Exhibition tip: Beyond Compare – Art from Africa in the Bode Museum in Berlin

I wanted to share some pictures of this unbelievable exhibition currently on view at Berlin’s Bode Museum. This beautiful museum, known for its outstanding collection of European sculpture, now temporarily houses 70 masterpieces from the Ethnologishes Museum (which closed last year) until they will relocate to the newly build Humboldt Forum (to open at the end of 2019).

The African works are placed in smart juxtapositions with the permanent collection creating fascinating dialogues across time, place and religions. Unexpected similarities and differences become apparent: Michel Erhart’s late Gothic Virgin of Mercy appears next to the famous Kongo power figure, which, like the Madonna, was also created to protect a community. Mythical heroes from central Africa take their place among late Gothic Christian figures and open up new perspectives on both collections. The show address major themes of human experience, such as power, death, beauty, memory, aesthetics, and identity. For each of them, the curators (Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine and Paola Ivanov) were able to find great object pairings.

Beyond Compare is just one spectacular view after the other. One room downstairs contains the majority of works, but the remainder is spread across the museum, so it is sometimes a bit of treasure hunt (which cleverly makes you explore the whole building). I must say it is one of the most beautiful exhibitions I have ever seen in our field. I’ve become somewhat tired of seeing African art juxtaposed with modern and contemporary Western art, making up links which are not necarilly there. This show merely endeavors to find common themes and for once it is not about who inspired who (although links between St. Sebastian, Madonna-and-child statues and Kongo figures are vaguely suggested).

The installation as well is top-notch; it is clear the Bode Museum has a lot of experience presenting three-dimensional wooden works of art, and many objects can be walked around. It was amazing, as well, to see the standing statue of the Buli Master all by itself, without a case. The Benin leopard in the big staircase is a view I will never forget and the Benin queen (famous from the front cover of Tom Phillips’ Art of a Continent) paired with a Donatello sculpture, as well in bronze, is just genius.

Another plus is the excellent selection, it truly gives you a new perspective of the scope and importance of the Ethnologisches Museum’s collection, showing many masterpieces that hadn’t been on view at the Dahlem for a very long time (the Hemba ancestor figure, for example). This ‘conversation of continents’ is a big success and I would highly recommend a visit. I dream of seeing the Louvre or the Metropolitan doing something like this one day.. but Berlin did it first!

Kuddos to the museum as well for publishing an English version of the catalogue (Musée du quai Branly, please take note!). You can out more about Beyond Compare on the Bode-Museum’s website here. I’ll just let my snapshots do the talking (click to magnify), as you’ll see Beyond Compare truly lives up to its title.

Update: a reader comments, the primitive art indeed pairs very well with the African art 🙂