Berlin

After Amsterdam last year, Berlin was quite a different experience; though permissive and liberal in most matters it is rather more restrictive in other matters then comparatively illiberal Britain. Certainly, few people in Britain would put up with the Gestapo-trained museum attendants. Berlin itself is a rather impressive city, in spite of the further reconstruction needed by the East and the architecture destroyed
in the War (Potsdammer Platz in particular now resembles New York more than
most European capitals, fulfilling Weimar Republic ambitions; the commercial grandiloquence seems a poor substitute for the former countercultural city described by Highsmith and Isherwood). I began by walking the length of the Tiergarten,
the forest area that used to Frederick’s hunting ground, to Siegessaule,
the victory column from the top of which the entire city can be seen for
miles around. At the end of the wooded area the Brandenburg gate demarcates
the beginning of the city, with the Reichstag next to it. This looks somewhat incongruous from a distance; the Germans have been far more diligent in precisely reconstructing damaged buildings
in all other matters and the sight of an eighteenth century building with a glass dome rather than the original copper one is decidedly odd. However, the dome does look rather more impressive at close quarters (the idea was to symbolise transparency in viewing the deliberations of the Parliament below; needless to add one cannot actually see those deliberations from the dome, proving once more the triumph of symbolism over fact. Similarly, when Joseph Roth visited the building in the thirties he recorded that the main doors were kept shut, so that the bourgeois-democratic representatives came and went through a small tradesmen’s entrance at the side.) and the views from the roof are again impressive.

Passing through the gate and down Unter den Linden (containing some of the city’s finest buildings such as the Humboldt University), it does not take long to realise that Berlin’s architecture was conceived on a grand scale (though I was somewhat unsettled that the first thing I saw in the East was a branch of Starbucks). Mostly constructed under the direction of Friedrich Von Schinkel, much of it would seem to have been a response to the cultural inferiority Germany felt towards France at the time. Much of Germany’s cultural development occurred in a comparatively compressed period of time. For example, Schinkel’s buildings are mainly neoclassical, yet his paintings are typically romantic depictions of medieval society and gothic building. Much of his buildings destroyed in the war were apparently experiments in brick (though more of that survives than Nazi period architecture). Many of Schinkel’s paintings are contained within the Old National Gallery on the Museum Island
and show a skilled, if not brilliant, painter. The highlight of the collection
has to be the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich though, showing a talent for landscape painting similar to Constable but also to Turner, and with one painting that even resembled Whistler.

The other noteworthy aspects of the collection are paintings from Carl Blechen,
Arnold Bocklin (including a rather amusing portrait of a somewhat overweight dragon as well as his rather more famous Isle of the Dead painting) the paintings of Berlin in the nineteenth century by Gaertner, and a good selection of impressionist paintings including Cezanne, Gauguin and an excellent Renoir. I also briefly visited a collection of Picasso’s paintings from a Jewish private collector. I must admit to not especially liking Picasso, though his early phase under the influence of Braque was quite pleasant, if a little austere. Another slight disappointment was the Bauhaus Archive, although it did have an interesting painting by Klee. On the other hand, the Brohan Museum, for art nouveau, art deco and functionalism was wonderful, containing Tiffany glasses, Guimard’s (most famous for designs of the Paris Metro) furniture designs and Hagemeister’s paintings.

The old gallery is next to the Pergamon Museum, which is a further testament to grandiloquence, containing an entire temple from Pergamon, a three storey gateway from Miletas, a balcony from Balbeck, and a palace from Jordan. I was mainly interested in the gateway and ramparts from Babylon, where the blue ceramic tiles remain extraordinarily vivid. Next to them was a rather unmarked exhibit, which I presume to be the original tablet of the Code of Hammurabi. The city’s Egyptian Museum is in a similar vein, containing numerous gateways and mummies, though the most extraordinary thing about it is the bust of Nefertiti, one of the first and most iconic moments in western art.

Outside Berlin, Pottsdam contains the Sanssouci palace and estates, in much the same manner as mad King Ludwig, Frederick the Great’s palace has an almost unhinged quality (literally if one considers the deranged parrots crawling across the walls in the Voltaire room) to it’s splendour, resembling Tennyson’s palace of art (One might have said that the New Palace built later on the same estate was more restrained, were it not for the ballroom whose walls were festooned with seashells). There is a separate gallery for Frederick’s painting collection, though little of it was to my taste, excepting a typically gory Caravaggio. The estate was rather vast, though I did have time to look
at the Chinese house (largely characterised by a rather poor conception of what was or wasn’t Chinese) and the somewhat incongruous presence of a windmill. Similar architecture was to be found at the Charlottenburg palace back inside Berlin. Built for Sophie Charlottenburg, the ground floor is
quite similar to Sanssouci, though the upper floor is rather more interesting, having rather more esoteric portraits. The Schinkel Pavillion on the grounds was also well worth visiting.

The final item of note from Berlin was the Botanischer Garten, which boasted considerable grounds and a very large set of glasshouses. While containing all of the usual suspects (cacti, insectivorous, succulents, ferns and so on), it was interesting to note that they have followed the lead of the Eden Project and introduced animal species; upon one sign a lizard rested, and in one room zebra finches filled the air with their song. In another, terrapins rested next to stepping stones across a pool; as one crossed one became aware that carp beneath appeared to be behaving in a manner rather
more expected from pigeons in Trafalgar square.

Moving on from Berlin by train (most of which network is better than Britain even in the East, though I was a little unsettled by the fact that the doors would open before trains had quite stopped; though the warning signs were nothing if not direct), it was somewhat depressing to view all of the derelict factories and dilapidated housing in the East, where reconstruction has many years to go. That said, arriving in Leipzig via Wittenberg (only catching a glimpse of the Cathedral en route), one can only pay tribute to how far they have come; the city is now indistinguishable from any other city in Western Europe. Leipzig is a rather quiet city (though the number of skinheads, punks and goths was markedly higher than in Berlin), proud of its cultural heritage (Bach and the Luther-Eck disputations), though the quiet was undermined somewhat by the election with the PDS campaigning
on the day I arrived and the SPD on the day I left. The Bach Museum and the Thomas Church were and adequate diversion, though the truth is that there is very little there.

More interesting was something the city was rather less enthused about; Colditz. The trip there was not easy, as it was necessary to take a train out to an unpleasant town in the middle of nowhere, with a six minute transfer to a coach I had no idea how to find, which only left once every two hours. In the end the journey was completed without incident, and I arrived. The castle’s museum depicts something almost like a public schoolboy’s game. As with the prison camp in Vonnnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 the inmates had few diversions; sunbathing, music, pantomime, bridge and bizarre escape plans, which each nationality created in secret from prisoners of other nationalities. These
included destroying Colditz with dry rot, walking out disguised as a woman (only foiled by an overly helpful British officer who told the German guards that the lady had dropped her watch) and building a glider out of floorboards, cloth and glue. The most alarming thing about the last plan is that it would probably have worked (as shown in a later experiment) had not the war finished
first.

I read Franklin’s autobiography during the trip; not the most interesting of documents, it must be said, and the quasi-puritan work ethic (occasionally slipping into schadenfreude at the failures of those he is pleased to call the less industrious) was not especially agreeable.

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