We took a short trip to Berlin in mid-August, partly to visit Ted’s nephew and his family, whom we haven’t seen in a while, and partly to get out of Italy’s August heat. The latter goal was only partly successful – it was unseasonably hot in Berlin, too – but daily high temperatures were only 90, not 100, so it was tolerable. Global warming – it’s a thing.
For most of the time that I was growing up, the central fact about Berlin was the Wall that divided the city. But the Wall has now been down for 30 years – longer than it was up. You can still figure out where the Wall was – a narrow brick line traces where the Wall once stood, and there are large sized posters with historic photos along the nearby streets. But for many residents of the city today, the Wall is a historic fact, not a present reality.
And you can once again take photos of Brandenburg Gate with unimpeded views.
One of the few concrete reminders of the old East Germany is the “Ampelmann” – the walking man with a hat that was used on East German traffic lights. After reunification, the German government proposed replacing the symbol with the traditional stick figures used on most western European (and American) traffic lights. Nothing doing, said the former East Berliners. So they stayed. Today, the Ampelmann is a good way to tell whether you are in the former East or West Berlin. There are even souvenir shops where you can buy T-shirts, mugs and other items featuring the beloved symbol.
Here’s a life-sized version.
We stayed in a hotel in Potsdamer Platz, which was “no-man’s land” during the Wall era and is now a vibrant commercial center. This, for example, is the Sony Center, which changes colors of its ceiling continuously
We chose the area because it was close to many museums we were interested in.
For those places that weren’t close enough to walk to, we used public transportation, which is very good in Berlin. The S-Bahn, U-Bahn, busses and trams are all run by the same entity, and the same tickets work for each. Many stations include electronic timetables that tell you when the next few trains or busses are coming – very useful where a single station served multiple routes. Travel on public transportation was particularly easy this summer, after the German government instituted a nationwide pass that allowed you unlimited access to metropolitan public transit and regional trains throughout the country for only 9 euro a month.
The special transit deal, sadly, will not be extended past the end of August. But the gateless, “honor system” method of accessing the public transit system in Berlin will continue. We downloaded the 9 euro pass on our phones, but were surprised to find that there were no gates, turnstiles or other places to swipe the pass – you just boarded. Apparently there are random spot checks by transit police, and people found to be traveling without a ticket or prepaid pass are heavily fined. But we didn’t see a single checker during our 5-day visit.
The Gemaldegalerie is the premier museum of pre-1800 painting in Berlin, featuring paintings primarily of northern European artists – but some Italians too.
The museum’s collection is too large to do a complete tour, so I’ll concentrate on some of our favorites.
The Gemaldegalerie has a particularly strong collection of 15th C Flemish art. These paintings made a strong impression on the Italian merchants who had set up offices in cities like Ghent and Bruges. Works by some of these artists found their way to Italy, and were an important influence on Florentine art in the latter part of the 15th C.
This work by Konrad Wiltz, for example, while it uses the gold background that was typical of the “international Gothic” style of the era, also has remarkably lifelike faces, which weren’t to be a feature of Italian painting for several more decades.
The museum has several works by the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. As some of you know, we had tickets to an important van Eyck exhibit which was supposed to be held in Ghent in 2020, and would have included about 10 van Eyck works – more than had been ever seen in a single city in a very long time. For obvious reasons, that exhibit didn’t happen. So we will have to seek out van Eyck’s methods in the traditional fashion, by seeking out his work in museums in various cities.
So much art, so little time.
Another important Flemish artist, Rogier van der Weyden, is also well represented here. In his portrait of Charles the Bold, last Duke of independent Burgundy, Charles is wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece, a chivalric order founded by Charles’ father Duke Phillip the Good. The hanging sheep emblem these days is more familiar as the Brooks Brothers logo.
The triptich depicting the birth of Christ includes the kind of background landscape that was to prove so influential to Italian painting.
This Nativity scene by Hugo van der Goes is also quite striking.
Moving to the 16th C, the museum has several works by Hans Holbein the Younger, one of the premier portrait painters of his age. He is most familiar to English speaking audiences for his portraits of England’s King Henry VIII and members of his court. But he did a lot of other portraits too, for folks wealthy enough to pay his fee.
I love the way that in this portrait of an otherwise forgotten merchant, your eye is drawn to the glass vase on the table. Painting glass of such transparency was a technically difficult achievement, and everyone knew it. Probably the flowers have some metaphorical meaning. But I think Holbein was showing off a little here too.
This portrait of the Madonna as a simple young girl by Albrecht Durer is very appealing too, and has wonderful colors.
The museum also has a fine collection of 17th C Dutch painting.
I love this enigmatic work by Vermeer. which features a well-dressed gentleman offering a young woman a glass of wine. Social call or seduction? You decide.
I love this painting by Franz Hals featuring an impossibly well dressed little girl. I have no idea how he got the little girl to stay still long enough to make even a preliminary sketch. The rattle in the hand of the little girl’s nurse may be a clue.
I also liked this work by Rembrandt which, unusually for this artist, features a dialogue between two people rather than a single person’s portrait.
The Gemaldegalerie has a good collection of Italian art, too, although since the museum is currently undergoing renovation, the Italian art is not presented in chronological order. So you can see the wonderfully devilish angel by Caravaggio exhibited not far from this strangely familar woman by Botticelli, painted more than a century earlier.
I never get tired of looking at Renaissance portraits
There were also some outstanding works by Raphael and his underappreciated contemporary, Lorenzo Lotto.
The Alte Nationalgalerie, located in this rather imposing building, features primarily 19th C German art, which I didn’t know much about previously and which didn’t speak to me very much.
I was charmed, though, by this double portrait of two Prussian princesses, by the sculptor Johan Schadow.
Women artists are poorly represented in most galleries – so I try to feature them when I can.
The painting on the left depicts a cherry harvest, which was also a subject chosen by the more well known 19th C artists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. I gather than cherry harvesting was often done by women, which made it a subject that was easier for women artists to paint. Even in the 19th C, there were many social restrictions on women painting men, which is one reason you see so many self-portraits by women artists.
The museum devoted a whole room to works by Max Liebermann, who was born in the 19th C but who worked well into the opening decades of the 20th C.
This painting by the artist Victor Muller really isn’t very good, but its quirky depiction of Snow White and the 7 Dwarves, decades before Disney put the capital K in Kitsch, made it an irresistible photo. Can’t tell which dwarf is Dopey, though.
Just as I was about to give up on the museum, I entered a room full of wonderful French impressionists. Sometimes you forget just how amazing these artists were.
This section of the museum also included a work by Giovanni Segantini, a late 19th C Italian artist known for his large landscapes of the Alps – documenting a rural way of life in the mountains that was to be gone within a few decade. We first learned about this artist during an online lecture given by the Peggy Guggenheim museum during the lockdown, so now we seek out his works.
This painting, Returning Home, depicts the last journey of a former resident whom, we are led to imagine, asked to return to his home for his final journey. Every living thing in this painting projects sadness – the mourners, the horse, even the faithful dog following behind. The mountains, of course, are unmoved. Every one of the few Segantini paintings I’ve seen has been a masterpiece. The subtle mountain colors and barren terrains are obtained by layering massive amounts of paint in intricate patterns.
The Neue Nationalgalerie, which is dedicated to 20th C art, is located in a striking building designed by Mies van der Rohe.
This was another gallery where most of the artists were unfamiliar to me, but many of the works were quite interesting.
This painting, by Wenzil Hablick, imagines a future city with towers for parking private airplanes. It turns out a lot of future visions dreamed up a century ago imagined private airplane travel replacing private cars – a future that remains as stubbornly remote as the Jetsons’ jetpacks.
The artist George Grosz had a much sourer view of Germany’s future. Note the well-dressed politician on the center right has a very interesting steaming pile where his brain should be.
The collection included a rare sunny portrait by Edvard Munch.
Surrealism was represented by Rene Magritte and Max Ernst (love the title of his painting).
Since this is a museum devoted to 20th C art, there are more works by female artists.
There was a special exhibit of the artist Sacha Wiederhold, who was particularly known for his scenic designs. Imagine going to a play with one of these sets – it must have been wild.
The museum featured a pair of portraits by the artist Max Beckman side by side, one a self-portrait and the other a portrait of Erhard Gopel. During the Nazi era, Gopel was responsible for acquiring art for Hitler’s personal museum, much of it looted from Jewish owners or acquired under duress. Gopal protected Beckman, who was vilified by the Nazis as a “degenerate” artist. In this portrait, Beckman portrays Gopel holding a manuscript which has been indentified as a set of drawings Beckmann had made to represent Act V of Faust – perhaps signifying the devil’s bargain both men knew Gopel had made? Whatever the two men were thinking, Gopel kept the painting in his personal collection, and his widow donated it to the museum.
The Reichstag has been the seat of the German parliament since the late 1990s, and a visit to the glass dome on top offers one of the best free views of the city.
When the Parliament is in session (which it wasn’t during our visit) you can see the legislators through its glass roof – literal transparency. The oculus at the top of the dome reminds me of the Pantheon in Rome, which I suspect is intentional.
The Charlottenburg Palace was commissioned by Sophie Charlotte, wife of Frederick, Elector of Brandenburg and later first King of Prussia in the early 18th C. Sophie Charlotte, as it happened, was not only Queen of Prussia, but also the sister of King George I of England – the first Hanoverian king. Connections between the English and Prussian royal families go back a long way.
The palace is lovely but the interior decoration is a bit over the top. even for the Baroque era.
The central room overlooking the garden was simpler and, to my taste, more appealing.
This is a marriage portrait of Frederika, the sister of King Frederick II (the Great). I really liked her short haircut – quite striking for the era when men as well as women wore voluminous wigs.
The “new wing,” completed later in the 18th C by Frederick the Great, was decorated with Rococo flourishes – less statuary, more vibrant colors. I really liked the ballroom.
The garden behind the castle was quite lovely.
Across the street from the Charlottenburg were three smaller museums.
The Sammlung Scharf Gerstenberg museum, featuring surrealist artists, was somewhat disappointing.
The collection did include, though, some wonderful etchings by Edouard Manet, for a French translation of The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe. You don’t usually think of Manet as a graphic artist, let alone an abstract or surrealist one. But look at how he depicts the narrator’s black despair when he hears the dread word, “Nevermore.”
The Berggruen Museum across the street is also small, but it has a more interesting collection, featuring works by Picasso from throughout his very long life.
In these two still lifes, painted less than 10 years apart, you can see how dramatically Picasso’s style changed over a short period of time.
I really liked these two works from the 1930s.
The third small museum, called the Brohan, featured Art Deco objects, particularly glassware and ceramics.
Food in Berlin
Few people think of Berlin as a food destination. The city’s most famous specialty is something called Currywurst – a white sausage served with a sauce that seemed to be a combination of spicy hot mustard and an oversweetened ketchup, with no curry spices to be seen. The sausage was good, and so was the mustard. But the ketchup-like substance significantly detracted from the experience. Perhaps there are good versions of currywurst to be had. But we weren’t moved to sample more after our first trial.
Fortunately, there is plenty of good nontraditional food to be had in Berlin. During our short stay, we sampled Peruvian food, Turkish food, Thai food and “modern” German food, all excellent.
At Otto (the chef’s middle name), the chef combined a variety of Asian fermentation methods with locally obtained foods – tahini made from sunflower seeds instead of sesame, oat miso. The results were surprisingly good. One of the dishes featured baby corn, which was, in fact, the sweetest corn I have ever had in Europe. (A lot of corn is grown in Europe, but it is usually made into other things – corn bread, polenta, even pig food, rather than eaten by itself, which means the varietals grown here are usually pretty tasteless.)
Our favorite, though, was Khao Taan, a home-style Thai restaurant. We have had Thai food many times before, but never like this. What I liked most about it was that each dish was spiced differently. The papaya salad was quite hot, while the fish curry had a more delicate texture, almost like a French quenelle.
We spent Sunday afternoon with Ted’s nephew Jeff, his wife Hannah, and 3-year old Jacob, who are living permanently in Berlin. A lot of young people came to live in the revitalized city after reunification, and as a result there are a lot of younger families with children here. It was nice to see, especially coming from Italy, where the median age is 46.
Until next time!
If you want to see more pictures, you can check them out here.