Berlin is a city recognised internationally as a global hub of culture and creative industry. It has an extensive and diverse range of art galleries, museums and centres for music and the performing arts. It is also home to a large number of film and television companies, media offices, architectural practices, design studios and fashion houses.
During my short stay in Berlin I wanted to make the most of the city’s art galleries and cultural centres and get a sense of what was on offer. I was particularly interested in the fact that Berlin is currently at the leading edge of the global contemporary art scene, with over 600 art galleries in the city. The task of choosing which of those to visit was not an easy one, so I decided to start my tour with a gallery whose style of work was a little more familiar, although anything but contemporary.
The Gemaldegalerie is located a few blocks west of Potsdamer Platz and specialises in European art from the 13th to the 18th century. Works from this period are often highly realistic, exquisitely detailed, painted in rich colours and typically composed in accordance with religious or archetypal themes. I had seen a lot of paintings from this period before in various other galleries in Europe and was unsure at first about whether Gemaldegalerie would be worth a visit. I decided to do some reading and learned that it housed one of the world’s finest collections of art from that period. The works were displayed using a carefully considered methodology in spacious rooms filled with muted natural light. I also read about the artists and specific works that were featured and became convinced it was a gallery I had to visit.
The main collection is displayed entirely on one floor making it easy to get around and formulate a sense of where one is in relation to the whole. There was a diverse range of artworks with comprehensive collections from Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. I particularly enjoyed those works that had unusual elements and explored medieval thinking on concepts such as life and death, good and evil and mankind’s relation to nature and the divine. Although I’d never taken the time to do it before, I found listening to an audio guide a useful and informing experience. It helped me discover paintings rich with symbolism and layers of meaning that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
On my way to the next gallery I passed a permanent exhibition called the Topography of Terror about the Nazi involvement in Berlin. It was located close to Potsdamer Platz at the original site, from 1933 to 1945, of Gestapo, SS and security service headquarters. It was where the Nazis persecuted political opponents and coordinated and managed the mass genocide of the Holocaust.
The outdoor component of the exhibition consisted of enlarged black and white photographs mounted in front of a long section of the original Berlin Wall. There was one photograph in particular that stood out. It was an aerial shot of a Nazi rally during the National Labour Holiday on 10th May 1933. More than a million people had gathered at Berlin’s Templehof airfield in front of a stage flanked by large Nazi banners to hear Hitler speak. A few days later I would ride a hire-bike down one of the runways on Templehof field, a place which ceased operations as an airfield in 2008 to become a large and treeless city park.
Another piece of art that caught my eye on a particular day was a portrait of the young internet activist and blogger Khaled Mohamed Saeed who was brutally beaten to death in Egypt by two policemen in 2010. His murder came in response to his publishing videos online of Egyptian police brutality and drug dealing. In 2011 Saeed was posthumously granted a Human Rights award in Berlin. Not long after, his portrait was painted on a piece of the Berlin Wall by graffiti artist Andreas von Chrzanowski (aka ‘Case’). I spotted the artwork in a small park on a quiet street south of the Tiergarten, not far from the Bauhaus Archive.
Cycling north from Potsdamer Platz across the River Spree, I arrived at the Hamburger Bahnhof. The building was once the former terminus for the Berlin-Hamburg railway, but after extensive refurbishment it was opened in 1996 as a museum of contemporary art. While I certainly didn’t find all the works in the museum appealing there were several exhibitions and works that really caught my eye. The overriding theme was centred around the impact of Western intervention on non-Western cultures, particularly during the colonial era.
The first paintings I saw were made by contemporary Indonesian artists, specifically from the island of Bali. An introductory wall panel to the exhibition highlighted the colonisation of Indonesia by the Dutch. Prior to their arrival places like Bali were more akin to an unadulterated island paradise. Amongst intricate and highly detailed depictions of traditional village life, one notices in the paintings the intrusion of things like airplanes, photographers and surfers.
The Dutch first occupied Indonesia in 1800 and established a colony on the islands. A century later the colonisers received international criticism over the mass ritual suicide of several Balinese royal dynasties. As a way of counteracting the negative image that resulted, the Dutch began to promote themselves as protectors of traditional Balinese culture. German artist Walter Spies, who moved from Dresden to Indonesia in 1923, became a central figure in establishing an image of Bali during the 1930s as a still pristine island paradise. Spies’ works, some of which were on display in the gallery, made it look as if any negative impact from Dutch colonialism was non-existent.
In another room, a series of paintings, although very different in style and appearance from those about Indonesia, were designed to do a similar thing; that is, make it look as if Western intervention was less damaging than it was. These paintings, all from the 1800s, depicted the invaded and colonised lands of the Middle East as exotic and mysterious. In one painting, French artist Horace Vernet transforms a shocking visit to a slave market in Cairo into a depiction that is exotic and sensual.
Further along in the gallery I saw a small but unrelated exhibition of works by various Indian modernists. I liked the paintings, not only because of their richness, colour and abstraction, but because fond memories of India were still quite fresh in my mind.