All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts.
– Ivan Chtcheglov
When people of my generation travel to Berlin they arrive with their heads stuffed already with images of the city soaked up from decades of newspaper and newsreel coverage and from books – both non-fiction and a plethora of spy fiction and novels that have created the city that haunts our imagination.
This summer we spent a few days in Berlin, and before we left I read a few books either about or set in the city, revisiting some old favourites and catching up on some more recently published works. Here then is a quick survey of some of the books that allowed me to walk the streets of Berlin before I even went there. Continue reading “Berlin: books that created the city that haunts our imagination”
It’s only a small painting – barely seven inches by nine – yet (though I know such comparisons are invidious) if I were asked to list my ten favourite artworks this would be one of them. Pieter Bruegel’s Two Monkeys is haunting, mysterious and profound.
Two Monkeys is one of two Bruegel paintings that we found in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie – another way-station in our pursuit of Bruegel through the museums of Europe. The other couldn’t be more different: Netherlandish Proverbs is large (4 feet by 5), populated by a vast crowd of people engaged in all kinds of activities and social interactions. One is deeply meditative, even pessimistic, while the other’s vast canvas celebrates the complexity and richness of urban life. Continue reading “In pursuit of Bruegel: Berlin and Two Monkeys in chains”
Berlin again. A little over a week after our return from Berlin, another coincidence: this time it’s a discussion about the life and significance of Frederick the Great on In Our Time this morning. Continue reading “The enigma of Frederick the Great”
In one of those curious coincidences that seems to happen to me frequently, the morning after we returned from our short break in Berlin BBC Radio 4 broadcast a drama based on the moment in July 1988 when, improbably, Bruce Springsteen performed before an audience of 300,000 people from all over the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in East Berlin in a concert watched live on state television by millions more. Continue reading “When Springsteen played East Berlin”
Impressionism is usually seen as the antithesis of Expressionism, but while we were in Berlin we queued for over an hour to see a stunning exhibition at the the Alte Nationalgalerie, on Museum Island – snappily titled on the banners, ImEx – which brings together a lavish helping of paintings from both movements, presenting them in such a way as to emphasise the similarities as well as the differences between them. Near contemporaries at a time of social upheaval, the exhibition explores common concerns: urban life, cafes, cabaret and dancers, the countryside and nature, and new relationships between the sexes. Continue reading “Expressionists in Berlin (Impressionists, too)”
Guide books aren’t much use in Berlin at the moment if you’re trying to work out where to see what in the city’s main museums and art galleries. Everything is being reorganised: some galleries like the Neue Nationalgalerie – the main gallery for modern art – are closed for refurbishment, while the extensive programme renovation and reorganisation of the five monumental buildings on Museum Island and the massive project to rebuild the Berlin Schloss as the Humboldt Forum continues.
Only in Berlin for four days, we had to make some hard choices about what to see, a task made more difficult since even the most recently-published guide book couldn’t keep up with developments. We decided to make a quick visit to the Gemäldegalerie (Paintings Gallery) since it’s just a stone’s throw from the Berlin Philharmonie, where we intended to attend oner of the free Tuesday lunchtime concerts of chamber music – and because it houses treasures by favourite artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Vermeer, Holbein and Rembrandt. Continue reading “Brief glimpses of art and music in Berlin”
If you follow Berlin’s fashionable Kurfurstendamm to its western end you will arrive at the elegant suburb of Grunewald that lies on the edge of the Grunewald, twelve square miles of woodland and lakes where, in 1542, the Brandenburg Elector Joachim II built a hunting lodge at the heart of the royal reserve he named Zum gruenen Wald – the Green Forest.
One day, during our visit to Berlin this month, we set off from the small museum dedicated to the Expressionists of Die Brucke to walk for an hour so through the forest to the Grunewald S-bahn station where we wanted to visit the Gleis 17 memorial to Berlin’s Jews deported to their deaths inn the east from the station’s platform 17. Continue reading “A walk in Berlin’s Green Forest”
Did any German artist confront the suffering of the first half of the twentieth century as directly as Käthe Kollwitz did? Through the years of war, political turbulence and social strife that defined her life, Kollwitz kept alive the moral conscience of Germany.
For fifty years Kollwitz lived and worked in working class Prenzlauer Berg, in the family home that also served as her studio and doctor husband’s surgery. The building was destroyed during the Allied bombing of the Berlin in 1943. Today, the Käthe Kollwitz Museum can be found a world away, on elegant Fasenstrasse. Continue reading “Kathe Kollwitz in Berlin: the moral conscience of Germany”
Why does Berlin fascinate and thrill me more than any city I know? I think Alexandra Richie puts her finger on the answer in her monumental history of the city, Faust’s Metropolis:
Like Faust, Berlin can be said to have two spirits in the same breast; it is both a terrible and a wonderful city, a place which has created and destroyed and whose name is both acclaimed and blackened. […] Above all, it is a place where history could not and still cannot be hidden away.
Nowhere in Berlin can you escape the ghosts of history, and especially the terrors of 20th century politics when Europe, in Mark Mazower’s words, was ‘the dark continent’. There are many places in Berlin where any European – German or otherwise – might reflect upon words written by Joseph Roth in 1937:
Why do the European states claim for themselves the right to spread civilization and manners to different continents? Why not to Europe itself?
One such place is the Reichstag. Continue reading “Visiting the Reichstag: the ghosts of history”
Germans live with history, Berliners especially so. The city is dense with memorials and museums, each of which documents or remembers an aspect of the country’s fractured past. In the previous post I wrote about three examples of the memorialization of the Holocaust in Berlin. In one short walk in the centre of the city the visitor will encounter several more. Continue reading “Living with history: a Berlin city centre walk”
Just around the corner from the hotel where we stayed in Berlin, in cobbled and tree-lined Fasanenstrasse, I found outside number 42 eight small brass plaques embedded in the pavement. They record the deportation from this town house of eight Jewish Berliners to their deaths in the east. Continue reading “Stumbling over the past in Berlin”
When the death of Gunter Grass was announced recently, among the obituaries and appreciations I read were words of praise for his infamous memoir, Peeling the Onion, first published in Germany in 2006. I remember reading a few reviews when the English translation came out a year later, and being put off. Probably, I read Michael Hoffman’s ill-tempered review in the Guardian which dismissed it as ‘a long and miserably bad book’ Continue reading “Peeling the Onion: Gunter Grass has the last word”