June 05, 2010

"Ich Bin Eine Berlinerin" Part I

I had visited Berlin once before, in the summer of 1999, a mere 10 years after the Wall fell and East and West were re-unified. My most vivid impression of the city was of the hundreds of construction cranes working day and night to erase the old and create a new metropolis that would hopefully reflect some of its former glory. It was also a personal journey for me as my father had been born in Berlin and forced to leave when the situation became dire in the 1930's.

For several years friends and colleagues had been telling me it was time to go back to see the result of all that building and to experience the energy of a city risen from the ashes. This Spring provided the perfect opportunity to revisit Berlin - after Stockholm and before Paris.

Monday was cold and rainy but off we went armed with umbrellas and an all-day S-Bahn pass. Between the foul weather and the few museums open it became more of a sightseeing day but I did manage to visit a few galleries en route. Walking along the main avenue in the former West Berlin, the Kurfürstendamm ("Ku-damm" for short) was like strolling Fifth Avenue, except for the overt reminders that this was a city nearly leveled during World War II. Dominating Breitscheidplatz is the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, a grim souvenir of a 1943 bomb which left this neo-Romanesque church in ruins. A post-war concrete tower was built directly alongside which, despite the pretty blue stained glass windows, is a very stark contrast to what was lost.

Farther East along the Ku-damm is the renowned department store Kaufhaus des Westens, or KaDeWe. Not only do they carry the latest in fashion for men and women, the 6th floor is totally devoted to gourmet food and since it was close to Kaffeestunde, the perfect time for a piece of strawberry torte and a delicious cup of coffee!

Once fortified I was ready to continue through the cold drizzle and visit one of Berlin's most infamous sights - Checkpoint Charlie. Once a notorious crossing point along the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie is one of the few remaining symbols of the Cold War. While the original guard house has been re-located and the watchtower and razor wire fence destroyed, there remains a small but popular museum that chronicles the site's inglorious history and honors the brave souls who attempted to cross over into freedom.

The calendar said June 1 but the weather was more like March on my second day in Berlin! A friend had kindly offered to drive us in his car to the Charlottenburg section of the city which was really wonderful as Berlin is huge! I had visited the Palace on my prior trip, so this time we went to two museums housed in former guardhouses at the entrance to the Schloss.

On the right side is Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, a formerly private collection of Surrealist art that was donated to the State in 2008. On display are fine examples of graphics, paintings and sculptures from the proto-Surrealists such as Odilon Redon through masters of the movement including Max Ernst and René Magritte. A special exhibition entitled "Double Sexus" compared the works of Hans Bellmer and Louise Bourgeois (whose death at the age of 98 was announced on the day of our visit). Both artists used the metaphor of the Doll to express issues of sexuality - fantasy, phobia and ambiguity - using sculpture, drawing and photography.

Crossing the street to the other guard house we came to the Museum Berggruen that features the collection of legendary, German-born art dealer Heinz Berggruen who moved to Paris and later emigrated to the United States before returning to his homeland. This is a museum of a very manageable size but it packs a big punch. Herr Berggruen was known for his very discriminating eye and his legacy of Picassos, Matisses and Klees is well worth a visit.

Back in the car heading East through Charlottenburg and Tiergarten to the Mitte section and the Martin-Gropius-Bau where this season's blockbuster art show is now underway. I waited in line over an hour, no exaggeration, to finally get into the Frida Kahlo retrospective but my patience was rewarded. What a terrific exhibition! This homage to one of Surrealism's, and Feminism's, great icons is a major show comprising over 150 paintings and drawings and a lot of documentary photographs to give context to the work. Featuring many of the rare but very powerful self portraits the show traces her amazing story from her childhood in Mexico (with German grandparents) through the terrible bus accident that left her a virtual cripple, her tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera, relationships with Leon Trotsky and other revolutionaries, and finally her torturous mental and physical disintegration and demise.

The Martin-Gropius-Bau is located in a curious spot right at the edge of where the infamous Berlin Wall once stood. Right next door is the ominously named "Topographie des Terrors" which is now a historic site marking the location of the former Prinz Albrecht Palais - known from 1933-1945 as Gestapo headquarters. Today, in a brand new outdoor documentation center, one can see some of the ruins of these institutions of detention and horror as well as several meters of remnants of the Wall.

After this rather intense experience something a little lighter was in order so it was back to Savignyplatz for dinner at the celebrated Paris Bar. The smoke stained walls are filled with art and regulars include stars of screen, fashion and of course, the art world. After a restorative meal with some good French wine, it's time to say Guten Abend and I'll catch up with you tomorrow!

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