Archive | September, 2015

Berlin to Dessau–The Bauhaus!

27 Sep

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Forty years ago, when working on my Fulbright topic (in Darmstadt and Berlin) about artists and their relationship to the machine, I tried to get a visa to visit Dessau (about 100 kilometers from Berlin) and to see what remained of the Bauhaus buildings in what was then East Germany. My application was denied.  My current visit to Berlin, and the decision to stay in what in the 1970s was East Berlin, has been in part prompted by a desire to see all these places so important to the history of modern art and culture that are now open to the world. Finally, after years of showing slides and lecturing about this single most important institution in the construction of the functional modernist aesthetic, I would be able to step on the grounds where Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer, and so many others taught and worked and developed modern fonts, graphic design, new ways to teach art, and the architectural foundations of so much of our built environment.

The day did not start out promisingly. After checking a gillion times how to take the train from Berlin to Dessau, we arrived at the Südkreuz-Bahnhof and discovered that–because we hadn’t bought tickets ahead of time–it was going to cost us some 150 Euros to get to Dessau!  Since our train trip from Berlin to Vienna only cost us 60 Euros when we booked it in the summer, this just seemed ridiculously steep. So we bailed. (A good lesson learned:  buy Deutsche Bahn tickets ahead of time and online!)  But I was so determined to get there that I came up with another plan:  since we had already booked a car to drive to Poland on Monday, I called up the nice guy at Berlin Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and found that we could extend our rental for 20 Euros a day! We were so proud of ourselves for being so resourceful. And here’s the car we got:yellowopel A yellow Opel!  I think car rental places must get the leftovers of bad color decisions on the part of the car manufacturers…But how exciting! Our own car to drive in Europe! I don’t think we ever drove ourselves before in the old days here.

We got to Dessau pretty easily, although I must say that being entirely dependent on the Android Maps app is problematic–or maybe I just don’t know how to work these things. What happens when the connection goes off, or when the phone runs out of juice?  Give me old fashioned maps any day.

And there it was! P1010187 (1) P1010197 (1)That space, that “curtain wall” I lectured about so many times!  Beautifully restored, with a minimum of explanatory texts or intrusive labels, and for the price of 13 Euros, access to all the buildings and to a tour of the Meisterhäuser, the Master Houses where Gropius and others lived. The place was filled with acolytes, taking photos like me of every angle, nook and cranny.P1010190 P1010194

We were even able to go up into the dormitory floors, and out onto the balconies–something that would never been allowed in America, for fear of people falling off.

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George, who is afraid of heights and gets vertigo, would only come out briefly to take this photo of me on the very same balcony where so many of those famous Bauhaus photos were made! I have always loved these shots, because they capture what a free, open, and exciting atmosphere it must have been for all these young people, just after that horrible war, and aware that they were part of the most exciting artistic experiment of the 20th century.


T. Lux Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer and Triadic Ballet performers, Dessau Bauhaus dormitory, 1929.


Bayer-Hecht, Irene (American 1898-1991) Bauhaus, Dessau (From a Balcony), 1925-28.

Open to us as well was  one of the student kitchens, which, in true Bauhaus fashion, included efficient use of space even in the hotplates. P1010215 (1) P1010214 (1)

I had to get a photo of George sitting in the famous Breuer chair in that wonderful space! P1010193 (1)The mention of chairs, however, leads to a very interesting aspect of our day in Dessau:  none of these spaces were furnished with Bauhaus-designed objects! There were Breuer chairs (or modern copies of them) in some spaces, but no Anni Albers rugs, no objects on the walls, no furniture whatsoever. This was especially noticeable in the Meisterhäuser, which were aside from some wall displays and labels, completely bare. In contemplating this omission, I came to the realization that, once again, the old East-West division is still in play. Here’s what leads me to that conclusion:  the only exhibition on site focussed entirely on Hannes Meyer, the BH director from the late 20s who was the most socialist, indeed Communist, teacher of the school: “Volksbedarf nicht Luxusbedarf” was his motto (Things for the people. Not luxury items), a saying that was printed on the bags for sale in the (very nice!) shop in the main building. From what I could overhear from at least one of the tour guides who was in Gropius’ office at the time–the only space to have SOME BH furniture–the slant was entirely away from the “elite” aspects of Bauhaus design and emphasized instead Meyer’s efforts to create art “for the Volk”. One also got the feeling from the guards and other staff that, just like those earlier Dessau citizens who were horrified by the shenanigans going on at this radical school, they had no interest in understanding what was so significant about these buildings or the activities that drew so many people from all over the world to this place.dessau_bauhaus_volksbedarf

This attitude was especially apparent in the Master Houses, most of which were bombed to smithereens during the last days of World War II.  Dessau was an important military target, where a Junkers factory built bombers, so it’s a wonder the city escaped until so late in the war. The dilemma, then, was what to do about the loss of these icons of modernity, exacerbated by the fact that Dessau remained in East Germany until the Wall fell. On the occasion of the reconstruction of the Gropius House a few years ago, The Guardian commented on these dilemmas:

P1010233In the house as it is now, completely void of any Bauhaus furnishings, just bare spaces, these photos show its fate over the years:

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All this may be true–that the rebuilding was caught up in the political questions of how to rebuild or not to build–but I really do think that the old East German resentments about their situation, coupled with a continuing skepticism and dislike of what is seen as elitist modernism, plays a major role as well.

In the remaining houses, the ones that were not completely destroyed by the bombs, such as the Muche-Schlemmer Haus, the guards were listening to the footie on the radio, and had no idea what the house was about, and no interest in knowing.  P1010238 (1)

But thankfully, they have been restored, if with none of their furnishings–SO elite!–and are open for us to contemplate and rediscover. The houses were filled with students drawing shapes, angles, rooms, proportions–as Gropius and the others would have wanted them to. P1010244 (1)


Oskar Schlemmer, Bauhaus Stairway, 1932.

Finally, I caught a snap of George walking down the stairs at the Schlemmer Haus–so near to the staircase that Schlemmer used as a model for his painting all those years ago, when Bauhaus students really believed that art could change the world.

Würth Sammlung at Martin-Gropius-Bau

24 Sep

Lucas Cranach, Saint Barbara, ca. 1530. Würth Collection.


Max Beckmann, Half-nude with cat, 1945. Wuerth Collection.

As a little commentary on the difference between the East and West here in Berlin, at least as it pertains to museum exhibition: yesterday I wrote about the charming mixture of full-on documentation of objects and lackadaisical information at the Märkisches Museum in East Berlin. Today (or actually yesterday, but never mind) we went to the Martin-Gropius Bau, which was having a big exhibition of the famous Würth-Sammlung. mgb_presse_06_lichthof.jpg (3253×2349)The museum–built in the 1870s by the great-uncle of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius–also had an exhibition of Piet Mondrian, which we had hoped to see as well. But here we come to the first evidence that we’re in the consumerist West: one had to pay separately to see each show, no combined tickets. Welcome!

The Würth-Sammlung exhibited here is only part of the largest private art collection in Europe. The collector is Reinhold Würth, a mega-billionaire businessman who began collecting in the 1960s. He began collecting what we call “die klassische Moderne”–the classical Moderns–with an emphasis as well on German Masters, especially Lukas Cranach. He has continued to collect contemporary art, acquiring all the big names of the last 60 years up to the present. The collection’s curators, then, pulled out all the stops to present as many works as possible in as “innovative” a way as possible–which I often find leads to incomprehensibilty. What happens, then, is that the exhibition design begins to overwhelm the artworks themselves.  There were splendid pieces, “From Holbein to Hockney “, as the show’s title demonstrated, and dutiful homage was paid in presentation to the stars of the show, his magnificent Darmstadt Madonna by Holbein, purchased in 2011 for a record price. This “destination piece” (meaning that people would come to see this work specifically) was exhibited in its own room, with special framing and special lighting, as if it were a shrine. In a way it is: a shrine to the COLLECTOR, rich enough to buy such an incredible 500-year-old altarpiece.

His choice of Cranachs and other German masters was also telling, I thought: they were almost all portraits of 16th-century powerful men. None of Cranach’s wiggly nudes or mythological scenes (although a wonderful Saint Barbara). Several galleries were filled with blockbuster works of the last two centuries, too, displayed in some kind of thematic order at times, but at the center, always, was an emphasis on Würth himself, with big wall labels talking about him, his passion for collecting, and his business acumen. The worth of his companies was emphasized (he is listed by Forbes as the 200th richest man in the world), and pictures of Würth appeared everywhere . This is not to knock his incredible eye nor his admirable desire to collect great art. It’s just an example of the difference between the less developed, less consumerist East, and the fully monetized, corporatized art world of the West. Berlin is the perfect place to compare these differences.

East and West

23 Sep

A photographic panorama machine that was a star attraction in 1870s Berlin. One sat at one of the chairs and stereoscopic views moved by the viewer. Every time the image changed to a new one, a bell rang. At the Maerkisches Museum.

If anybody doubts that differences between West and East Berlin remain, I would recommend going to the charming and goofily German Maerkisches Museum and comparing that experience to any of the museums in West Berlin. I knew about this Museumberlin_maerkischesmuseum_ext&rolandonly because I tracked down a painting that had once been in the Berlin Museum of West Berlin to this one, and discovered that the collections of the Berlin Museum had been integrated into this institution, which had been in East Berlin before the Wall fell; a very complicated example of museum politics of the most intense sort: (For the painting I was looking for, see my blog entry of June 8,


Amalia Beer, by Johann Karl Heinrich Kretschmar, 1803. She was a famous Salonist, and mother of the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer.

While it appears that big plans are afoot to expand this Museum, now it still has the aura of an old-fashioned provincial museum, with all the charm of those places: a hodge podge of objects, some of them extremely valuable and well documented, while other items are curiously lacking in information. One room, for example, is dedicated to the story of the Beer/Meyerbeer family, the most important Jewish intellectual family in 18th-century Prussia and family of Giacomo Meyerbeer, with full documentation of the family and filled with artifacts of their lives. But a fascinating stone carving of a mermaidberlin_maerkischesmuseum_nixe_side has no identification at all. There are lots of objects representing the Berlin Bear from all eras berlin_maerkischesmuseum_berlinbear_1562–some mystifyingly brief in identification, while others have full records and provenance.

The upper floor contains a very moving display of the photographs made by the British photographer Cecil Newman, made right after the War as part of a commission by the British for the reconstruction of the City of Berlin. Pictures such as this one, of the thousands of displaced persons being taken care of in Red Cross camps, tell another of the many traumatic stories of this city.berlin_maerkischesmuseum_newmanphotos_wwII_3generations

More than anything, though, it was the people in the Museum that seemed from another world than hip, bustling Berlin. In the shop–where G. was delighted to find REAL old-fashioned dipping ink pen–berlin_maerkischesmuseum_gfindspens the woman at the desk, when we asked her for a good place to eat, spurned the rather nice looking fish restaurant on the Spree in favor of Schmucks Restauration, as having “real” food. It was obvious that all of the people running the Museum were East Berliners.

And here’s what we found at Schmucks:  berlin_schmucks_lunch berlin_lunchineast berlin_schmucksrestauration_maerkisches A workers’ meal and surroundings that appeared not to have changed since the 1960s. The food wasn’t any good, but we wouldn’t have traded the experience for the world.

The neighborhood must have been a very cozy part of the old DDR. The U-Bahn station was the cleanest we’ve seen in Berlin, and still had the old Socialist Realist plaques on the wall.berlin_maerkischesmuseum_tramstation_mural

After this time-warp of an experience, we went over to the West. berlin_jewishmuseum_oldbldg Here I found the building of the “old” Berlin Museum had been turned into a part of the Juedisches Museum, incongruously joined to the controversial Libeskind extension.  In the process, this Baroque villa has lost the wonderfully gemuetlich cafe it had back in the 1970s when I first visited it. It was a famous spot, with lots of singing canaries and the best Weissbier mit Himbeersaft–white beer with raspberry juice, a Berlin specialty.

I will write more about these differences on another day, when I talk about our visit to the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

Kreuzberg & Things

22 Sep


On the advice of the very chatty Turkish cab driver who took us from the airport to our East Berlin garden house, we went to Hasir, one of the best and most popular Turkish restaurants in Berlin.  Located in Kreuzberg, one of the older working-class suburbs, this gave us a chance to check out the student/artist/Turkish neighborhoods. The restaurant was great, excellently prepared Mediterranean food (fantastic red lentil soup!)–we recommend it highly! The neighborhood was to be expected, I guess, but disappointingly lacking in evidence of creatively artistic shabbiness. Just dirty and every building covered in bad graffiti. I kept getting little memory flashes of attic apartments in the 1970s, smoking Revals, drinking really bad wine, and having sex in narrow beds under covers in very cold rooms. Ah, student life!

Serendipitously, the restaurant was right around the corner from the Museum der Dinge–the Museum of Things–which is an exhibition space associated with the Werkbund-Archiv, the archives of the Deutscher Werkbund, the early 20th-century organization promoting good product design and architecture, that is considered the forerunner of the Bauhaus. When I had my Fulbright in 1973-74, I worked in the Archiv when it was still in Darmstadt (my research topic was “the artist’s ambivalent relationship to the machine”, so it made sense that the Fulbright Committee sent me there, even though they thought the Bauhaus-Archiv was also still there, not realizing it had just moved to Berlin). At that time, it was housed in the beautiful Ernst-Ludwig-Haus by Joseph Olbrich on the Mathildenhöhe–part of the Jugendstil artists’ colony supported by Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hessen. I even got to live in the Haus when I came back a few years later to produce the index of the Werkbundś magazine Werk + Zeit. So I was curious to see what the Archiv’s Berlin digs were like.


Of course, being Sunday, the Archive itself was closed, but the Museum der Dinge was open. The young folks running the place had no idea that the Archive had been in Darmstadt, and they had never heard of the magazine that I indexed. Sigh. Talk about feeling historically old!  Never mind: on to this very odd museum. P1010039 P1010036

The purpose of the Werkbund was to establish guidelines for “good” design, a very fraught idea in even the most “high culture” of times, and nearly impossible to sustain as a concept in today’s post-modern world. “Who is to tell US what good design is?” is the operating attitude now. The Museum, then, has tried to decide on a way to present the overwhelming number of  industrial objects and designs that they have acquired over the years. The curators have put an enormous quantity of everyday objects into cabinets labelled “Objekt Depot”, with minimal organization except by nostalgic types of things–such as glass insulators or toy animals. In the middle cabinets the objects are meant to tell a historical story about Werkbund design and the development of 20th century graphics and industrial design–but avoiding all sense of what should be considered “good.”  Those vitrines focusing on particular periods in German modern history–such as objects from the DDR or, our favorite, handmade objects from WWII made out of necessity, were the most poignant and comprehensible. (The wooden green cow says “I am MUH MUH, the green Hope-Cow, let’s hope that in your life there will be butter again!”)P1010053

And of course, an entire cabinet for Kitsch!    P1010051

The best part, as far as George was concerned, was the inclusion in the Museum of a genuine ”Frankfurter Küche”, the Frankfurter Kitchen, designed by Margerete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1928 for low-cost housing projects in Frankfurt. It became the model for a clean, efficient use of space for projects.P1010045This one had been in one of these apartments from 1928 until 1993, when it was brought to the Museum. George could actually look at the joinery, and admire the little drawers for rice and flour.

After this visit, we walked down one of the main Kreuzberg streets to come to what was recommended as the best coffee house in Kreuzberg, Five Elephants. It must have been very good, since it was so packed with students and a line out the door that we decided to move on.  Ah, student life!

B side. How ignorant are coders if you can’t use an umlaut?

21 Sep


Umlauts are among many characters normally appearing in other languages.

Back in the old days, I could hold down alt while typing several numbers, release the alt and bingo the unlauted letter appeared.  No longer.

It turns out that you can cheat in html editors by using the html code for the letter — ü gives you ü.

You can do this to get WordPress to show an umlaut by editing in Text rather than Visual, but it gives you the letter in a different font — ü.  Stupid.  Or you can to select and copy it.  Stupid.

You think that’s stupid, check out Google’s Chromebook’s solution.  By selecting an international keyboard, you can get the umlauts, but at the expense — get this — of the apostrophe.  For goodness sake, give up the quotation mark, I can always use two apostrophes.  How ignorant are the coders at these places?


Princesses and painters

20 Sep

Symbol of Fortuna by Andreas Heidt, dancing on the dome at Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin.

Berlin weather can be very changeable! Yesterday as we started off for Schloss Charlottenburg, the sky was crystal clear and bright blue, not a cloud. By the time we had lunch at the Schloss cafe, clouds were moving in, and within 15 minutes, it was raining! P1000986And of course, being silly tourists from a place where it never rains, we had brought no umbrella or rain gear with us…P1010002 (1)

No matter, we just waited a moment, and the drops stopped long enough for us to walk through the lovely gardens, and to admire that playful nude atop the Schloss dome–meant to represent Fortune, designed by Andreas Heidt.  The palace was built at the request of Sophie Charlotte, wife of Friedrich III of Brandenburg, and was meant to be a summer home, so a bit more lighthearted than the more formal digs at Potsdam.


Wilhelmine von Preussen and Auguste von Preussen, by Friedrich Bury, 1808-10. The sisters had to flee the French during the Napoleonic Wars; they are depicted here as ambassadors of freedom and peace.

Before lunch, we went through an excellent, informative, and intelligently presented exhibition at the Schloss called “Frauensache: wie Brandenburg Preussen wurde”–“Women’s Business: how Brandenburg became Prussia”.   The title is a bit  misleading, but consciously so. The aim was to emphasize the role of women in creating what became Germany, starting with the early Hohenzollern House, and showing how all these little principalities and margravates and dukedoms were merged by marrying daughters into oneanother’s dynasties. Quite subtly, the message was clear: without these aristocratic women being married off to other royal families and bearing children to carry on the name, what we know today as Germany would not exist. And what a mishmash of familial intermarrying! Guelphs, Gonzagas, Wittelsbachers, Hannovers–they all played a part in far-flung empire-building. The exhibition focussed as well on how women influenced culture and social attitudes.   In one of the principalities, for example, it was the wife of the ruler who first became a follower of Luther at the time of the Reformation. Especially intriguing was the section on the rise of Bismarck and the solidification of the Prussian state. Throughout his ascendancy, Queen Victoria’s daughter Victoria, married to Kaiser Friedrich III, wrote daily letters to her mother decrying Bismarck’s influence and pleading with her mother to find ways to save Germany from what we now know as its militaristic future. If only women could have had more power!  It was a very persuasive presentation of a complicated history and idea.

While walking through the gardens, we came upon this sight: a Muslim bride, with her bridesmaids, having her photo taken in front of the Mausoleum in which some of the Prussian princesses were entombed. Isn’t this an interesting tableau? The figures on the right look like they have stepped about of a painting by the Macchiaioli. And I love the photographer and assistant holding the frame on the left. P1010007

After dodging the intermittent rain, we travelled from Charlottenburg to Dahlem, the very leafy upper-class suburb to visit the intimate Bruecke-Museum.P1010012 (1) P1010014 (1) Back in the 1980s, when I was writing a catalog about the Expressionist collection at Lawrence University, I had visited before, at which time the neighborhood was the toniest in West Berlin. It’s still a tony neighborhood, but Berlin’s center has shifted.  I’m always amused that the radical anti-bourgeois upstarts of the Expressionist movement should now have such a prestigious address!

The small, focussed exhibitions that the Museum displays are my kind of exhibitions. This time it was a consideration of the friendship between Erich Heckel, one of the best-known of the Bruecke artists, and the relatively unknown Max Kaus, a Berlin artist who worked from the 1920s well into the 1970s. I have always liked Kaus’s quiet images, often of his wife Turu, and as was evident here, often including cats.P1010023 (1)P1010024 (1) A woman artist walking through the galleries with us said that she had met him back in the days when she studied at the Kunstakademie, and unlike all the other artists of that time, Kaus was the only one who didn’t have affairs with the students and was a quiet, considerate man.

Admission to this museum also allowed us entry to the newly-opened Kunsthaus-Dahlem next door. The man at the information desk at the Bruecke-Museum told me that it had been Arno Breker’s sculpture studio. I said “THE Arno Breker??” to which he responded “Ja.” Wow! Breker was one of Hitler’s favorite sculptors, the creator in this very space of some of the most execrable, creepy statues imaginable. Opi-Breker-Prometheus1938-DW-Kultur-What a trip! P1010031 (1)

So we went in.
It is now newly opened as a space for the display of post-war sculpture–not a Breker in sight. And who should we see there but the woman who had been a curatorial assistant at LACMA, Dorothea Schoene! She is now the director of this new space. She didn’t quite remember who I was, which just goes to show how far down on the ladder I was in that place, but she remembered when I prompted her. What a serendipitous meeting, and a nice ending to a two-museum day.

Berlin building

18 Sep

On Unter den Linden looking over to Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, with the Berliner Dom, the East Berlin Tower, and the new symbol of Berlin: a crane.

We have had a few frustrating moments in the last days, with some interesting ups and some intriguing downs. In the end, all good, and only to be expected in a gigantic capital with as much agonizing history as Berlin has had.  Perhaps you have had those dreams like I have where you are constantly trying to get somewhere, and have a million obstacles block your path? That’s what yesterday was like. We had this idea that we would go to the Kollwitzplatz farmers market in the morning, then get back to our house for lunch, then go to the Bauhaus-Archiv.  It took us an enormous amount of time and wrong turns before we finally made it to our destination, along the way unexpectedly going through Rosa-Luxemburgplatz, which was a plus; Luxemburg is one of my personal heroes. In the sidewalk they included one of her last quotes before she was murdered by the Freikorps and thrown into the Landwehrkanal in 1919:

“Your order is built on sand. The revolution will be tomorrow, rattling into the sky, and to your horror will announce with trumpets: I was, I am, I will be!”

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I had seriously misjudged the amount of walking we had to do to get to the market; by the time we found it, we had to walk twice around ANOTHER Jewish cemetery, so we decided that it was meant to be that we visit this one as well. And here I found the graves of two of Berlin’s major cultural figures: the Impressionist painter Max Liebermann, and the founder of the enormously successful Ullstein-Verlag Leopold Ullstein. I placed stones on both of their graves.berlin_judfriedhof_schonhauser_liebermanntomb_sept2015

This graveyard was a much sadder place than the bigger one at Weissensee–more evidence of destruction, broken gravestones, and knocked-over pillars. But the walkways were as calming and restful.judfriedhof_schoenhauser_sandweg_berlin

By this time, it was way after lunchtime, so we stopped at a nice Japanese ramen restaurant–the Kollwitzplatz area is obviously one of the more elegant parts of East Berlin, with classy cafes and designer fashion shops–and finally got to the market, where we found lots of alternative products and beautiful vegetables from the countryside. But it was quite a tiring trek for so few items; fortunately, there were reminders here of the life and work of Kaethe Kollwitz and her husband Karl, committed activists revered by humanitarians everywhere.kollwitzplatz_ee&statue_berlin_sept2015The couple lived in a house on the corner of this square from 1891, until it was destroyed by bombs in 1943. And what a momentously sad life Kaethe had! A reminder of how catastrophic was the history of Germany in the 20th century.kollwitzplatz_plaqueonkollwitzhaus_berlin

So far we have found Berlin to be far less visitor-friendly than London, with few attendants at the stations, and little help in the way of guides or directions. This may have to do with the fact that we have still been mostly on the east side of the city. We spent the rest of our afternoon, trying to get some help for mobile phone questions, confronting some incomprehensibly rude shopkeepers that did not endear me to the famous Alexanderplatz. We would write this off as a fluke if it weren’t for our experiences today, when we tried to make our way through the density of construction projects that are still evident everywhere in the city, and especially around Unter den Linden and the so-called Museumsinsel (the famous “museum island” of 5 major museums that used to be the only reason to make the daunting trek into East Berlin in the bad old DDR days). But I’ll get to that later.

We DID have an exciting and stimulating time at the Bauhaus-Archiv on the Landwehrkanal. As far as I’m concerned, Bauhaus designers and architects MADE the modern world that we now take for granted: our light fixtures, our furniture, our ideas about color and form–all stem from the unbelievably modern innovations made at this school that only lasted for 24 years (it was, of course, shut down by the Nazis in 1933).berlin_bharchiv_ext_sept2015 berlin_bharchiv_fromcafe_sept2015

The grounds now, and the exhibits, feel very much like Bauhaus spaces, including some fantastic films made to display Bauhaus products:

Just made me firmer in my conviction that no time and no place has ever been as excitingly modern as the Bauhaus and 1920s Germany.

The cafe serves great fresh food, too! (I’m holding a postcard of one of my favorite BH images, Johannes Itten, THE creator of the BH Foundation course, in his artistic monk phase, 1921.)berlin_bharchiv_ee&ittencard_sept2015

After this nice morning, we decided we would go back to the Museumsinsel and see the Expressionism/Impressionism show at the Alte Nationalgalerie (the Neue Nationalgalerie is closed for renovation). When we finally got there–again, these sites are not as clearly marked as one would expect, and we had to make our way through a maze of construction sites (see the first photo above)–we were amazed to find an enormous queue! P1000969 (1) Apparently this is the final weekend of this blockbuster, and they expect even bigger crowds over the weekend. Since this is of art that I’ve worked with for many years, we decided we didn’t want to stand in line for hours. So we thought, OK, we’ll go see the majestic Pergamon friezes at the Pergamon-Museum–the most popular museum in Berlin, the reason I made the fearful trek into East Berlin so many years ago. To our dismay and chagrin, we were informed (again, quite rudely) that the Altar was not on display and wouldn’t be for 5 years!  How did I let this fact pass me by? So the Museums-Insel was for us a bust!

Since we were in the neighborhood, we decided we might as well go see the monument to book burning on Bebelplatz. Since my phone for some reason decided not to work, and we only had a small map, we began to walk in the right direction, only to find that every path led to a new construction site. Eventually, we had to walk all the way around an enormous block before we found the Platz, and this very spare but effective memorial to the Nazi burning of books on this very spot in front of Humboldt University in 1933.berlin_bebelplatz_bookburnmemorial_plaque_sept2015Further on from the plaque was a window in the ground that looked into an abyss with empty bookshelves. Very chilling–and a reminder of the similar actions today by ISIS. The plaque quotes Heinrich Heine, the German Jewish writer, who as early as the 1820s wrote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” He wrote that in 1822!

I remember hearing that right after the Wall fell, Berlin was nothing but cranes and enormous construction sites. I thought this would have abated by now, but it seems to be continuing full bore. While I understand the urge to build, build, build, what is depressing to me is that one gets the feeling that there will never be a FINISHED aesthetically pleasing vista or avenue again–only constant scaffolding and cranes.

Tomorrow, we’ll go further into West Berlin, and try to find all this buzzing artistic life I’ve heard so much about.

Berlin, nature, and memory

16 Sep

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We flew into Berlin via Germanwings into the old city airport Tegel, and after a 30-minute drive with an extremely verbose Turkish taxi driver who hated the idea of going so far into East Berlin (he finds the East Berliners ungrateful and “filled with Neonazis”), we arrived at our AirBandB rental, a little garden house that sits directly in front of Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg. It’s wonderful, and as far as I’m concerned, beats the hell out of a hotel:

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A little history: these garden houses originated as what became known as Schrebergaerten, after a 19th-century champion of gardens for city people Moritz Schreber. After World War II, when Germany and Austria were in ruins, little bits of open land along the railways and elsewhere were broken up into allotments so that people would have places to plant vegetables and get a little fresh air. Originally, they had little sheds and garden structures, but eventually they became more elaborate, with little houses as summer getaways. This one, and this whole garden area, must have been quite sought-after properties in the days of the DDR. They are now completely renovated into these lovely kinds of cottages. This whole area is filled with these garden properties, complete with elaborate floral displays and fruit trees. IMG_20150916_110945We walked along the paths between these little houses on our way to the only real historic site in this part of the East, the Juedischer Friedhof Weissensee, which I’ll talk about more in a minute.

The Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg, now such a beautiful forested area, with well laid-out pathways, and hiking trails where one can walk dogs and see red squirrels and listen to the birds chirping, was before World War II a flat open field. Its height, which is now the highest point in Berlin, is the result of its origins: it came about as one of the major places where the rubble of the city after the war was dumped–that’s how much debris there was! The Germans then laid out paths, planted trees, and let nature take over.  Germans find the need for fresh air and forests an essential part of life, so they turned the terrible destruction of their beautiful cities into a world of wildlife and frische Luft.

Walking through this park and along the Kleingartenanlage, we ran into something that delighted George: a communal apiary! The sign says “Honey from your own beekeeping” (I love the German word for beekeeping, Imkerei ). People have left bottles for the beekeeper, and notes about when the next honey extraction will happen. What a delightful idea, no?IMG_20150916_110428IMG_20150916_110315


Entrance to the Juedischer Friedhof Weisensee. The plaque reads: “Think eternally of what happened to us. Dedicated to the memory of our murdered brothers and sisters 1933-1945 and to the living who must fulfill the legacy of the dead.”

Our destination for the day was, as I said above, the Jewish Cemetery at Weissensee. Our landlord told us that this is the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, in terms of geographical size, and having walked through it all, I can believe him. It was the third Jewish cemetery in Berlin, laid out in 1880. It is absolutely beautiful with its quiet and lushly forested walkways and open spaces, and it goes on forever.judfriedhof_weissensee_gb&tombs_berlinThe era that it encompasses is that in which Jewish families in Berlin became prosperous and made their most significant contributions to German culture, and so the gravestones and tombs are often quite elaborate, even ostentatious. This one, surrounded by painted ironwork, was the most grandiose of all.judfriedhof_weissensee_ornatetomb_netter_berlin

Several famous and illustrious figures are buried here, and I took the opportunity to place a stone at the grave of Samuel Fischer, the great founder of one of Germany’s most important publishing houses. The tombstone even had a small plaque showing the publishing house’s famous logo.


The tombstone records a father who died in the inauspicious year of 1942. The inscription below reads: “To my beloved Hugokurt with Lisa/Erich with Ilse and Ulrich/Killed in the KZ (concentration camp)

judfriedhof_weissensee_fischertomb_berlin The solemnity of the experience, of course, the utter incomprehensible poignancy, can be felt everywhere, from the special section for the Jewish Berliners who died fighting for their country in the First World War, to the heartbreaking reminders of the fate of nearly all of these families. P1000897The photo above is the entryway, which presents a memorial plaque to the victims of the Holocaust, surrounded by the names of all the concentration camps where they were murdered. And individual gravestones tell of suicides before the Nazis came, and ones honoring those family members who perished in places such as Auschwitz and Treblinka.

But there was also the uplifting fact that new burials continue. Many of these tombstones were in Russian, but there were also signs that members of these old Berlin families were choosing to be buried back in Berlin.   It was a moving experience, and such a gorgeous place to walk and to consider this greatest of 20th-century tragedies.

Leaving London

14 Sep


As we pack up for our next venue, a few thoughts before leaving England:

  1. The London Transit system is a marvel of the civilized world. I have always heard people complain about BritRail, but that can’t possibly be referring to the immensely functional Tube. It’s incredibly extensive, it’s CLEAN (not a smell of urine anywhere), attendants are available at every station, and they run so frequently that you never have to stress about catching the train. When I think about making any comparisons with the pathetic Los Angeles Metro, it makes me weep.
  2. London is very, very expensive, at least to eat in restaurants. Thank God we didn’t have to pay for a hotel.
  3. The museums are FREE!
  4. The weather, especially in winter, would be a serious bummer, but we have had really good weather the whole time we’ve been here.
  5. Plumbing was never the British strong suit.
  6. Black Britons looked and acted as if they are far more accepted and part of society than American blacks are, but that just may be because of where we were staying and the blacks that we saw.
  7. Unbelievable diversity: when I got a massage, the Brazilian masseuse, who only recently emigrated here, said that she wished London had more English people!  🙂
  8. London trees!
  9. Londoners walk and walk and walk…

We had such a nice time!

Museums and music

12 Sep


Man, is it hard to keep up with these missives while actually trying to experience the events you are wanting to write about! Thursday was an extraordinarily busy day, commencing with the distressing phone call about our hacked bank account, the news of which really didn’t sink in until many hours later. But we had such an eventful day that it was impossible to stew about it. We first walked to Selfridge’s, where G. finally bought a mobile phone and SIM card (which will only work for incoming calls and outgoing locally; we’ll have to buy a new SIM card in Europe, apparently). From there we took the Tube to Holborn and walked to the Sir John Soane’s Museum, about which I had already heard so much. I must admit that the image I had gotten of the place from reports was of an eccentric 19th-century hoarder’s pile of weird objects with little rhyme or reason. But this place turned out to be much more than a frivolous collection of objets. First of all, Soane was a self-made, ambitious and extremely innovative architect whose rooms here reflect his intriguing notions about space and light. Soane was also extremely successful, having built the Bank of England (1818) and many other prominent buildings of the early 19th century. He was friends with many of his era’s cognoscenti, and his tremendous library contained over 7,000 volumes (all of which are still in their original room in the house). He WAS an eccentric collector, but what a collection! Along with a gillion plaster casts of ancient sculptures (which he did use for teaching purposes) plunked around the house, he also acquired through auction some magnificent paintings, most amazingly the original oil paintings of Hogarth’s famous print series The Rake’s Progress: Soane also devised ingenious methods of displaying all his varied objects and treasures, including an Egyptian sarcophagus in the lower levels of the houses, and came up with clever ways of joining three row houses into one. As you can see, I was immensely impressed with the place! And the staff were knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

After this uplifting experience, we walked to the British Museum. britmuseum_ext_londonWhat a shock!! While I knew that the old, venerable, incredibly significant Reading Room of the British Museum–where every major and minor writer and scholar of the English-speaking world sat and wrote the major and minor literary achievements of the last two centuries–was closed, I did not quite realize what an atrocious alteration had occurred to this nearly sacred space. britmuseum_int_dome&lion_sept2015

In Tony Blair’s millenium moment, Norman Foster was allowed to create this useless surround of the Reading Room that doesn’t even allow for a view into the old space! One can walk up the sides of this rotunda to go to a cafe–that’s it! When I asked the information desk what was happening to the space, it was obvious I was not the first person to express indignation about this. At the moment, the Reading Room’s fate is “undecided”.  Incomprehensible!

Still, the Museum does house the world’s great pilfered treasures, gleaned by the Empire throughout its conquered lands. The Elgin Marblesbritmuseum_metopes_close_sept2015 , the great sculptures of Greece and Rome and Egypt and everywhere else that the British went–they are all here. Of course, I do know that at the time, these intrepid explorers honestly believed that they were saving these monuments of Western culture from heathens who could not appreciate their own patrimony, and it probably is true that the Elgin Marbles would have been blown up a la ISIS by Turks if they hadn’t made it to England, but it still is important to remember that most of this extraordinary collection is the result of outright thievery, albeit for the best of intentions. So that’s my politically correct, post-colonialist rant!


After this brief run through the Museum, we prepared for our evening event: the finals of the 2015 International Song Competition at the lovely Wigmore Hall.wigmorehall_int_london_sept2015The Hall, which our friend Henry recommended to us, was built 1899-1902 by the German Bechstein Piano Company, as a venue to promote the playing of its instruments. The building, with its wonderfully Art Nouveau-ish murals, was confiscated as alien property during World War I and rechristened Wigmore Hall.

We knew nothing about this song competition until we saw that it was on during our week in London, so we bought the very reasonably priced tickets. The competition had been going on all week, so by the time we got there, the regular attendees had been following the winners and losers and had distinct opinions about the performances. The place was packed as the 5 finalists began their 30-minute sets, during which they were required to sing songs with piano accompaniment  in several languages and from memory. (We’re talking Lieder singing here, not popular songs a la Eurovision!)

The performers and their accompanists were amazing. Three baritones, one soprano, and one tenor. The judges included major figures such as Angelika Kirchschlager and Thomas Quasthoff. We couldn’t believe how exciting it was. After all of the performances, we had a lovely late meal in the Hall’s restaurant while the judges made their decisions. (So another chance for a photo of George eating, this time with excellent drawings of famous musicians on the walls.)


Then came the results: the last singer, Milan Siljanov, and his extraordinary pianist Nino Chokhonelidze, were the winners, to no one’s surprise. Look for them if you’re into Lieder!  wigmorehall_judges_after_sept2015

You can see in this photo all of the finalists on stage along with the judges (that’s the extraordinary Quasthoff sitting–he’s the unbelievably great baritone who was a thalidomide victim).

We had such fun!!! We would strongly recommend a visit to Wigmore Hall if you are ever in London