Written by Joseph M Gaffney
The Dresden State Art Collections, officially the Staatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden, comprises 14 distinct museums owned and maintained by the Free State of Saxony and headquartered in its capital, Dresden, which is also Saxony’s second largest and best known city. This article will give an historical overview of all 14 associated museums, some of which have their own buildings and some of which share buildings with sibling museums. I will also highlight particularly interesting examples of each of the various museums’ collections.
First, however, a bit about Saxony
Saxony is one of Germany’s 16 states. It borders Poland on the east and Czechoslovakia on the south. It is mostly hilly and somewhat mountainous (as much as 1,200 meters!), about 50% agricultural and 25% forested, but leveling off near Leipzig at the North European Plain. The main cities are Leipzig, Dresden, Chemnitz, Plauen, Zwickau, and Meissen. The history of Saxony spans almost two millennia and refers to different land areas over the centuries. Before 1180, it included the land conquered by the Germanic Saxon tribe between the 3rd and 8th centuries, i.e., the region from Germany’s far north, including Holstein, mainly west and southwest of the Elbe. In the late 8th century, Charlemagne conquered the Saxons and incorporated their territory into the Carolingian Empire. Between 1180 and 1423, the duchy was dissolved into several independent and widely separated fiefs. After 1423, it comprised a large area in central Germany, from Thuringia to Lusatia, next to contemporary Czechoslovakia. The history of Saxony is long and complicated, filled with intrigue and subtle political ploys, especially following reunification in 1990.
The first nine of the fourteen discrete museums beneath the umbrella of the Staatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden are:
The Zwinger is an extraordinarily beautiful baroque building complex housing pavilions and galleries, with balustrades, statues, and vases, and hosting the museum’s Porcelain Collection, dating from China’s Ming Dynasty, through Japanese wares of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Meissen porcelain from the early 18th century. The museum contains numerous examples, more than 20,000, of porcelain craft, including a special section of animals. Its Mathematical and Physical Salon, i.e., a collection of historical and scientific precision instruments of all sorts, and the Zwinger Courtyard, a former garden and orangery originally dedicated to court festivities are nearby. It is joined by the Semper Building, designed by Gottfreid Semper and opened in 1855. It houses the Art Gallery of the Old Masters, a gallery which amazed even Johann Wolfgang Goethe “beyond words.”
The Albertinum contains art from the age of Romanticism to the present. Two major collections share the vast exhibition hall. The Art Gallery of New Masters and the Sculpture Collection. The Art Gallery of New Masters includes works from the 18th century on and is based on the wise notion that we in the 21st century can still relate to many of the day-to-day experiences of our forebears from three centuries in the past. New acquisitions include Kirchner’s Street Scene in front of a Hair Salon. According to the Gallery’s director, Hans Posse, this painting “. . . was shown in the infamous ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition in the atrium of the Neues Rathaus, was confiscated in 1937 as “degenerate,” and sold in 1939/40 in the course of its so-called disposal.” The painting is once again “home.” The Sculpture Collection primarily offers works from the beginning of the 19th century to the present, including such recognized artists of the former GDR as “Wieland Förster, Werner Stötzer, and Helmut Heinze” and unique emphasis on the so-called turn of the century, i.e., 1890-1910, including from Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger down through Franz von Stuck and Sascha Schneider. The collection also includes works that date back more than five millennia, from classical antiquity through the European Middle Ages.
The Dresden Royal Palace
The Dresden Royal Palace houses four museums: The Green Vault; The Cabinet of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; The Armory; and The Coin Cabinet. The Green Vault contains opulent artistic and craft treasures commissioned by and for the aristocracy and royalty of days gone by. There are two main exhibition areas, the historical green vault, and the modern green vault. The works displayed within the two vaults include works by renowned jewelers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, and craftsmen of all stripes. There are spectacular works of amber, ivory, e.g., scrimshaw, as well as cameos, vessels, and statuettes. Most of the works of art incorporate many diamonds, rubies, pearls, sapphires, emeralds, and other jewels. The works betoken a level of decadence that is almost unimaginable nowadays.
The Cabinet of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
The Cabinet of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs contains artistic drawings, lithographs, engravings, illustrated books and portfolios, and photographs of both high quality and significance by such eminent artists as Dürer, van Eyck, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Caspar David Friedrich, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and Baselitz. There are also engravings by Schongauer and woodcuts by Cranach and rare examples of historic photographs.
The Armory boasts of 16th-century antique Belgian horse and rider armor and its Turkish chamber offer eight 150-kilogram life-sized carved and uniquely decorated wooden horses. There are hundreds of different weapons throughout The Armory, so be sure to miss none of them—from Saxon Dukes and Electors—they include “. . . 10,000 ceremonial weapons—armor, helmets, shields, swords, rapiers and daggers, sabers and maces, pistols and rifles.” It’s an embarrassment of riches!The Coin Cabinet includes ancient coins struck to commemorate a significant even or a special occasion as well as medals fashioned to honor war heroes and famous persons; of course, there are numerous examples of ancient coins, nearly 300,000 of them—including almost 30,000 Saxon coins—used in trading throughout the ancient world up until modern times.
Part Two of the introduction to the Dresden State Art Collections will introduce the Japanese Palace, the Art Hall in the Lipsius Building, the Jägerhof, and Castle Pillnitz among other worthwhile destinations.