Berlin ... reclaimed city
As one of the most aggressively positioned building sites of Europe, Berlin urges, or rather, even compels different ways of looking, says GAYATRI SINHA.
STAATLICHE MUSEEN ZU BERLIN
The Alte Nationalgalerie
BERLIN as a city speaks through its architecture. Its structures, planes and buildings emit an emotional charge, rooted in the city's turbulent history.
Within the radius of a few miles, the city as phoenix, that rises from its own ashes, is evident everywhere. As the seat of Prussia it boasts of Gothic and baroque architecture reminiscent of other European capitals. Yet it hurtles into a complete revision of itself, when an existing model of GDR culture, the Alexander Platz, will come down and make way for yet another new facet of Berlin.
The accretions of disruption lead to the parallel rhythms of mixed time. At the Brandenburg gate with its imposing Doric columns, once again symbolic of the new old city, tourists still speak of the proximity of Hitler's bunker.
The Reichstag, as the seat of the German Parliament, also comes with an overlay of political associations. Among the city's classic structures is the museum island with the famous Bodes museum and the Pergamon altar, all built in the tradition of 19th Century expansive European style. But the newer accretions, of a rebuilt East and West, posit another cultural identity.
The writer Barbara Wahlster in her essay "Images of a City" writes that you could identify East Berlin by its smell. But smell evaporates. For the visitor today, it cannot even be imagined. My guide to the city, Regina Aggio, a student in film, interprets the city visually. We criss cross our way across the historic Unter den Linden the street of the Linden trees, one of the few Berlin streets named after a romantic concept to the Stalin Memorial and after that to the Karl Marx alley. What I see are remnants and new make overs; like much else in the city, the Stalin memorial is being redesigned. Along the Karl Marx alley, there are charming uniformly designed buildings once occupied by the intellectual cream of the old city. Now these wear the air of the abandoned, a residue of a rejected past. Regina informs me that Berlin is built to accommodate four-and-a half million people, but the actual population is well below the four million mark.
In effect this means that several buildings look somewhat abandoned. That trains and buses are never bursting to capacity, that even at the most popular café such as the Vietnamese Monsieur Vyuong, popular with Berlin's theatre fraternity, you only have to wait a few minutes, that long museum queues are more characteristic of London or Paris. The city's gift to itself is the hoffe or court as a kind of cultural and social hub.
Many buildings in working class areas in the GDR were built around a square or communal empty space. Now in these reclaimed spaces, this central court or hoffe, such as the upmarket Hackersher Hoffe, bookshops, art galleries and design studios have sprung up. These afford pools of social intimacy, a more modest version of Rome's palazzos, or Paris' café studded sidewalks. It is in one of these hoffes, at the Contemporary Fine Arts gallery that we see a small retrospective of Jorg Immendorf, one of Germany's most politically reactive artists whose Café Deutschland series of paintings critiques the role of politics and art in Germany.
The Neues Palais ... Berlin is still reconfiguring its cultural resources.
As one of the most aggressively positioned building sites of Europe, Berlin urges, even compels different ways of looking. Certainly the Berliner's capacity for building the city is deep. The city has few "vistas" that tourists easily identify and the complex of cultural buildings around the Potsdamer Platz boggles the mind. In the years of the wall, most of the classic buildings such as the museum island went to East Berlin. The west, in the spirit of necessity, created its own opera house, public library and the famous National Museum designed by Mies van der Rohe. With a changed political topography, all major public buildings museums and opera house were now in duplicate. A spokesperson for the Prussian museum institute, a conglomerate of 17 leading museums, informs me that the city is still reconfiguring its cultural resources.
At the Altes museum, or the old museum, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1822-23, replete with models of the Greco Roman pantheon, we see an exhibition of Chinese art that extends quite magnificently from the Shang dynasty in 1600 B.C. and represents imperial Chinese art for the next 2,000 years. Close by at the New National Museum there is the more contentious view of art from the GDR, now being presented before the public for the first time. Designed in uncompromising modernist lines by Mies van der Rohe, the building stands in sharp contrast to the exhibits in the show. The exhibition can be read not so substantially through the works, but by what is left unsaid in the interstices. Perhaps predictably, the sites of severe Allied bombing such as Dresden and Berlin itself produced the more reactive art. Under a totalitarian regime however, protest in art is muted, allegory flourishes, and attempts to mimic modernism in the West inevitably looks off kilter.
In a sense, art in the GDR developed against the background of the Nazi reading of "degenerate art". Certainly, East Germany did not contribute to the modern in any substantial sense. Stalin's distaste for abstract art, and his dictum surrounding the artist as the engineer of the soul, determined the course of propagandist art in the GDR. But for the first time, in a cogent way, through the work of 145 artists we receive the view of the other side: the bombed city of Dresden and images of widows and refugees from within Germany, and the Franco wars essay another reality. Perhaps the most famous artists from the GDR, Penck and Baselitz, emigrated to the West. But the disappeared context that prompted the allegorical paintings of Werner Tubke, the finely executed propagandist works of Willi Sitte or the muted sexual image of Clemens Groszer's painting titled "Café Liolet", has passed away forever. No doubt this art will survive as historical anachronism, one of the last remainders of a time under gradual erased.
German self representation is so low key that the sustained interest in Indology often tends to go unnoticed and unsung. Despite the current economic downturn, Germany maintains a record number of 21 chairs at universities for Sanskrit studies, although the number of chairs for contemporary India has reduced to two. In this context, Dr. Marianne Yaldiz, curator of the Indian art museum at Berlin, is something of a champion of classical India. Yaldiz first came to India in the early 1960s, lived with the Munda tribals in the Santhal belt, learnt their language at about the same time that Meera Mukherjee had set about her own anthropological journey in the jungles of Bastar. In this context, Yaldiz has been as instrumental in building up an ethnological collection of tribal artefacts, as much as in encouraging the entry of contemporary Indian photography in her museum. As an art historian, Yaldiz has a passion for ancient Buddhist art. Quite appropriately for the Asia-Pacific weeks she presented an exhibition of Mathura sculptures sensuous, strong and aspiring. The exhibition, titled the "Sublime and the Ascetic" dates from the First Century B.C. to the Sixth Century A.D. and contains some remarkable artefacts from the Sunga, Kushan and Gupta periods. In her museum the range is sufficiently eclectic to swing from some exceptional ragamala miniatures from Bundi, Kangra and the Malwa schools to Dayanita Singh's photographs of Mona Ahmad, unlikely heroine from the margins.
German collections of Indian art have been built around private collections since the 17th Century, and traditionally housed in ethnological museums.
However, as with other leading European collections, one time visitor curiosity does not translate into a sustained interest or love for Indian art. Only Indian art authorities, through a vibrant programme of exchange, can try and remedy that.
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