Geneva Anderson digs into art

The State Museums of Berlin and the Legacy of James Simon

Legion of Honor, October 18, 2008January 18, 2009

Restored Lion Relief from the Processional Way in Babylon, Neo-Babylonian, King Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 B.C.), 6th century B.C., Colored, glazed clay bricks, H 91 x W 232 x thickness 9.1 cm., Gift of James Simon, Museum of the Ancient Near East, Berlin

Restored Lion Relief from the Processional Way in Babylon, Neo-Babylonian, King Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 B.C.), 6th century B.C., Colored, glazed clay bricks, H 91 x W 232 x thickness 9.1 cm., Gift of James Simon, Museum of the Ancient Near East, Berlin

Now in its final two weeks at the Legion of Honor, The State Museums of Berlin and The Legacy of James Simon offers a glimpse into an unparalleled art collection built in a bygone era.  Industrialist, philanthropist and collector James Simon, (1851-1932) who was Jewish and a patriotic German, died one year before Adolph Hitler came to power but his remarkable legacy lives on in the art he gave to Berlin before the Nazis seized power.  From literally thousands of treasures Simon bequeathed, roughly 140 artworks from nine Berlin state museums are on display at the Legion.  The sampling makes most sense taken as a delectable appetizer meant to entice you to go to Berlin and experience the feast.  I visited this exhibition last week to gaze once again at the ancient art from Babylon and Egypt. The exhibit also includes classic works by Andrea Mantegna, Andre della Robia, Auguste Renoir as well as Kuniyoshi Japanese woodcuts, medieval, Renaissance and Baroque sculptures and folk art including models of Frisian Hauberg farmhouses.   It struck me that Simon not only collected and bestowed these objects from various cultures and ages but in many instances, he financed the grand and grueling expeditions which unearthed them.

The credit for spearheading this exhibition goes largely to San Francisco resident Tim Simon (59) whose great-grandfather Edward Simon, was James Simon’s second cousin and business partner.  It was Tim Simon who visited Berlin in 2006 with his wife Ann and children and began poking around the museums and encountered the astounding Simon legacy firsthand.  A businessman with considerable experience in China, Simon was comfortable with obstacles—organization and financial.  After securing permission from the Germans to exhibit the works if the financing came through, he then approached the Legion and agreed to underwrite a large portion of the cost.  John Buchanan, Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Renée Dryfus, the Legion’s Curator of Ancient Art and Interpretation, were eager to continue the relationship with the Germans that had started so wonderfully in the 1990’s when portions of the Pergamon Altar were displayed at the Legion’s grand re-opening in 1995.

James Simon, great wealth and great vision

James Simon, circa 1914

James Simon, circa 1914

James Simon (1851-1932) was born into a wealthy Prussian Jewish family of textile merchants (Gebruder Simon) that increased its fortune considerably by stockpiling cotton in advance of the civil war.  He became a partner in the family firm at age 25 and along with his second cousin, Edward Simon, guided it to becoming a leading European concern.  By 1910, James Simon was one of the richest men in Germany.  As a young boy he had been enamored with ancient civilizations and artifacts.  As an adult of means, he channeled his passion for art into collecting and began in the 1880’s with an acquisition of important 17th century Dutch paintings.  He struck up a close friendship with Wilhelm von Bode, the renowned scholar and art historian who mentored his early collecting and, before long; Simon expanded his collection to include Renaissance works.  Working together, Simon and Bode developed a vision of preserving art and artifacts, indeed world culture, for future generations that was tied to the establishment of core collections of exceptional artworks.  In 1904, Simon made his first of many substantial gifts to the German museum–his Renaissance collection that had grown to some 450 artworks.

As part of his enduring fascination with early cultures, Simon financed twelve pioneering excavations in Babylon, Asur, Uruk, Jericho, Bogazköy, Amarna and several other sites.   “He gave money when no else was financing these digs,” explained Renée Dryfus.   “Many of the treasures that he brought back were saved from loss due to neglect, the elements, or, in the case of Buddhist relics, conscious efforts to deface them.”  Along with his share from the archaeological finds, Simon stepped up his collecting of artworks from Europe and Asia and donated most of this to the German museums, elevating them to world prominence.  Although James Simon was an outstanding patron of the arts, his main philanthropic focus was actually support for socially marginalized people, especially children.  He did not limit his support to Jewish causes either but like his father and grandfather provided help where it was needed.  World War I, the hyperinflation of the 1920’s and poverty of post-war Germany led to the failure of Simon Brothers in 1931 and the end of a golden era of museum patronage.  Simon died a year before Hitler came to power and his name and role were largely forgotten in the tumultuous years to follow.

Exquisite Nefertiti and Tiye

It is due to James Simon that the Berlin Egyptian museum holds one of the world’s richest collections of Egyptian art. Simon financed renowned Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt in the 1911-1914 Tell el Amarna excavations and purchased the sole license to excavate Amarna with the finds to be divided between him and the Egyptians. Simon lent the entire share of his finds to the Egyptian Museum in 1913 and then in 1920 designated the loans as gifts.   Amarna is famous as the short-lived capital built by Pharaoh Akenatan to the sacred sun-god, the Aten, the only divine force that Akhenaten recognized in his mystical concept of worship.  Amarna was abandoned shortly after Akhenaten’s death in 1332 c. BCE and most of the sculptures he commissioned during his brief heretical reign were destroyed and left in fragments.  In 1912, the famous Bust of Nefertiti (too fragile to travel to San Francisco) was found in the sand-filled workshop of chief sculptor the Tutmosis along with several other busts in various stages of completion that had not been disturbed for some 3000 years.  On exhibit at the Legion is a striking unfinished limestone portrait of the Head of Nefertiti that still has black chalk lines on it cheeks which would have served as a guide for the artist.

Queen Tiye, Egyptian, Medinet el Ghurob, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Amenhotep III, ca. 1355 B.C., Yew wood, silver, gold, lapis lazuli, faience, H(max) 32.7 cm., Gift of James Simon, 1920, Egyptian Museum, Berlin

Queen Tiye, Egyptian, Medinet el Ghurob, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Amenhotep III, ca. 1355 B.C., Yew wood, silver, gold, lapis lazuli, faience, H(max) 32.7 cm., Gift of James Simon, 1920, Egyptian Museum, Berlin

One of the most powerful pieces in the exhibition stands just 9 inches tall and it was not excavated at Amarna by Borchardt but rather was purchased by Simon at Borchardt’s insistence.  The sculpture of Egyptian Queen Tiye, ca. 1355 B.C., of carved yew wood with a gold and silver headpiece is a striking portrait executed with sensitive realism.  Captured in middle-age with the countenance of maturity and dignity, this regal woman-almond eyes in an imperious gaze— is the mother of Akhenaten and fully aware of her power.  Inspecting her head, we note that one of her lapis inlaid earrings is missing.  At one time, she had another headpiece but it was replaced (it is not know when or why) and the other earring lays beneath.  Tiye’s strong character and intellect endeared her to her husband, Amenhop III, whom she married at a young age. Records indicate that she shared the crown with him and was active in decision-making.  We are left to wonder if Tiye’s strong personality influenced her son’s radical metaphysical views.

Allure of Babylon

The illusive mystery of ancient Babylon is tantalizing.  A walled city in present day Iraq renowned for its tower of Babel, lush hanging gardens, stunning color, as well as its engineers, mathematicians, and dream interpreters, there is no parallel to Babylon.  Whenever I visit a museum that has a tiled panel from Babylon—The Louvre, The Metropolitan Museum, The Pergamon–I vault there first and stand captivated, imagination running wild.  In James Simon, I would have found a kindred spirit.  Simon provided the main support for the excavations in Babylon, which lasted from 1899 to 1917.  His uncle, Louis Simon, had financed the first German expedition to Babylon in 1886 in search of the illusive Tower of Babel.  James, who was deeply interested in the Old Testament world, viewed the cuneiform texts discovered there as the key to this rich culture.  The Neo-Babylonian empire reached it zenith under the rule of the statesman and conqueror general Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604-562 B.C.)  Because stone was rare in southern Mesopotamia, molded glazed tile bricks were used for building and Babylon was a city of dazzling color and splendor described by Herodotus and in the Old Testament book of Daniel.  The most important street was the Great Processional Way which led from the inner city through the Ishtar Gate to the Bit Akitu, the “house of the New Year’s festival.”  The Ishtar Gate (580 B.C.) stood 47 feet high and 100 feet wide and was made of glazed brick adorned with alternating figures of bas-relief aurochs (bulls) and sirrush (dragons), symbols of Adad and Marduk. To the north of the gate, the processional way was lined with an estimated 120 glazed figures of lions in stride.  The lion was the animal associated with Ishtar, goddess of love and war, and these repeating panels guided the ritual procession from the city to the temple.

It was due to James Simon that 400 crates containing literally millions of glazed clay brick fragments were brought from Babylon and painstakingly reconstructed into the famous Ishtar Gate and its processional way in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.   The reassembly and installation of the lion reliefs at the Legion was undertaken by Dr. Joachim Marzahn from the Museum of the Ancient Near East in Berlin.  There are two reliefs-one is restored and one is not-in the exhibition.  The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco financed the restoration of the panel on display.  It would have been instructive to include a panel explaining how new technology had assisted in the laborious process of reconstructing and restoring these figures.

Silk Road Discoveries

Berlin’s collection of Central Asian art is unrivaled and almost entirely due to Simon’s efforts.

Statue of Eleven-Headed Avalokiteshvara, Toyuk, Chinese Tang Dynasty import, 7th century, Wood, H 38 cm, Museum of Asian Art, Berlin

Statue of Eleven-Headed Avalokiteshvara, Toyuk, Chinese Tang Dynasty import, 7th century, Wood, H 38 cm, Museum of Asian Art, Berlin

When no one else would offer funds, Simon supported the first pioneering expedition in 1902 to investigate the northern route of the ancient Silk Road. This  resulted in a series of rich German finds that uncovered lost cities, Buddhist communities and countless artifacts that have informed our understanding of the ancient world.  The Silk Road was not only the great trade route connecting Asia with the Mediterranean World, including North Africa and Europe but was also an important conduit for cultural and technological transmission.  The northern route which ran through the region of Chinese Turkistan and the northern foot of the Tianshan Mountains extended to as far as the Black Sea.  A stunning seventh century wooden statue Eleven-Headed Avalokiteshvara was possibly a Chinese Tang Dynasty import to Chinese Turkistan (Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjian).  The masterfully carved wooden statue evokes serenity and exhibits particularly masterful carving of the drapery.  The Sanskrit name “Avalokiteshvara” means “the lord who looks upon the world with compassion” and Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is the embodiment of great compassion and has vowed to free all sentient beings from suffering.  In Buddhist art, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is sometimes composed with eleven heads which would enable seeing in all directions.

Late found recognition

Just a few years ago, Germany’s greatest patron had nearly been forgotten in his own town of Berlin–there were a few commemorative plaques but nothing substantial.  Efforts by the German Oriental Society to a have street in Berlin named after Simon were repeatedly dashed and it wasn’t until 2006 that he was honored with a bronze relief plaque at Tiergartenstrasse 15a, the former site of the Simon family home.

In 2007, the State Museums of Berlin presented the design for the James Simon Gallery, a new central entrance building and exhibition hall on Museuminsel or Museum Island, located right in the middle of Berlin’s Spree River.  Museum Island was established in 1840’s when the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, commissioned architects Stuler and Karl Friedrich Schinkel to design a series of extravagant neo-classical museums, envisioned as temples to high culture.   In the decades to come, fueled largely by Simon’s cash, German archaeologists returned with vast treasures from global expeditions which built the reputations of these museums.  Even when the brutality of Germany’s military state asserted in full power, these museums stood tall.  Unfortunately, much of Germany’s art—an estimated 2 million treasures-became war booty for Stalin-and while 1.5 million pieces were returned fifty years ago, after Germany’s reunification, the Germans have been pressuring Russia for the remainders which are believed to be held in secret depots in Russia and Poland.  When complete in 2012, Museum Island will become the world’s largest museum complex. How fitting it is that people will enter the museum complex by first passing through the Simon Gallery.    Geneva J. Anderson

January 5, 2009 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment