years have consistently been developed from the collection of the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Subjects range from frames (among others Kunst bewegt/ Art moves and Alte Rahmen – neue Sicht/ Old frames – New Perspectives, 2000) to the reverse sides of paintings (2004) while there is an interest in the communication of the work of the restoration department, as well as the presentation of works (in storage) that are not usually displayed. A further important aspect – weaving its thread through all collections at the Hamburger Kunsthalle – is the history of painting in Hamburg. Another research focus of the department lies in the compilation of catalogues of the collection one on Old Masters and one on Dutch Painting, each comprising 400 catalogue entries respectively.
Works by Master Bertram, Master Francke, Hans Holbein the Older, Jan Massys and the Master of female half-length figures, Dutch painters of church interiors, such as Saendram, Houckgeest or de Witte, works by Rembrandt, Ruisdael, Rubens or the Hamburg painters Georg Hinz or Balthasar Denner are permanently exhibited.
The tour through rooms 101-116 begins to the right of the cupola. As this room was decorated in the 1960s and is determined by its tiles and simple chalked walls, as opposed to fabric wall covering, it seems an adequate place for Master Bertram's works. However, since the early years a significant change in the presentation has taken place: the sculpture-wall of the Petri-altar has been recessed and the paintings have been mounted on large supports to the front. At the centre they leave an open space so they form a winged altar in the room through which the sculptures can be perceived on a deeper visual plane. Thus the contrast of the sculptures, which are generally considered fragile, and the dominant luminous paintings on their golden ground with their succinct narrative can be imparted on the visitor. The incentive was to demonstrate the multiple facets of the altar and its physical "weightiness". After passing through a second door in the room, the intention was for the altar to intercept the visitor, to prevent him/her from passing by, to spell-bind them. Now the sculpture-wall, which hitherto had often been ignored due to its minute detail and diversity, is in a position to arouse curiosity. At the same time this calculated mise-en-scene does not impair the concept of legibility.
The golden background of the paintings optically contains the sequence of scenarios. The following room, equally determined by white-washed walls and tiles, provides an intimate space of calm for Master Bertram's Buxtehude-altarpiece, and when the afternoon-sun bathes the room in its light, it becomes a space for contemplation.
The loose hanging in the first of the great rooms (101) alludes to the fact that the works by Hans Holbein the Older, Hans Leonard Schäufelein, and Hans Burgkmair are fragments of a larger work-complex. Only few panels of those constituting the great altars survived. Their sequence has been reconstructed and is represented in the hanging arrangement. In the case of the Thomas-altarpiece by Master Francke, the gaps in the presentation immediately alert the viewer to the missing parts of the pictorial narrative.
The next room presents works of the late 16 th and the early 17 th Centuries. Here portraits commissioned by secular patrons are contrasted with early landscapes, which often provide a setting for religious scenes.
While the sequence of the rooms is determined chronologically, we were also interested in changing moods. One room, characterised by a great harmony of style, subject or composition of the works presented, is succeeded by a room full of contrasts. Different regional approaches to painting and interests are demonstrated on opposite walls. Therefore a certain restfulness is followed by a room full of tension, resulting from the contrast of the works presented on the different walls. A rhythm evolves.
The continuous change of the presentation in the rooms housing the Old Masters is the result of loans, which temporarily travel to national and international exhibitions and are replaced for the duration of their absence. Equally the communication of research results achieved behind the scenes, such as new insights into the painters' lives, their methods of work and the adequate framing of the paintings influence the presentation throughout the galleries. Restored or reframed – as are circa 50 paintings so far – the works appear in a new light.