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!”
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.
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.The 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.
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).
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.
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! 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.Further 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.