Potsdam – Barberini Museum

Its four years since I visited Potsdam on the outskirts of Berlin. At the time, most of the historic buildings in the old market square area were ring-fenced by tall hoardings and crowned by a cluster of cranes. Heavy war damage and subsequent DDR disinterest meant it is only now, many years after the Wall came down, that the city’s important buildings are rehabilitated, some from the ground up.

Just opened in January is the Barberini Museum, built in the likeness of the palace built here by Frederick the Great the second in 1772. He was inspired in his palace design by the Barberini palazzo residence in Rome.

The building was bombed almost flat on April 14 1945 and the rubble cleared in 1948. It was eventually replaced with tasteless ‘tin can’ hall but it was torn down in favour of a return to the original design.

The building is stunning and the Alt Markt Square on this side is truly gorgeous. But enough of the location, the art inside the new gallery is also marvellous.

There are 10 of us on this visit to celebrate a birthday. I am with a cultured crew, and we make a serious effort to see everything in one afternoon.

The headline exhibition is from the Washington Phillips Collection called From  Hopper to Rothko. Its completely absorbing, if not a bit ironic to be looking at a Jackson Pollock in a corner of Brandenburg.

To get back on more of a German theme, I break off from the others and head for the DDR art section, having seen some amazing works in Dresden in the past.

I have huge respect for these artists, who walked a perilously fine line between self expression and political correctness. I enjoyed Wolfgang Mattheuer’s abstract work. But I particularly liked artist Rolf Händler, who didnt get caught up in this conundrum, he just kept to a regular output of self portraits.

Downstairs is some very fine Monets and sculptures by Rodin. But the river side cafe is where we re-group and sit panting under sun umbrellas in the 30 Celsius heat.

 

 

Goethe and Schiller at a gallop

Since seeking out the previous apartments of the 1920s Bauhau artist set was an epic fail the day before. I figure its easier to look for homes of these who were never chased out of Weimar, that is the writers – Goethe and Schiller.

Its threatening more rain but I figure I can make an early morning circuit of the Park an der Ilm to see Goethe’s summer house before stopping into the ‘official’ Goethe Haus on Frauen Platz.

I wander through the sleepy streets and pause at the mounted statue of Duke Carl Alexander, who features large as a benign benefactor for both writers, as I turn into the park.

I follow the park’s chalky trails cantered by joggers, through idyllic green forest and wide plains of tall grass, bisected by a river. I halt in front of a Goethe’s cottage with its manicured gardens as a ticket collector arrives, who whilst the church bells chime 10, the opening time, says the house is not open yet. I give her space to decide when 10 am exists on her time clock and wander the grounds and notice a huge old tree, now fallen on its side its so large, and wonder if Goethe ever sat under it.

I spend so much time in the grounds taking photos from every angle of this small romantic cottage, I decide I don’t need to go inside. I leave the ticket collector alone as clearly thats how she likes it.

Over at Frauen Platz, the Goethe circus is beginning. Swarms of people are gathered. Horse drawn carriages are lined up and the cafes are heaving with coffee and sugary cake consumers. I head up to the counter and ask in my best German for a ticket. I cant quite understand at first why I cant have one. The line behind me grows impatient. I finally get it as the hostility behind me peaks. I needed to have pre-reserved a ticket to get into the Goethe House as it is so busy.

I slink out ticketless, commiserating with myself, that I have at least seen through Goethe’s birthplace house in Frankfurt without incident a couple of years back. Then I head for Schiller’s house hoping for a better reception. And I got it.

Schillers house, by comparison, is an oasis of calm and staffed by patient ticket collectors who indulge my mangled German, in the home city of the most eloquent German literature you will find.

In comparison to Goethe, Schiller had a hard time of it. From his first play, he attracted the wrath of the duke of his home state. He left penniless seeking shelter from friends and eventually settled in Weimar, after the honourary appointment as a City Councillor by the enlightened Duke Carl Alexander. He married a local member of a threadbare aristocractic family, Charlotte, whilst maintaining a strong relationship with her sister Carolina, a soon to be divorcee. Watch the recent German film for a more saucy rendition of their eventual joint household. How he found the energy to write a play each year, whilst of poor health and permanently broke whilst romancing two sisters, is beyond me. He died at 45 years of age.

Schiller’s legacy is vast and includes a poem called ‘Ode to Joy’ which was the inspiration for Beethoven’s work of the same name and later for the play, Wilhelm (William) Tell, which regrettably Hitler’s propagandists seized on for a time before the narrative changed and it was dropped.

I get soaked walking back to the hotel and head inside the Neues Museum partly to escape the downpour and partly because it was the host of many Bauhaus exhibitions in the 1920s.

There is an exhibition of Winckelmann, the father of art history (1717 – 1768) called Moderne Antike. He fostered the love of Greek and Roman antiquities and perfection in the human form in the classical statues he discovered. There are examples of ethnography in the exhibition and some of the displays touch on rasse (race). I am unsettled by the direction of some of his later followers and exit glad its time for my train.

 

 

 

 

Bauhaus to Bach in Weimar

I wasnt going blog this stay in Berlin as I am supposed to be focussed on my documentary, but just one week here and its a holiday weekend already.  Time to get back on a train again.

I have been obsessed with the Bauhaus movement and was curious about its origins in Weimar. I take a couple of trains snaking my way south and arrive in a brewing thunderstorm.

A short walk into town watching the dark skies and on the square facing the famous statue of Goethe and Schiller, is the Bauhaus Museum. Quickly inside, I am bemused to find for the first time I can take photos with impunity. In Berlin’s Bauhaus Archive, this is verboten.

I make up for lost time and capture every sculpture, household item design, architectural model and painting. Which isnt a lot -as this is Bauhaus lite. Whilst housing an archive of 10,000 items there is only a space of about 200 -300 square metres given over to an exhibition. Never the less, its amazing to sight the originals of items I have only known in books. And many of my heroes’ work is here – Itten, Klee, Schlemmer.

I listen to the audio guide and learn of a remarkable movement that originally flourished here with a heyday in 1920 – 1925 supported by a relatively liberal state government, until the downward spiral of intolerance began and the school was closed in 1930.

The skies open and visitors crowd into the gallery for shelter rather than edification. I have an umbrella with me and take a dash out into the torrential rain.

I try to stalk a few of the Bauhaus artists, looking for their apartments on the Bauhaus sites map. Several of the street names have changed and when I arrive at Oskar Schlemmer’s flat at Prellerstrasse 14, the building looks almost brand new.

I do find Nietzsche’s house on a detour into an opulent suburb on the city’s fringe, but circle back for some shelter in the Deutsches Nationaltheater foyer where I end up being talked into buying a ticket to their Bach concert.

Image is Johannes Itten’s ‘Turm des Feuers’ 1920 Bauhaus  Museum Weimar.

A new larger Bauhaus museum is being built to open in 2019.

More images are on instagram – susangibsonpr

 

 

Back to Berlin – again

The holiday is almost at an end. I have 48 hours left in Europe so I bolt north on the ICE train for a quick visit to the Berliner Bear.

I am staying in the leafy suburb of Dahlem in an old, opulent apartment complete with parquet floors, french doors and high ceilings. Berlin’s Botanical Gardens and the Free University are just a short walk away.

Dinner is in Charlottenberg and most of the conversation is about art and politics. Later my host  takes me into the city for a drink at the famous Adlon Hotel on Pariser Platz facing the Brandenburg Gate.

I have a full commentary on his experiences growing up in a divided city whilst I down Bellinis. We talk so late we leave the hotel to find the Brandenburg Gate almost devoid of tourists.

Next morning I eat breakfast in a local cafe pouring over the Berliner MorgenPost reading of the recent election. There have been gains made by the far right party which is a little unsettling in what is normally a liberal city.

Its a glorious day so I eventually rouse myself to walk the length of the Unten den Linden towards the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). I note many of the familiar old buildings are now draped in scaffolding for repairs.

I have just the afternoon free so choose one gallery to visit today, the Bauhaus Archiv.

It’s a good call. On display are some of the top items in the archive. I am back amongst work by Klee, Itten and Kandinsky and for the first time, I home in on Oskar Schlemmer. He has an incredible aluminium statue that looks like something out Fritz Lang’s Metropolis film. There are also examples of the Bauhaus ‘design for living’ furniture.  These 1930s prototypes are still part of many design houses even today.

The evening finds me supporting my host’s team in what we would call back home a ‘fun run’ in the Olympic Stadium which, if you know your history, was where Hitler staged his showcase 1936 Olympic Games.  Still standing are large statues that look haughtily down on us as the teams celebrate in hospitality tents on grounds where huge rallies were held in the 1930s.

And then its pumpkin hour. I am driven to Tegel Airport for the last Air Berlin flight to Frankfurt and my arduous 26 hour journey back to the end of the world in the morning.

Thanks for taking this journey with me. Vielen danke für alles to my friends, old and new, across Europe. I look forward to seeing you again soon.

 

Concert in a cloister – Czech Republic

Its day two in Czech Republic and time is of the essence. I am met by a local historian at Chotesov,  the closest station to my family village of Mantov. I have a surprise waiting for me. From a family tree I have already sent ahead to the historian, he has arranged a likely relative to join him at the station too. He has a familiar face. Features from my family gene pool stare back at me.

We only have the German language in common. I have to rack my brains to remember the polite form, Sie, as my historian guide is 91 years old.

We talk back and forth until the early evening. I am asked to stay on for dinner and attend a concert in the local 12th century cloister.

By complete coincidence I am in the village at a time of the only summer chamber concert there. In the ruined beauty of the Chotesov Cloister, I am treated to Musica Florea, by artistic director Marek Stryncl.

Fittingly the chamber ensemble play a local Josef Myslivecek piece from the 1700s, followed by Mozart and finishing with Mendelessohn-Bartholdy.

I dont know much about classical music, but hearing this beautiful music played in a centuries old building under a ceiling of exquisite frescoes, gives me goose bumps.

I have missed the last train back to Plzen. A taxi is sorted for me and arrangements made for the morning when we meet again to explore the village and see some houses that could have been lived in by my forbears.

 

 

A night at the opera in Prague

I am in Prague briefly. With no expecatations, as it’s a Sunday night, I call by the ticket office at the National Theatre. I am in luck, there are still tickets left for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly tonight, even if they are stories up in the balconies.

I ransack my bag back at my room, for something suitable to wear. The grandeur of the building is impressive when I return. I spend time on the roof deck taking pictures of the twin horse and chariot statues which dominate the skyline of the building.

The orchestra is already warming up when I arrive at my seat. Some of the chorus, in character, are enacting scenes from the Japanese geisha life, as the audience is still filing in.

From the giddy heights of the balcony, there is a great vantage point to appreciate the sophisticated staging. There is a real water filled bath-pool covering a quarter of the stage, which is lit from underneath. It is used several ways throughout the evening, even the principal cast wade through it.

And so the tragedy unravels. Cio Cio-San (Butterfly)  is exquisitely performed by Christina Vasileva and the cad, Pinkerton, is played suitably callously by Peter Berger.

The cast are all standout and the choreography interesting ranging from huge fan dances to the stark stillness of silent witnesses on the stage.

The Czech Republic has a proud history of opera. I would encourage anyone visiting Prague to sample an opera. Mozart premiered his work at the Estates Theatre to appreciative audiences that he lacked in his home city.

A French man next to me strikes up a conversation as I am solo. We riff on the opera and also mention our own century-old connections to this country. He, with Brno, myself with Plzen.

I could linger longer but I have been up since 5 AM today for my London flight to Prague. I cut it short to be able to take my early train to my home village where people are waiting for me, to help me find out more on my family’s past.

Sunken cities – Egypt’s lost worlds at The British Museum

If you are an archeology fan then get to this exhibition on at the British Museum.

Outside its chaos in the main part of the museum, but in this beautifully staged exhibition, its soft lights with a gurgly under water sound track and murmured voices.

A video begins the exhibition with a background on the extraordinary discovery made beneath the sea in Abukir Bay, at the edge of Egypt’s northwestern Nike Delta. The lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus known in ancient writings, were only discovered recently.

They were set on a fragile aquatic landscape of lakes and marshes that slowly sank into the sea. 1000 years later these cities are being recovered piece by extraordinary piece.

The monumental statue of Hapy, was a major find and is on display in the ante-room before we dive into a treasure trove of antiquities recovered.

A large part of the exhibition is on the interplay of Greek and Egyptian ideas that merged in the port cities. In particular how the cultures merged their dieties, borrowing back and forth, to suit the population.

We track various dynasties of rulers including Alexander the great, who encouraged the Eygtian belief in kings being divine beings. His general, Ptolemy, ascended to the throne post his death and this dynasty lasted 300 years. Fast forward to Cleopatra’s ill-fated reign as the last descendant of the Greek Ptolemies, and the region is lost to Roman rule.

We also see likenesses of Hadrian who visited Eygpt in AD130 where his Greek lover, Antinous, was to drown in the Nile.

Allow yourself a couple of hours to really savour all the treasure. It will be the best exhibition you will see in London this autumn.