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For Westerners, the center of Berlin suddenly shifted east when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The geographic heart of the metropolis still lies in the bohemian neighborhood of Kreuzberg, with its big, loft-like apartments and sometimes raucous night life. But reunification of East and West has meant that the city’s spiritual core has returned to Museumsinsel — Museum Island — a spot of land in the Spree River that is home to an array of seminal art museums stuffed with astounding collections. Nearby, the once drab East Berlin neighborhood around Auguststrasse, just a short walk across the river, has metamorphosed into the liveliest contemporary gallery scene in Europe.
I’ve joined that throng of fans. After a 17-year hiatus, I returned to Berlin to renew old art acquaintances and encounter new ones. Back when Germany was divided, Berlin was a bubble — a fragile space station of contested earthly values, tethered on one side to Washington and on the other side to Moscow. That bubble burst, but the fizz remains.
Freewheeling Weimar liberalism, unspeakable fascist barbarism and the kabuki dance of Cold War posturing — evidence of the city’s last century lingers around every street corner. Today a new, not yet fully defined profile is being added. The new Berlin seeks to come to terms with Germany’s dark past while building on its better self to emerge as an incomparable cultural capital. The city is in the throes of growing pains, with all the excitement — and anxiety — that assertive urban evolution entails.
For this art critic, surprises were in store. The amazing mix of great historical art museums, ambitious contemporary galleries and eager young artists now flocking here for inexpensive studio space has put Berlin in an enviable, even unrivaled position.
Encompassing 344 square miles, Berlin is a bit like Los Angeles — less a concentrated urban center than a sprawling, multiethnic metropolitan region with urban pockets. (At about 350 years old, it’s also Europe’s youngest major city.)
Public transportation is excellent, taxis are abundant if not inexpensive, bicycles are common, and a car is helpful. Boats ply 120 miles of urban waterways.
From my hotel, the sleekly efficient Radisson SAS in Mitte, Museum Island and the galleries around Auguststrasse can be reached on foot.
History’s collectorsTo understand Berlin’s museums, it’s important to know two things. First, Germans have been voracious collectors since the 17th century, when the princely enterprise of art collecting reached its first maturity all over Europe. Second, Germans were among the first to view treasures of the past in what we now regard as a modern way. By the 19th century, they had begun to invent the discipline of art history, as a way to organize the booty.
The scope of their ambition is nowhere more apparent than in the Pergamon Museum, which opened in 1930 as the newest and final attraction on Museum Island, home to five museums and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. It’s now the city’s most popular tourist destination, with more than 850,000 annual visitors, and houses classical antiquities, ancient Near Eastern and Islamic art.
The big draws are the monumental architectural ensembles — ancient buildings reconstructed inside the museum.
There’s the Pergamon Altar from 2nd century BC Greece, with its magnificent Hellenistic frieze depicting a fearsome battle between gods and giants; the Roman Market Gate of Miletus, now partly obscured by scaffolding during restoration; and Babylon’s cobalt blue Ishtar Gate, with its stately procession of animals, both real and mythological.
Museum Island was severely damaged during World War II — strafe marks are still visible on stone walls — and restoration is ongoing. The Bode Museum, with collections of coins, sculpture and Byzantine art, will reopen in 2006; in 2009, the Neues (or New) Museum, after renovation, will house the city’s renowned Egyptian collection — including the famous one-eyed bust of Queen Nefertiti.
The spectacular 1876 Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) was restored and reopened in 2001. Its rooms and picture bays, lined in gilded paneling and crimson fabric, are devoted to 19th century art. Skylights in the top floor mean that no artificial illumination spoils the viewing of 11 works that span the career of Caspar David Friedrich, the Dresden Romantic genius.
The centerpiece is “Monk by the Sea” (1808-10), showing a tiny, hooded holy man standing at the shore and confronting an immense, darkly luminous void. The painting astounded viewers 200 years ago — and still does. Friedrich portrayed spiritual mystery in the secular guise of the natural world, an early assertion of a distinctly modern faith.
The first museum on the islandSo, in another way, was the Altes Museum (Old Museum), the first of the island’s museums. It was built between 1823 and 1830 according to the neoclassical designs of hometown hero Karl Friedrich Schinkel and rebuilt after burning to the ground in 1944.
An elegant cross between an ancient Greek temple and Rome’s Pantheon, the Altes now houses extraordinary collections of Cycladic, Greek and Etruscan art, Scythian gold and some Roman art. (Egyptian art, including Nefertiti, will be temporarily housed on the second floor, starting Aug. 13.) The Greek vases are especially fine. No embarrassment intrudes on showing their full range of orgiastic, homoerotic and other playfully salacious painted scenes, which some museums shy away from.
The only problem is the ugly clutter of display cases — clunky glass boxes set atop virtual saw horses — which are low and cause a painful strain on the back.
The domed rotunda is the key to Schinkel’s radical invention. Ringed with 16 classical statues of Greek gods, alternating with elaborate Roman Corinthian columns, it created a secular temple to classical principles of order and harmony, as embodied in Art-with-a-capital-A. This new Greco-Roman motif became the template for art museums from London to California built over the next century and more. The Altes is the ur-museum for the modern world.
The idea of Museum Island is itself something of an artistic fantasia. Across town a sparkling version of Antoine Watteau’s most famous painting, “Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera” (1717), hangs in Charlottenburg Palace. (Another is in the Louvre.) Its depiction of leisurely folks enjoying enchanted pleasures on the remote island of love, far from the cares of the everyday world, seems almost to describe the place.
Another, newer echo is found nearby in the Kulturforum Potsdamer Platz, an awkward urban cluster of cultural edifices planned in the 1960s. The Kulturforum was West Berlin’s Modernist paraphrase of Museum Island, then locked away behind the Wall.
The 1968 Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery), meant for 20th century art, was the first museum to open in the complex. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the celebrated architect of the Neue, had fled Germany for the United States in 1937. Nobody could miss the symbolism of gracing a new cultural district with a Modern art museum designed by a Bauhaus architect. It was pointedly intended as atonement for Germany’s past.
Half a century before, Nazi “cultural cleansing” swept away Modern art with charges of degeneracy, and the adventurous Bauhaus was closed. Now they were back — and in a profoundly moving way. Mies’ Neue is a rectangular pavilion of transparent glass and black steel, standing atop a pedestal. Architecturally it reinterprets Schinkel’s groundbreaking design for the Altes museum, but now in the modern, abstract language of industrial form. Everything old was new again.
Conceptual brilliance aside, alas, the Neue never functioned too well as an art museum. The fine collection of German Expressionist and other Modern art is shown in a warren of galleries inside the pedestal, while the glass pavilion above it is left empty — beautifully so.
Nearby the Gemäldegalerie, or Picture Gallery, is exactly the reverse. Marvelous exhibition spaces are inside an ugly bunker. A functional series of 72 rooms is housed in a 1996 design by Munich architects Heinz Hilmer and Christoph Sattler that exudes all the charm of your average state-university student union.
A long rectangular building flanks a central sculpture court. Galleries to the right chart Northern European art; galleries to the left do the same for the south. Most are bathed in shadow-free natural light filtered from skylights, showing to perfection 500 years of paintings, from early Renaissance to Old Masters.
The collection is staggering. Since reunification, works have been brought together from disparate locations in East and West Berlin. Now calmly established among the world’s great European painting collections — and, on the day of my recent visit, blissfully short on other visitors — the museum offers unsurpassed pleasures.
There is quantity — eight paintings by Albrecht Dürer, for example, and 16 by Rembrandt — and abundant quality. The Dürer panels span 1497 to 1526, virtually all the Renaissance master’s working life; the Rembrandt pictures are the best such assembly I’ve seen outside the Netherlands. And with a couple of Caravaggios, a pair of Vermeers, three Raphaels, great Frans Hals, Botticelli, Velázquez and more, the most strenuous difficulty is choosing where to linger.
Perhaps the place is in front of Jan van Eyck’s crisply painted little panel that shows the Virgin Mary crowned and standing serenely inside the light-filled nave of a Gothic church.
Van Eyck casts her as a gentle giant who fills the soaring space — a remarkable invention that conflates Mary, Queen of Heaven, with the radiant interior of the church’s otherworldly architecture. The triumph of spirit over matter is paradoxically embodied.
Some disappointmentsThe last time I saw this little Van Eyck, it was housed in temporary quarters in suburban Dahlem, where Berlin’s great ethnographic and folklore museums are found. Reunification has been accompanied by a lot of collection shuffling, and for the most part, the results have been terrific. (It helps that Berlin has a lot to work with.)
As things enter the 20th century, however, matters can get a bit dicey.
Heinz Berggruen, now 91, is a Berlin-born Jew who fled the Nazis in 1936 and later became an important dealer in Modern art.
In 1996, the Museum Berggruen opened across the street from Charlottenburg Palace. The city acquired his personal collection, grandly dubbed “Picasso and His Times,” in 2000 for the below-market price of nearly $120 million. Some exceptional works by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, Klee, Braque, Matisse and Giacometti are on view. Not the least is a fantastic (and rare) 1906 Picasso Cubist landscape, inexplicably de-accessioned a few years back by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
But overall, the collection is patchy — its depth too shallow and breadth too narrow to sustain its own museum, the sort of place you’d only visit once. The works would have been better served integrated into a larger institution.
The late fashion photographer Helmut Newton was also a Berlin-born Jew whose family fled the terror, and last year his foundation opened in the developing Museum of Photography in a bland former library building across from the Zoological Garden.
A long-term installation of 150 Newton fashion photographs for Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace and others, together with the last editorial assignments he did for Vogue, includes some fine examples of his notorious fetish style of advertising imagery. Spike heels never looked spikier, and bustiers were never bustier. Enlarged to the size of big paintings, however, the photographs lose the startling jolt of intimacy that fuels their sudden appearance in the hand-held pages of a magazine. Their power wilts.
By contrast, controversy still swirls around a seven-year loan to the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art. The collection was rapidly assembled by international playboy Friedrich Christian “Mick” Flick. Much of his enormous fortune was inherited from his grandfather — a war criminal convicted at Nuremberg whose steel and coal businesses employed more than 48,000 slave laborers from Hitler’s concentration camps. After three years in prison, the elder Flick rebuilt his commercial empire, and 14 years after his 1972 death, the conglomerate was sold to Deutsche Bank for $2.5 billion. The state-subsidized display of his grandson’s collection at a former city railway station has been decried as a postmodern reversal of Nazi cultural cleansing — using art to expiate blood money.
The Flick collection has the look of a hurried shopping spree. Notable videos, paintings and sculptures by Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke, Franz West and others are installed cheek by jowl with mediocre examples by the important painter Luc Tuymans, silly newspaper photographs of soldiers cast as fashion imagery by Wolfgang Tillmans, ugly sculptures of women-as-giant-candles by Urs Fischer and other work that could be most charitably described as derivative junk. Only a fraction of the 2,500-plus works are on view, so perhaps I saw a middling tip of a grand iceberg. Whatever the case, they occupy an uninviting, Darth Vader-style warehouse clad in black corrugated metal.
Berliners are obsessed with their city’s history — how could they not be? — and these wobbly examples of institutional engagement with 20th century art are finally poignant. They speak of a deep desire to engage productively with contemporary culture, which took a beating at the hands of Nazi and, later, Soviet officialdom, but they don’t quite know how.
That earnest wish inflates into corporate burlesque at Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, a joint venture between the powerful Deutsche Bank and the New York museum known for its efforts to clone its operation around the globe.
Their “museum” on the fashionable Unter den Linden, up the street from the Brandenburg Gate, is a glorified office lobby — the only bank vestibule I know that charges admission. During my June visit, Deutsche Guggenheim was showing selections from the bank’s corporate collection — at 50,000 works, said to be the world’s largest — with 300 examples chosen from the vaults by international collectors, dealers, art consultants, museum curators and bankers. (No artists were invited to choose.) These selectors were dubbed “The Godparents,” their names and the explanations for their choices printed on the walls in large type — offering new levels of curatorial ostentation.
Guggenheim director Thomas Krens chose works on paper by Nauman, Neo Rauch and Max Bill because “I was moved by them, pure and simple.” (Thanks, Tom — although three “moving” works out of 50,000 does seem skimpy.) The curved, tunnel-like walls of the installation design by savvy London architect Zaha Hadid was the best thing about the show. It was a nod to a famous 1942 Surrealist design made for Peggy Guggenheim by Frederick Kiesler, while the skeletal segmentation of her bleached-white tunnels suggested the carcass of a dead whale. That seemed apt.
An exciting sceneDespite these problems, Berlin’s contemporary art life has been transformed since reunification. Currently, four cities stand atop the globalized art-world heap — New York and Los Angeles in the United States, and London and Berlin in Europe. New York and London are commercial centers, where art old and new is principally bought and sold. L.A. and Berlin are production centers for new art, drawing a steady stream of young artists eager to work there, even if the collector base tends to reside elsewhere.
Like L.A., where scores of diverse neighborhoods are too large to gentrify, Berlin is a multicultural sprawl, but here relatively inexpensive studio space can still be found. The tottering German economy, cut-rate housing in the former East and overbuilding from reunification have contributed to making Berlin the most affordable capital in Europe.
Established and emerging artists, both European and North American, live and work here. Some German artists, such as Hamburg’s Daniel Richter and Dresden’s Eberhard Havekost, keep studios in two cities, recognizing the importance of a presence in Berlin. Kids move here from all over, in the way they no longer do to the expensive environs of central London or Manhattan. These generational layers keep pumping life into a place already stressed by a modern network of social and artistic fault lines, which chart histories at once horrible and remarkable, glorious and grim.
Within a few blocks of the enormous blue and gold dome of Mitte’s New Synagogue, left in ruins in the wake of Kristallnacht and Allied bombing but now restored as a history museum, several dozen galleries have opened shop. The once-scruffy neighborhood around Auguststrasse has been likened to New York’s East Village in the 1980s. But, with fashionable eateries and design shops stuffed with as much Lucite furniture, shag carpeting and lime-and-orange knickknacks as a Palm Springs consignment store, it’s more like “instant Soho,” fueled by streams of cash from Moscow and Cologne.
Other galleries nestle behind a big, unused (but spanking new) office building by the river; another cluster is up the street from Checkpoint Charlie, the former immigration station between East Berlin and the American sector. Go to any gallery and you can pick up “Index,” a fold-out guide with helpful maps.
Don’t go before noon, though; several galleries listed with earlier hours didn’t open until then — perhaps a legacy of Berlin’s fabled night life. “Index” lists about 40 commercial galleries, along with project spaces and temporary art events. Except for a disorienting installation at Esther Schipper Gallery, featuring a precariously suspended walk-in room by Carsten Höller, I didn’t see much of interest — although a one-shot stop in summer is admittedly not the best gauge of a gallery’s program.
One important anchor for the district is the nonprofit Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, founded in the early 1990s by Klaus Biesenbach (now a curator at New York’s MOMA) and housed since 1999 on five floors in a formerly tumbledown factory.
The current multimedia exhibition includes provocative drawings by L.A. artist Edgar Arceneaux, as well as a slightly surreal documentary video by local Berlin artist Klaus Weber, showing an auto accident at a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop near MacArthur Park. (Weber was an artist-in-residence at the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades in 2003.) Altogether it felt just like home.
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Berlin to the core
From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Berlin is offered on Air France, British, Continental, Delta and Lufthansa. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,028.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 49 (country code for Germany), 30 (city code for Berlin) and the local number.
Radisson SAS Hotel, 3 Karl-Liebknechtstrasse, 10178 Berlin-Mitte; 23-82-80, fax 23-82-810, https://www.radissonsas.com . The hotel has 427 rooms, overlooks Berlin Cathedral across from the former Communist Palace of the Republic and is on the banks of the Spree River. It has a 1-million-liter saltwater aquarium rising the entire height of the five-story lobby; pleasant bar and restaurant. Doubles from $132 per night.
Yosoy Tapas-Bar, 37 Rosenthalerstrasse, 10178 Berlin-Mitte; 28-39-12-13, https://www.yosoy.de . Excellent, and crowded, Spanish tapas restaurant. Small appetizer-size plates of pasta, sandwiches and salads $5-$12 each.
Sale e Tabacchi, 18 Kochstrasse, 10969 Berlin-Kreuzberg; 252-11-55-25. Very good Italian food, handsome room beneath TAZ newspaper, lively bar. Entrees, including veal saltimbocca and tagliatelle with mushrooms, $9-$30.
Cafe Einstein, 58 Kurfurstenstrasse, 10785 Berlin-Kreuzberg; 261-50-96; https://www.cafeeinstein.com . Classic coffeehouse serves up lunch, dinner, literary readings and jazz. Hearty soups, ham sandwiches and main entrees $12-$30. A second, less charming Cafe Einstein, at Unter den Linden 42, 204-36-32, is frequented by politicians.
Bierhimmel (Beer Heaven), 183 Oranienstrasse; Berlin-Kreuzberg; 61-531-22. Neighborhood hangout; eclectic and friendly but very smoky. It is noted for a variety of beers and good cakes and fruit tortes.
TO LEARN MORE:
German National Tourist Office, (800) 651-7010, https://www.visits-to-germany.com .
— Christopher Knight