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.





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.


Hot in Hyde Park

It must be on its way to 28 Celsius today. At 8 AM its already very warm so I head to Hyde Park for some air. I pick up a ‘Boris’ bicycle from the stand and after inserting my credit card number in exchange for a cycle pin code, I unlock a bike and head off.

I join the cycle lane at a modest pace and notice before very long I am on something that seems more like a velodrome. I am being passed in both directions by office workers on a mission.

I carry on trying to be courteous and let the commuter cyclists pass, until I complete my circuit. On the Serpentine Bridge I find a traffic jam of cars, held up by a swan that has decided its cooler on the bridge than swimming about on the lake below with its mates. A few of us try and help it get back to safety. He has his own trajectory, so I leave him and return the bike to its stand.

I spot a couple of coppers in a police car eating breakfast, I mention the traffic hold up and why. They just shrug and say its nature and go back to their meal.

I take the hint and head around the corner to the cafe that is next to the Lido outdoor baths, order avocado on toast, and watch the swimmers in the lake. I marvel at their immune systems, I shudder at what that lake might be harbouring.

I read the history of the Lido Baths on a sign whilst waiting for my breakfast and also see a public notice on treatment to seek from any rashes due to swimming in the lake. Hmmm.

I get a snooty look as I sit down at a lakeside outdoor table in my bike pants, but mostly my fellow diners and I just look blissful at the joy of another beautiful day.

On the path as I am heading out of Hyde Park, the horse guards trot towards me in all their regalia. Perhaps they will sort out that recalcitrant swan.

West Bohemian Museum Plzen (Pilsen)

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For the best overview of the history of the region, this should be your first stop. Its another beautiful day outside, so its just me and the ticket collectors in the building.

The pre-history section is wonderfully presented and with a background of soothing music, I am quickly absorbed in to its ancient archeological treasures.

Across the hall is the history of Plzen from the middle ages through to the 19th Century. Founded in 1295 by King Wenceslaus the second, the city celebrates its 720th birthday this year.

The city was never conquered until the 1600’s. The 30 Years War which ravaged Europe left its toll on Plzen and it took years for the town to rebuild back to what it was.

Part of the reason for the town’s early impenetrability, was strong fortifications with a double wall and a moat surrounding the city. This highly effective system was only taken down in the early 1800’s by the Burghermeister Martin Kopecky to make space for stretches of green park land circling the city, which can still be enjoyed today.

Down in the chilly basement of the museum is a huge armoury of suitably terrifying weapons. I make a break for the sun and spend the rest of the afternoon in one of the Burghermeister’s beautiful parks.



Brandenburg Gate / Brandenburger Tor

I am at the end of my sabbatical here. After my last class at the Goethe Institut, I take a nostalgic stroll by this city emblem and theme image of this blog.

On the gate completed in 1789 by Carl Gotthard Langhans, sits the stunning Quadriga (Victory on her horse drawn chariot) by Schadow whom I have mentioned more than once.

In 1806 when Napoleon took Berlin, he removed the Quadriga, by now a national symbol, removing it to Paris, which was eventually won back and reinstalled in 1814.

Increasingly the gate was used to represent military might with parades through it, for example in 1933, when the National Socialists came to power.

Bitter fighting as the Soviets took this sector of Berlin near the end of the war in April 1945, saw the Quadriga almost completely destroyed.

In the 1950s, the Quadriga was restored in a brief East/West Germany cooperation which was short lived, with the installation of the Berlin wall in 1961 and the gate was lost to the East German zone.

With the fall of the Wall in November 1989, the gate and the Quadriga have resumed significance. In my short time here I have seen the gate set up to screen the football final, host President Obama’s drop in, and last weekend it was the venue for the Christopher Street party. Three more divergent uses you could not imagine.

I walk away more than a little sad, trying to dodge out of frame of the many, ‘I’ve been there’ photos being made in front of the gate, around me. I’ve been there too and its been totally amazing. Thank you Berlin. And thank you Goethe-Institut.



Neue Nationalgalerie/ In white light exhibition

I’ve become obsessed with statues in Berlin as they are emblematic of this city. Many Denkmal as they are called in German, are a result of two main sculptors, Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764 to 1850) and Christian Daniel Rauch (1777 to 1857). Both studied in Rome post their Berlin apprenticeships, hence the strong Neoclassical influence.

They were also both favoured by the prolific architect Karl Freidrich Schinkel which is why so much of their work endures today.

Look around Berlin and many city icons are the work of these sculptors. The Quadriga on top of the Brandenburg Gate is by Schadow, and in the Unter den Linden the equestrian statue of Frederick the Great is by Rauch.

Today I see an exhibition of their work and their contemporaries in the stark modernistic Neue Nationalgalerie foyer, removed from their normal residence in nearby Friedrichswerder Kirche which needs a renovation.

The exhibition named Im Weissen Licht, in white light, has many now familiar faces to me, including a bust of Goethe by Rauch, one of Kant by Hagemann, Schadow’s student, and several renditions of royalty, including the famous Princess series by Schadow.