CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator in the Spotlight:
Bernd Ebert Chief Curator of Dutch and German Baroque Painting, Alte Pinakothek in Munich (April, 2024)

A dominant theme of my professional career, and one which continues to motivate me to this day, is shifting perspectives. This has played a formative role from the very beginning of my training, as I sought experience in a variety of fields.

I made the firm decision to study art history following my schooling at home and abroad. Rather than proceeding straight to university, however, I worked for Deutsche Bank in Dresden for two years, as I knew that legal and financial experience was rapidly becoming more important for those working in the cultural sector. Following this, I chose to pair a degree in art history with business administration and law, a combination that has opened doors and served me well. I learned a great deal from the interdisciplinary curricula, foremost the ability to adopt other perspectives and assume budget and legal responsibilities.

While pursuing my degree, I felt it was important to explore diverse occupations within the art world and I gained various experience working for an art logistics company, with art dealers and consultants, and for museums in several continents, including the National Gallery and Irma Stern Museum in South Africa and the Development Office of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Why am I explaining all this? Our specialization as art historians is important, but embracing different disciplines and perspectives is critical. The French artist Francis Picabia put it in a nutshell: “Our heads are round so that our thoughts can change direction”. Looking back, I have realized that this is what defines my career. This is what drives me. This is what showed me the way forward. And this is what I would like to pass on to a younger generation.

At the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin I had the good fortune to help shape projects that were generally conceived as crossover, spanning the different collections of an “encyclopedic museum”. Among these was a series of exhibitions On the way to the Humboldt Forum, developed with The Technical Image at the Hermann von Helmholtz Zentrum fĂŒr Kulturtechnik and the Department of Art and Visual History at Humboldt University in Berlin. Following this, I worked on the development and coordination of a number of exhibitions including The Secret of the Pearl in Art for the GemĂ€ldegalerie in Berlin, The Art of the Enlightenment at the National Museum of China in Beijing, Renaissance and Reformation: German Art in the Age of DĂŒrer and Cranach at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as further cultural projects in China, India, Brazil, the Gulf States, the US and Georgia. I also contributed to the planning and organization of the Masterplan Museumsinsel, with its Archaeological Promenade. These diverse projects are united by their cross-cultural and interdisciplinary nature – key factors in inspiring creativity in the visual arts as well as in music, literature, and performance art.

Since 2013 I have served as Chief Curator of the Dutch and German Baroque paintings at the Bayerische StaatsgemÀldesammlungen in Munich. The collections comprise not only those on view and preserved at the Alte Pinakothek, but those on permanent loan to affiliate state galleries throughout Bavaria. As such, I am currently involved in the redesign of the Staatsgalerie in Bamberg with my colleague Gabriel Dette, who is responsible for the collections of Early Netherlandish and German paintings.

Bernd Ebert in the storage facilities of the Alte Pinakothek

Bernd Ebert in the storage facilities of the Alte Pinakothek

The Bavarian State Paintings Collections are unique because unlike many other international institutions, whose substantial acquisitions were made by museum professionals in the nineteenth century, the nucleus of the collection comprises acquisitions made by the House of Wittelsbach from the sixteenth century onward. An enormous collection of paintings arrived in Munich around 1800 as the result of entailed succession from various branches of the family with galleries in DĂŒsseldorf, Mannheim, and ZweibrĂŒcken. They were displayed in the Residenz, the Hofgartengalerie, Schloss Nymphenburg, Schloss Schleißheim, and, from 1836, the Alte Pinakothek. Following the secularization of church property at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a substantial number of additional works entered the collections, further enhanced by acquisitions in the 20th and 21st centuries. These later additions include significant Dutch paintings, among them two portraits by Frans Hals (Willem Croes and Willem van Heythuysen), Emanuel de Witte’s family portrait, Ferdinand Bol’s group portrait of the syndics of Amsterdam wine merchant’s guild, and Rembrandt’s Self-portrait of 1629, in addition to a large-format landscape painting by Philips Koninck and Jacob van Ruisdael’s panoramic view of Ootmarsum. The most recent acquisition for the department of Dutch paintings is the earliest street scene by the mysterious Jacobus Vrel. Unfortunately, significant works were de-accessioned from the initially ducal, then electoral, and later royal collection, including hundreds of paintings from the royal estate sold at auction in 1826 and regrettable sales in the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, the collection comprises 1,100 Dutch and 2,700 German Baroque paintings (1550 to 1800) and remains one of the most extensive of its type.

Bernd Ebert, Antien Knaap and Robert Schindler at the MFA in Boston, studying paintings by Rachel Ruysch

Bernd Ebert, Antien Knaap and Robert Schindler at the MFA in Boston, studying paintings by Rachel Ruysch

‘Shifting perspectives’ has been the predominant theme and motivation behind a series of exhibitions and projects that I have brought to fruition with the team in Munich. These include separate presentations highlighting works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hendrick ter Brugghen, Salomon van Ruysdael, and others. Larger projects include the exhibition Utrecht, Caravaggio, and Europe, in collaboration with Liesbeth Helmus of the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, and the research, publication, and exhibition for Jacobus Vrel. Looking for Clues of an Enigmatic Painter with CĂ©cile Tainturier of Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt in Paris and Quentin Buvelot of the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Last but not least are the current plans for Rachel Ruysch—Nature into Art with Anne C. Knaap of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Robert Schindler of the Toledo Museum of Art which will open at the Alte Pinakothek on 26 November 2024.

From the beginning of each project, I work closely with the education, digital communication and marketing departments to create varied and content-rich programming to accompany the exhibition. Exploring thematic connections between selected works and other artistic media, including music, theatre, and film, has been particularly successful in creating new points of access for the public.  This interdisciplinary approach not only activates other senses, but it encourages people to consider the works on display from different points of view, to shift their perspective and make unexpected discoveries in the process. This aspect of my work is especially enjoyable and close to my heart.

Examples of this work include a number of special partnerships for the exhibition Utrecht, Caravaggio, and Europe: the production of SelbstermĂ€chtigung (Self-empowerment) with singers and musicians from the Opera Studio of the Bayerische Staatsoper; a flash mob for Hendrick ter Brugghen’s The Gambler with students from the University of Music and Performing Arts; original musical scores composed for individual works; and drawings, sculptures, and paintings by students of the Academy of Fine Arts executed in the exhibition among the Utrecht Caravaggisti. Separately, we developed a tremendously successful join-in campaign with #myRembrandt in which several replicas of Rembrandt’s early self-portrait travelled to remote locations – even to the International Space Station – offering the young Old Master a glimpse into today’s world.

Rembrandt travelling: #myRembrandt in Cape Town

Rembrandt travelling: #myRembrandt in Cape Town

Ultimately, my goal is to inspire enthusiasm for the collection and to convince the public of the critical role that art plays in our culture and in our lives. To achieve this, we need to offer alternative ways of looking at Old Master paintings. We must find contemporary points of reference, those which might link the experiences of present-day visitors with those that preoccupied people hundreds of years ago—and this means exploring specific themes that engage and motivate people.

Each exhibition is based on intensive research, particularly research with our own collections. This art historical research does not take place in an ivory tower, but in situ, with a focus on the original and supported by colleagues in restoration, conservation, and the natural sciences. Other research institutions contribute to these efforts, and current projects with the Rijskbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (RKD) in The Hague and the Art History Department of the University of Konstanz attest to the collaborative process.

Good research benefits from a change of perspective – through collaboration and the development of a network. Good contacts—personable and trustworthy—are needed, like those forged through CODART.

This is what, from the very outset, has bound me to CODART.

I write this article in the hope that it will be read by young, up-and-coming scholars and future museum professionals. I want to encourage them, even if they are already highly specialized in a particular field, to remain open to the widest possible range of subject areas and see the value in shifting perspectives.

Bernd Ebert is Chief Curator of Dutch and German Baroque Painting at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. He has been a member of CODART since 2009.

Translated from the German by Richard George Elliott. Edited by Kristen Gonzalez.