Notes (for next time) …
It won my affection very early on: cosmopolitan, easy-going, alive with street life and cafés, art and music. It felt simultaneously safe and louche — and very, very European. History was obvious in nearly every street we walked. The area we were living in and exploring, Kreuzberg and its neighbourhood, is relatively poor and lacks pretension. It was easy to unwind there — and this despite that always present sense of the past and its burdens. A worldly city, urbane, accommodating, with a thin crust between the day-to-day and the life underground that is the past or the lot of the marginal. (The lobby area to our local U-Bahn always had one, sometimes two, much-the-worse-for-wear guys making little attempt to hide their role as drug peddlers: taking written and spoken messages hurriedly passed to them by people coming off a train or based in or near the station, like someone out of The Wire they would read or listen, rush off — or nod and carry on mumbling to the U-Bahn passengers as they flowed out of the station.)
Safe and louche, then, but with a whiff of something more just off-stage, somewhere over there …
We came home to tales of systematic car burning: Berlin's luxury car arsonists - Boing Boing. More here. And here.
So what have I taken away this first time round? Far, far less fraught than London (I could probably live in Berlin, but London would exhaust me) and with none of Paris’ self-satisfaction, it’s still re-creating itself after so many decades of the most traumatic history. Cranes are everywhere, buildings are going up, coming down, being re-purposed or awaiting their time. There’s a wealth of cultural life and diversity and much evident (relative) poverty. It’s a strikingly student-centric city and a place where ideas still matter and are actually … discussed. (How refreshing.)
We rented a flat a stone’s throw, we discovered, from Blu’s work:
I found a couple of videos of these being created:
(Blu; Blu in Berlin, 2008, here and here; JR.)
The NYT has a 2008 piece about Berlin graffiti, One Wall Down, Thousands to Paint (and they have a video, Graffiti in Berlin, here):
The city’s skyline might be defined by a Sputnik-era TV tower, bombed-out churches and the ghost of a certain wall that once split the German capital. But its streetscape is largely molded by graffiti. … The roots of graffiti culture can be traced back to West Berlin in the early 1980s, when the American-occupied sector was the reluctant melting pot of anarchist punks, Turkish immigrants and West German draft resisters. Kreuzberg, a neighborhood surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall, blossomed particularly well, with miles of wall space and little police scrutiny.
We walked a lot. Not because of the S-Bahn drama (my thanks to Chris and Paul, through delicious, for these links, there to greet me when we arrived :) — Economist, The Local, World Socialist Web Site) but because we enjoy that: it lets you get to grips with a city at a level of intimacy that matters. I thought I knew about the wall, but the reality of it (the 43.7-kilometres, the path it took, its utter centrality) is quite staggering. Lots to choose from on the web: “Berlin's official Internet site”, Berlin International, was useful — Where was the Wall?; The Wall inside the city; Aerial views of the Wall from 1989.
Talking with friends and then placing the divided city in the divided Germanies (‘to a West Berliner, everywhere was East’) took us mentally to the Helmstedt-Marienborn border crossing:
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The Border checkpoint Helmstedt–Marienborn (German: Grenzübergang Helmstedt-Marienborn), called Grenzübergangsstelle Marienborn (GÜSt) (border crossing Marienborn) by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was the largest and most important border crossing on the inner German border during the division of Germany. Due to its geographical location, allowing for the shortest land route between West Germany and West Berlin, most transit traffic to and from West Berlin was handled by the Helmstedt-Marienborn crossing. Most travel routes from West Germany to East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia also used this crossing. The border crossing existed from 1945 to 1990 and was situated near the East German village of Marienborn at the edge of the Lappwald. The crossing interrupted the Bundesautobahn 2 between the junctions Helmstedt-Ost and Ostingersleben.
Back in 2004, we drove to Krakow. One day, I’d like to drive to Berlin, taking the Helmstedt–Marienborn route. Driving these very non-UK distances, crossing land fought over and carved up, again and again, brings home the history.
Amongst other things, we saw the Stasi Museum. The building, numbingly dull, drained the joy from that particular afternoon. If it had been fiction, it could have been laughed off (I heard someone else say, ‘This is all like James Bond’), and it took us a while to fathom the reality behind this:
Yes, the Stasi Had a Giant Smell Register of Dissidents.
I was 10 when George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs, an event which made enough impact on me then for this to pull me up short:
Back home, I was delighted to hear again Tom Bower’s 1980s documentary about Blake:
For 18 years, Blake served as a trusted and senior MI6 officer. But secretly, in 1952, he became a double agent, betraying MI6 operations and personnel to the KGB. Over the course of nine years, at a critical period of the Cold War, he destroyed most of MI6's activities in Eastern Europe. 'I don't know what I handed over', he admitted, 'because it was so much'.
More, and more links, at Stasimuseum Berlin - Stasi headquarters.
We didn’t go to the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the main remand prison for those detained by the Stasi. I think we should go to these places but, although it didn’t reduce me to tears (unlike the information centre at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), the Stasi Museum was life-sapping enough for this brief stay.
We did go to the Soviet War Memorial, about which I’ve made various notes on Flickr. Immense, and immensely moving (7,000 men). Much to learn here.
Memo to self: dig out a copy of Deyan Sudjic's book The Edifice Complex and read the chapter Geoff Manaugh rates, ‘The Long March to the Leader's Desk’. (And is that red marble story true?)
Museum island, of course, and lots to explore another time. Google Maps for Berlin is not keeping up with the pace of change: the map of the area around the Palast der Republik, that area between Schloßplatz and the Lustgarten, confused me. Thanks again to Chris for the link which explained all — Brokedown Palast, a 2006 film about the Palast der Republik by Clockwise Media:
How best to respect, or remember, the past and move on?
In a spot which has become subsumed into a rather tawdry, touristy area, the outdoor exhibition at Checkpoint Charlie does a good job of bringing the history to life: Checkpoint Charlie, 10 April 1986. Friedrichstraße
The New National Gallery has been given over (until 22 November) to an exhibition, Dream Images, of surrealist and early American abstract expressionist works in the private collection of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. From the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin site:
The Pietzsch Collection ranks as one of the internationally most significant collections of Surrealist art, with principle works by André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró, André Masson and Yves Tanguy, as well as numerous works by other artists more broadly connected to the Surrealist movement. A second important core aspect to the collection lies in works by the Abstract Expressionists in America, whose art movement rose directly from the roots of Surrealism to flourish in the New York of the nineteen-fifties. Works by important figures who have since become legends in their own right, such as Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman are all represented in the collection together with works by the great Mexicans Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
FT review is online.
I was particularly taken by the fragments of ‘Capricorn’ (1948), included near casts of the complete piece:
From The Burlington Magazine:
In an interview with Patrick Waldberg he [Ernst] announced with refreshing candour: 'Painting is like chess: you have to give your whole mind to it. You live in a state of concentration that is almost unbearable. But with sculpture I can relax. I enjoy it, the way that I enjoyed making sandcastles on the beach when I was a boy'.
From the LA Times:
His sculptural tableau, "Capricorn," incorporated various ethnographic influences visible in exaggerated body proportions and serenely simplified faces. But the piece also was uniquely an Ernst creation, a paean to impromptu inspiration. Everything was pieced together from cement casts of odds and ends: milk cartons cast and piled on top of each other to make the king's scepter (also reminiscent of Brancusi's undulating "Endless Column"), eggshells for the queen's downcast eyes, a cello (harking back to Cubist still lifes) for her body. Like most of his other sculptures from the '30s and '40s, this piece was seldom seen publicly until it was cast in bronze years later (in this case, in a slightly different form). … The sensibility that informed these large and small three-dimensional works was the same puckish, deliberately irrational and willfully inventive spirit that earlier led Ernst to make collages of bizarre encounters (based on illustrations clipped from magazines), fantasy drawings based on rubbings ( frottages ) from pieces of wood, leaves and other materials, and dreamlike paintings. What we tend to forget is that these sculptures also represented a revolutionary way of viewing the human body, beyond traditional Western representations of ideal or actual human figures. During the first few decades of the 20th Century, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Ernst and others dared to raise the curtain that separated polite, normative behavior from secret and "forbidden" thoughts and actions.
The photo of Ernst and Dorothea Tanning with the sculpture (in Sedona, Arizona) is terrific:
One reviewer commented:
This is a truly historic exhibition, not only because it marks a rare example of the activities, against the odds, of two sophisticated post-war German collectors, but mainly because it represents the transition of great modernist art from Europe to the USA and in so doing commemorates the incalculable damage the Nazis managed to effect upon Germany and Europe, and almost on the rest of the world, too, and finally because it represents the triumph of artistic creativity over totalitarian orthodoxy.
I’d like (almost) to end on this note of play and creativity triumphant. *****
Berlin, a city emergent, the contours of its past so evident, its new form not yet settled. In Berlin, I was very much aware of a living history and of living in history. Leszek Kolakowski died last month
and these much cited words of his
came back to me many times during our time in Berlin: ‘We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are’.
My photos are online.