Friday, 28 December 2012

Briefly in Berlin

Grizzled musicians at the Christmas market near the Opera House
As soon as school broke up, we nipped over to Berlin for a few days, just before Christmas. We were back in time to hang our stockings up on Christmas Eve. I really wanted to blog about it before Christmas was over but it's taken me all this time to get to grips with my photos. So all my kitsch photos of plaster Baby Jesuses and glowing stars are looking a little past it, I'm afraid. Let's get them out of the way without more ado. It was wonderfully Christmassy, which was the main reason we went.

Having never been to Berlin before, I tried to mug up on the city before we left, watching Funeral in Berlin, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Wings of Desire and reading snippets of great books set in Berlin in the Berlin City Lit Guide from Oxygen Books (excellent series -- I had the New York one when we went to NYC last year). As all those films are set in the era of the Cold War and the Wall, it actually gave us a rather grim picture of paranoia, dereliction and division: of course, nothing could be further from the truth now.
     We were staying in a very nice Spanish hotel (thank you, Trip Advisor -- and the unexpected Spanishness was a welcome extra) close to Friedrichstrasse U-bahn station -- it was hard to grasp that this had once been on the East side of the wall. The area was really more or less indistinguishable from a London shopping street, with familiar shops and multinational coffee and burger chains.
Old and less old: the Opera House flanked by the brilliant TV tower from the days of East Berlin
But it didn't take us long to find a more German aspect of the city. We walked along the banks of the Spree to Museum Island, which looked fantastic -- monumental. But we didn't have time for massive museums on this trip. There was the tail-end of a bric-a-brac market just opposite the island with quite enticing objects (1960s plastic toys and the like) but they must have seen us coming as they were very pricey -- too pricey. I only bought these two little ball-bearing puzzles for my collection.
Hard to make out the picture on the left -- a soldier sitting on his helmet with an arrow through his head??
We came out at the Opera House and found our first Christmas market. And it was starting to snow!
The entrance to our first Christmas market
We immediately bought bratwurst (my son dared to have the infamous currywurst) and gluhwein ( and hot chocolate for the kids) and it was fantastic. My knees were burning with the cold by now, but the mulled wine made them feel as though they belonged to someone else. We slithered round the market in the surprisingly driving snow. Apart from my knees, we were just about dressed for it.
We came out onto Unter den Linden, whose name is so beautiful and had made me imagine a romantic, tree-lined street -- it was much grander than that, with massive buildings bristling with statuary. Just as we were starting to weary of the snow, we came to an exhibition of Modernist art from the Guggenheim collection, which I've just discovered is something to do with Deutsche Bank -- it was good, anyway, with, it seemed, one painting by all the key artists of the late 19th and early 20th century and a few extra Kandinskys thrown in for good measure. The shop was very imaginatively stocked.
The Brandenburg Gate
We carried on down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate -- very handsome. We turned left and walked down to Potsdamer Platz, and had a brief foray into the Sony Centre. It was very twinkly and Christmassy but a bit soulless -- not many people were around.
The Sony Centre
Christmas tree in Potsdamer Platz
I was in charge of the sightseeing and my goal was to reach the art gallery at the Kulturforum (an arts complex akin to London's South Bank, I guess). It was snowing really hard and laying quite thickly already. We are English wusses and not used to going out in the snow (as soon as I see flakes falling at home I usually wimp out and refuse to drive in it). It was also dark by now but still very jolly in the centre of Berlin. We found the home of the Berlin Philharmonic where a concert was just about to begin. Everyone was arriving and I wished we'd thought to get tickets. The usher told us that the art gallery was just a bit further on.
Part of the Kulturforum
We carried on but I don't think we actually found the gallery. It all seemed pretty shut. The building above was very dramatic in the snow -- I slipped on the marble pavement and chucked my camera in the snow but it was alright.
We decided to walk back to the hotel. The Brandenburg Gate looked brilliant all lit up.
I think this was some kind of performance art... Not real soldiers
Back at the hotel we had dinner in the Spanish restaurant which, unfortunately (in my view) had opted for the sort of cuisine made famous by El Bulli, so everything was cubes of foam and soupcons of mousse and tiny balls of avocado and other such silliness. My 'beef Wellington' was not the hefty slab o' meat and pastry of tradition, but a tiny finger of ultra-rare meat with a literally transparent sliver of something that could not be called pastry twinkling diaphanously somewhere in its vicinity, like a stray sweet wrapper. Very very strange. I did not like the black nubs of pasta-like dough either! Eee, there's no pleasing some folk -- I would've been happier with a plate of mushy peas and a pork pie, really. But it was an interesting experience. The kids took it in their stride admirably.
     The next day it was still snowing like mad. We set off on the U-bahn to Mauerpark flea market. 'Mauerpark' means 'wall park' and is a strip of green that was reclaimed from the no-man's-land alongside a section of the Wall after it came down -- reclaimed by the local people.
The flea market was a fairly familiar, Camden-style mix of hippy accoutrements, bags, clothes and vast arrays of quite saddening junk, which it was easy to imagine had been thrown up in the chaos the city has been through. Although I'm a very seasoned junk-rifler, it felt somehow wrong to be picking over these piles of belongings -- it made me think of Christian Boltanski's art works in memory of murdered Jews.
Warhol at the Hamburger Bahnhof
     After the market we battled over to the Hamburger Bahnhof art gallery which is housed in an ex railway station. It was worth the traipse through the cold, wet slush as it was an incredible space. And you were allowed to take photos. I won't bore you with all my poor photos but there was a great collection of work by artists that I love: Anselm Kiefer, Warhold, Rauschenberg, Joseph Beuys, Thomas Struth. Kiefer's 1990 work, 'Lilith at the Red Sea' incorporates children's clothes and seems to refer with unflinching directness to the Holocaust (in a very similar way to Boltanski).
'Lilith at the Red Sea'
The temporary exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof was a retrospective of an artist I hadn't come across before, Martin Honert. It took me a while to tune in to his mindset but once I did I thought he was amazing. He is quite brilliantly singular, though I guess you could draw comparisons with Maurizio Cattelan, and his work to recreate photographs and memories as three-dimensional works actually put me in mind of Richter's blurred recreations of photos.
'Group Photo of Prefects': lifesize figures made from polyurethane, sand, glass, textiles and oil paint
two views of 'Santa Claus', a three-dimensional recreation of one of Honert's childhood drawings (polyester, polystyrene, wood and acrylic)
'Fire' (with 'Starling' in the background)
Detail of 'Giants' which Honert explains are the same size as the world's tallest man and so perhaps explain ancient myths of giants -- just very tall humans
I was very very taken with Honert's art and it has given me so much to think about.
Alexanderplatz Christmas Market
That evening we went to the Christmas market at Alexanderplatz, which is the biggest one, I think (there are around 25 Christmas markets in Berlin alone!). We had more gluhwein, more deep-fried batter, pretzels, and, wondrous, the best Christmas bauble shop it's possible to imagine -- a wonderland of silvered glass. We saw naughty nurse baubles, elephant baubles, cigars, seals, fish, gherkins, policemen, you name it. Incredible. I chose a glass chameleon.
All that sugar doesn't necessarily make you sweet -- stallholder at the Christmas market
Curtain of sausages...
On our last day in Berlin the snow had stopped and it had all melted away from the pavements. We went walking down Friedrichstrasse to yet another Christmas market. This one was in Gendarmenmarkt which was the most beautiful spot we saw while we were there. An exquisite eighteenth-century square with a French cathedral, a German cathedral, a concert hall and a statue of Schiller in the middle. The Christmas market was the most traditional of the three we went to and rather more upmarket.

We also nipped into the trendy area north of Friedrichstrasse, Prenzlauerberg, to see if the KW art gallery was open but, alas, it wasn't. Their 'One to One' exhibition, on currently, is a series of artworks intended to be viewed by a single viewer and I think I would have found that really interesting. Some grafitti instead.
All too soon it was time to head to the airport and our own Christmas dinner the next day. It seemed very quiet at home after the intensity of three days in Berlin. It's a city I definitely want to go back to, for longer and in kinder weather. There's a mass of things I want to do there still. And now I also have a long list of books and films to take me deeper into the heart of Berlin.
     Hope you had a wonderful Christmas...

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Recording Britain -- Great Bardfield

It's rather bad form to buy oneself a Christmas present, but I'm afraid that, while I was searching the far corners of eBay for suitably esoteric collectibles for my nearest and dearest, I couldn't resist a bargain-priced set of the four volumes of Recording Britain.
Gibraltar Mill, Great Bardfield by Michael Rothenstein
When war broke out in 1939 Sir Kenneth Clark (though he probably wasn't yet a Sir) decided to send artists out across England, Wales and Scotland to make a record of the places that make up the visual fabric of our country. It was a clever kind of propaganda exercise (by which I don't mean to imply any sort of disapproval) -- to show us one of the reasons why the war was worth fighting: the potential destruction of so much we held dear. The V & A now hold the collection of original paintings and drawings of places in England and Wales (the Scottish works are in the Museum Collections Unit at the University of St. Andrews). This page on the V & A website will tell you much more about the whole project.
     Clark intended the scheme to be a help to artists, as much as anything else, for with the outbreak of war the market for art became dramatically depressed. He raised enough money to be able to pay his team of recorders a modest sum as they toured the country. The criterion for their choice of subject matter was not simply to find places that might be destroyed by bombs; it was also to key into the more nebulous but pervasive anxiety people felt then (particularly then but, of course, ever since too) about the passing of a whole way of life: modernisation and urbanisation were, it was felt, riding roughshod over 'old England', trampling people, buildings and landscapes as endless terraced houses were thrown up and factories replaced smithies and craftsmen's workshops. 
A more recent selection from the 1500 originals is in this book by Gill Saunders
     When the four books arrived, I have to confess I was a little disappointed. Just a little. The books were published between 1946 and 1949, immediately after the end of the war, when the country was still suffering from terrible deprivation. On a quick glance through, the printing seemed rather insipid with many of the images in dull sepia tones. On the V & A website, by contrast, the paintings appear in clear, natural colours -- much nicer. Gill Saunders' 2011 book about the project seems to have colour reproductions of the originals and I can see I'll probably have to get it as well. But it feels good to own the four books that represent the project in its original form. I'm only showing a very few images this time, but there are paintings by many wonderful artists from the first half of the twentieth century who I absolutely love: Kenneth Rowntree, John Piper (though seemingly rather uninspired and keeping his genius in check for some reason -- perhaps because the commission was to record not interpret), Barbara Jones, Ruskin Spear, Rowland Hilder) and others new to me but certainly to be added to the list of cherished artists: Phyllis Dimond, Stanley Anderson are just two I've noticed so far. I haven't yet had time to really sit down and go through the four books lingeringly. In fact the more I look, the more treasures I'm finding. I will have to blog about them in more detail later, I think.
The Shelter, Bedford Square by Phyllis Dimond
The Cuckmere at Litlington by Rowland Hilder
35 Beaumont Street, Oxford by Stanley Anderson
Wooden House, Wrythe Greene byBarbara Jones
Tithe Barn, Great Coxwell by John Piper
I wonder how many of the scenes recorded did actually meet the fate that was feared, how many are no longer there? Happily the conservation lobby also got the wind in its sails at about the same time and many precious buildings and vistas have been preserved, despite fears to the contrary. Certain the Gibraltar Mill at Great Bardfield (seen in the first picture above) still stands in its fields, even if it's been converted into a dwelling now:
Gibraltar Mill, Great Bardfield as seen on Google Street View
The reason I looked up Great Bardfield (in Essex) is that it was the home of so many wonderful artists, including Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, but neither of these artists' work features in the four books -- due, no doubt, to the fact that they both served as official war artists, Ravilious, sadly, never returning.
Ravilious' house at Castle Hedingham, nr Great Bardfield
Of all the paintings made during wartime and which served -- and serve -- to remind us why it was worth fighting to preserve our freedom, the one that most moves me is The Cornfield by John Nash (painted in 1918):
Click on this link tothe Tate website to listen to a poem by John Burnside inspired by this painting.