Story & photos by Monique Burns
I’m headed to Berlin. After two or three years of hearing how incredibly hip the German capital is, my curiosity finally has gotten the better of me. It’s fall 2015—the 25th anniversary of German Reunification, proclaimed in 1990, a year after the Berlin Wall came down. Twenty-five years sounds like forever. But moving the German capital from Bonn to Berlin, and reuniting the two Berlins, East and West, has been a long, painstaking process. Now, with much of the groundwork laid, the cultural renaissance is in full swing. I’m not a minute late to the moveable feast that is the reimagined Berlin. In many ways, the party is just getting started.
I’ve seen many of Europe’s great cities, but, surprisingly, this is my first visit to Berlin. With only three days there, I want to dive headlong into the cultural ferment of Berlin’s art scene. A daunting prospect given the city’s enormous art resources. There are some 180 museums, including roughly 15-20 major art museums. There are literally hundreds of thousands of works including prized antiquities like the bust of Queen Nefertiti, Byzantine and Renaissance masterpieces, German Expressionist paintings and modern works. As for the contemporary art scene, roughly 20,000 artists from around the world now call Berlin home, and more arrive each day. Since Reunification, the number of commercial galleries has more than doubled to 440, and there are another 200 temporary exhibit spaces.
Where to begin?
Enter Miriam Bers and GoArt! Berlin. Miriam, a native Berliner, art historian and former gallery director, founded her tour company in 2006 and now works with Stefano Gualdi, an art critic from Italy’s Reggio-Emilia region who moved to Berlin 15 years ago. Though GoArt! Berlin recently added culinary tours, it’s best known for exploring Berlin’s contemporary art scene through custom tours as well as 10 regularly scheduled walks, including “Art Now Berlin,” “Berliner Fashion & Design” and “Kiezkultur (Neighborhoods) & Street Art.” After exchanging several e-mails about my wide-ranging interests, Miriam boldly announces: “I know exactly what we’ll do.”
Three weeks later, I meet Miriam, a petite blond with an engaging smile, in Mitte, Berlin’s most central district, near the north end of Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with five museums. Opposite the Neues Museum, home of the famous Nefertiti bust, is the Contemporary Fine Arts Galerie. A four-story, reinforced-concrete building, the CFA was designed in 2007 by Barbara Koller of David Chipperfield Architects, which is now building Museum Island’s new James Simon Galerie.
Our tour starts in the CFA, one of Berlin’s well-established contemporary-art galleries. On display in the long white upstairs gallery are black-and-white works by elder statesman Georg Baselitz, known, among other things, for his upside-down paintings and paintings of dogs. Downstairs, in another light-filled space, are large-scale foil “paintings” with shiny lengths of colorful foil arranged in acrylic Perspex boxes. Berlin artist Anselm Reyle was inspired, explains Miriam, by flashy 1970s nightclub decor.
Heading west along the Kupfergraben Canal, we pass Museum Island’s stately Bode Museum, then cross the little Ebertbrücke, one of countless bridges spanning the River Spree. At the corner of Oranienburgerstrasse and Tucholskystrasse, we enter the Scheunenviertel, or Barn District. Now filled with contemporary-art galleries, design shops and hip cafés, this former Jewish ghetto was where hay was stored for the Alexanderplatz livestock market.
To our right rises the Neue Synagoge with three stunning gold domes. Built in Moorish Revival style in 1866, it once housed Berlin’s largest Jewish congregation and was the scene of a 1930 violin concert by Albert Einstein. Miraculously, on November 9, 1938, the synagogue survived Kristallnacht when a brave policeman stood up to the Nazi mob. Though the Neue Synagoge is not on our contemporary-art tour, hearing its story helps me better connect with the neighborhood.
Following Tucholskystrasse for several blocks, we turn right into Linienstrasse, head to No. 149, and climb down a few stairs into the basement shop of designer Isabel Vollrath. It’s a magical cave, brimming with unusual garments like jackets made from orange tarps, belts constructed from bicycle tires, skirts with stiff sculptural fronts recalling wasps’ bellies, and long sexy shirt-dresses made entirely of shirt sleeves, a nod to Vollrath’s apprenticeship in men’s tailoring. Petite, with dark hair pulled severely back and big brown eyes, Vollrath, who is just beginning to attract serious attention, seems almost apologetic as she shows off her creations. I, just as wide-eyed, can only think: Brilliant…Brilliant…Brilliant….
Continuing along Linienstrasse, we turn into a courtyard and enter Galerie neugerriemschneider where artist Mario Garcia Torres of Monclova, Mexico, has strewn wood shards and other construction debris across gallery floors to evoke a Cuernavaca meditation center’s ruins. Passing FeldbuschWiesner Galerie, which displays photographs, small-format oils and large-scale installations, we soon reach Koppenplatz, opposite Kopps Bar & Restaurant, an elegant vegan establishment. At the park’s entrance is a bronze sculpture of a table with two chairs, one upright, the other fallen. Karl Biedermann’s 1996 sculpture—“Der verlassene Raum,” or “The Deserted Room”—marked Kristallnacht’s 50th anniversary. Ringing the sculpture’s floor-like base are mournful verses by the late Nelly Sachs, the Berlin-born Jewish poet who won the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature.
We peek into the shop of designer Anuschka Hoevener, known for structured women’s fashions whimsically adorned with tassels and wool balls, then turn into Joachimstrasse. At No. 11 are the Berlin offices of British architect Sir David Chipperfield, who also has offices in London, Milan and Shanghai. In the courtyard, the squarish concrete building housing the staff canteen is not advertised as a public restaurant. But, if it isn’t crowded, outsiders are sometimes welcome. Since Miriam is an art insider, we’re both in. Upstairs, at long blond-wood tables with benches, we devour hearty pumpkin and black cabbage-root soup, goulash with mashed potatoes and pickled red cabbage, and sturdy whole-grain bread.
Our next stop: the Ehemalige Jüdische Mädchenschule, or Former Jewish Girls School, at Auguststrasse 11-13. Built in 1928 and expanded in 1930, the handsome red-brick building was designed in the New Objectivity style, emphasizing function over form. Fourteen years later, Alexander Beer, the building’s brilliant German-Jewish architect, would perish in Theresienstadt concentration camp. On one side of the school’s first-floor lobby, with its stunning geometric-patterned mosaic floor and walls, is elegant Michelin-starred Pauly Saal & Bar, opened in 2011 by former architect Boris Radczun and Stephan Landwehr, owner of a major Berlin fine-art framing shop. On the other side, at Mogg, deli fare ranges from pastrami and barbecued beef-brisket sandwiches to pan-seared salmon and chicken liver brulée.
Upstairs, Michael Fuchs Galerie displays classic modern and contemporary works. CWC Gallery, with photography, paintings and sculpture, is the sister gallery to CAMERA WORK, exhibiting works by venerable photographers like Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Man Ray in Berlin’s westerly Charlottenburg district. Grüntuch Ernst Lab, run by the firm that renovated the school, offers exhibits, workshops and lectures exploring the link between architecture and art. Museum The Kennedys, the world’s second-largest museum about that famous American clan, displays family photographs and gives endless showings of JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of June 1963.
Miriam and I hail a cab and cut a southwest swath through Mitte to Potsdamer Platz, dominated by 1990s skyscrapers designed by celebrity architects like Renzo Piano, Helmut Jahn, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. Here, too, is the Kulturforum complex, with several museums and concert halls built in the 1950s and ’60s. Returning another day to the Kulturforum’s Gemäldegalerie, or Old Master’s Gallery, I’ll see “The Botticelli Renaissance,” showcasing “The Birth of Venus” and other iconic paintings by the Italian master alongside modern and contemporary works they inspired.
For now, Miriam and I head to Potsdamerstrasse 81-83, the shop of hat designer Fiona Bennett. It’s in the Der Tagesspiegel neighborhood, former home of the newspaper of that name, now an up-and-coming arts district where designers vie for space with Turkish doner kebab shops. Born in England but raised in Berlin, the warm, approachable Bennett has become famous for dressing American celebrities like Christina Aguilera, Brad Pitt and Lady Gaga, and titled Germans like actress and artist Veruschka. Through the large plate-glass shop window, passers-by watch designers assemble hats. In the all-white showroom are Bennett’s witty, well-made creations—updated Tyrolean hats with long, curling feathers, tall fur hats with chinstraps that look like bearskins worn by the Welsh Guards, stylish fedoras of all kinds. A five-minute walk away, another shop houses the designer’s lower-cost line, KISS by Fiona Bennett.
In an alley, a few doors from Bennett’s Potsdamerstrasse shop, is Der Tagesspiegel’s former printing factory. A concrete block with 25-foot-high ceilings, it’s now Galerie Judin, founded by Juerg Judin and David Nolan in May 2008. Alluding to the building’s roots, the gallery represents artists who are superb draftsmen as well as painters and sculptors. On my visit, they’re showing “Edouard Baribeaud: The Hour of the Gods,” focusing on the intricately limned work, in pen and ink, watercolors and gouache, of the 30-ish French-German artist who trained as a printmaker and book illustrator. The gallery represents nine other artists as well as the Estate of German Expressionist George Grosz. Another five artists, including the late Andy Warhol, are represented sporadically. The pressure to attend blockbuster shows like the Venice Biennale and Art Basel, says co-owner Nolan, has taken many gallerists away from their primary calling: to show and nurture artistic talent. While remaining faithful to that all-important responsibility, Judin and Nolan manage to stay on the cutting edge of Berlin’s art scene.
My GoArt! Berlin tour ends there. Or, rather, a few doors away in the cozy Joseph-Roth-Diele café, with its multicolored-glass Turkish ceiling lamp, black-and-white tiled floor, and red-and-white tablecloths covering small dark-wood tables. Named for Jewish journalist and novelist Joseph Roth, the café draws local artists, and gallery owners for coffee, tea, drinks, and modestly priced wurst salad and wiener schnitzel.
Over coffee, Miriam imparts some final words of wisdom. “Head to Kreuzberg, south of Mitte, where a lot of new galleries are springing up near Checkpoint Charlie,” she says. “While you’re there, stop at the König Galerie. It’s in St. Agnes, a ’60s church on the Alexandrinenstrasse, near the Jewish Museum, and the Berlinische Galerie with works by German Expressionists like Franz Marc, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Mueller and George Grosz.” Not surprisingly, I later discover that Miriam’s advice is right on the mark.
IF YOU GO
GoArt! Berlin art and culinary tours, Miriam Bers, Yorckstrasse 16, 10965 Berlin, Germany, 49-30-30873626 or 49-172-312-0351. http://goart-berlin.de.