Destination: Germany: Berlin
The backdrop of C/O Berlin is an imposing building that used to function as the royal post office but was, more recently a gymnasium in the GDR. This contemporary gallery focuses on photography and works in film and the crumbling building makes for an incredible backdrop for the ambitious programming. Shows include big-names, like Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Liebowitz but also showcase lesser-known, emerging artists. Additionally, C/O offers lecture series and children’s programs.
Ehemalige Jüdische Mädchenschule
The former Jewish Girls’ School in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood is a must-stop address for art connoisseurs and foodies. Under its roof can be found two of the most respected commercial galleries, the contemporary Eigen + Art and photography-focused Camera Work, the collection Museum The Kennedys, and three restaurants: delicatessen Mogg & Melzer, the excellent Pauly Saal and The Kosher Classroom.
The building is a heavy place and current tenants have done an good job of memorializing its past. Its industrial style architecture (an example of the “New Objectivity” genre) has a warehouse type feel with thick walls, huge plate-glass windows and an imposing brick facade. The history of the space, too, inspires reverence. In 1933 its student body more than doubled after the Fascist Regime’s law of segregation kicked children out of secular schools. Starting in 1938, every day more desks were empty as Jewish families were ripped from their homes and sent to concentration camps. In 1942, the school, along with all Jewish schools in Europe were closed. For the remainder of World War II, the building acted as a military hospital for the Nazi party.
In 1950 the Bavarian writer Bertolt Brecht, a proclaimed communist, reopened the school in the heart of the Soviet-controlled East Berlin. In 1996 the building was abandoned and remained empty until 2009 when the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany ruled that the property be reinstated to the Jewish Community.
Eigen + Art
It seems silly to pick a single gallery out of Berlin’s trove of contemporary art, but Eigen+Art is an important one in the cultural firmament. It’s run by Gerd Harry Lybke, an early proponent of the now-famous Neue Leipziger Schule, the art institution out of which emerged such talents as Neo Rauch and Tim Eitel (both represented by Eigen + Art). The branch in Mädchenschule Jüdische on Auguststrasse, near Clärchen’s Ballhaus and the Hackesche Höfe, is always worth stopping by. Besides the established names, Eigen + Art also has some young, emerging artists in its stable. Closed Sunday and Monday.
An important contemporary-art institution in Berlin is the Hamburger Bahnhof. Built in 1845 as a train station, it is now home to a permanent Joseph Beuys exhibition and the Friedrich Christian Flick collection, which the controversial art patron lent the gallery in 2004. It includes masterworks from Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, Dan Graham, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. The museum’s café, overseen by notable chef Sarah Wiener, is one of the city’s insider secrets. Closed Monday.
Helmut Newton Foundation
A few months before his death in 2004, renowned fashion photographer and Berlin native Helmut Newton donated 1,000 of his images to the Helmut Newton Foundation. It’s now a museum that shows his work, in addition to select temporary exhibits.
Juedisches Museum (Jewish Museum)
The largest of its kind in Europe, the Jewish Museum Berlin traces Jewish history from the end of the Roman Empire to the present. Daniel Libeskind designed the striking building and it commands at least as much attention as the exhibits. My tip would be to actually start with the main exhibition upstairs, which is massive and demands some time (the audio tour is a must). Afterwards, go back downstairs and experience Libeskind’s shattering architectural feat.
A lot has been written about his inspiration: some say the zigzagging shape of the building is reminiscent of a deconstructed Star of David; others note that Libeskind derived the building’s geometric form by plotting the addresses of prominent Jews on a map of pre-war Berlin; and parts of his architectural plan were written on composition paper (Libeskind is also a learned musician). However the equation of geometry, engineering and pure genius works out, the building is nothing short of a masterpiece. Constructed around the idea of the paths Germany’s Jews were forced to take in the 20th century, it features three axis: Emigration, Holocaust and Continuation. The one of emigration ends in the moving Garden of Exile; the one of Continuation in the long staircase that leads to the main exhibition; and the one of the Holocaust is a dead-end that terminates in a hollow tower. It’s dark, cold, empty and windowless except for a slit at the very top. After experiencing this Holocaust Tower, the absence of life palpable in its stark forms, I had a hard time concentrating on the packed information of the permanent exhibition. To me, Libeskind managed to express the unspeakable better in absence and void than a million words ever could.
The Jewish Museum is one of the most powerful in the world and should be on anyone’s list in Berlin. After touring, have a break in the beautiful garden. There’s also a good restaurant on the premises.
Käthe Kollwitz Museum
This small museum is dedicated to Käthe Kollwitz, a German painter and sculptor whose powerful oeuvre powerfully addresses poverty and war (she was alive for both world wars, losing her youngest son in the first one and her grandson in the second). Her best-known piece, Mother with Her Dead Son, is one of the most devastating portrayals of the loss of war ever created (it is on view at the Neue Wache in Berlin). This small museum in the Charlottenburg district, in walking distance to the Brandenburger Hof hotel, shows many of Kollwitz’s self-portraits, lithographs and wood prints. A good coffee spot to process the heavy subject matter is the adjacent Literaturhaus Café.
KW Institute of Contemporary Art
Located in a former margarine factory, this cultural venue (part exhibition, part event space) is a great spot to get your contemporary art bearings and see a lot of different shows all at once (KW often collaborates with New York’s P.S. 1). Four floors house shows in a variety of mediums, as well as site-specific installations, workshops, film screenings and special performance art. Its location in Auguststrasse makes KW a convenient stop for those exploring the neighborhood’s other galleries, like c/o Berlin and Eigen + Art, as well as the fun restaurant and shops nearby. It also has an attractive café itself.
One of the new galleries in the Jewish Girls’ School complex features the works of German and international artists, including Johannes Albers, Anderas Golder, Gunther Forg, Simon English and Leiko Ikemura.
Museumsinsel (Museum Island)
The Museumsinsel (Museum Island) is a not-to-be-missed complex of five world-class museums on an island in the Spree River. Conceived by King Friedrich Wilhelm III in the early 1800s and damaged during World War II, the Museumsinsel was designated a World Heritage Site in 1999. The five museums are the Altes and Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Pergamon Museum and the Bode Museum. A massive $1.5 billion renovation has already transformed the Museumsinsel into an extraordinary art destination even though the piece-de-résistence, a passage to connect all five properties, will not be complete until 2015.
The Pergamon is the jewel of the complex, with one-of-a-kind Greek and Babylonian structures, including the famous Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate. The Neues Museum, which was beautifully re-envisioned by architect David Chipperfield, houses the famous Egyptian bust of Queen Nefertiti. The Bode Museum, meanwhile, has a collection of 1,700 sculptures, as well as Coptic art; and the Altes Museum has another stunning antiquities collection. It’s impossible to do all five in one day and even if you narrow it down (most people do the Pergamon and Neues museums on a first visit), it’s best to go with a guide who can put the incredible collections into their historical context.
In a landmark glass cube designed by Mies van der Rohe you’ll find the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) and its significant collection of 20th-century European paintings and sculpture, including works by Munch, Picasso, Klee, Dix and Kokoschka.
A must for contemporary art fans who have already toured the Hamburger Bahnhof, the private Sammlung Boros is housed in a former bunker (which has, of course this being Berlin, also served as a tropical fruit storage and a techno club in recent decades) . The massive concrete rooms serve as the backdrop to Christian Boros’ massive collection, which includes a veritable best-of (Eliasson, Hirst etc.) The Sammlung can be toured by appointment only and books months in advance. Guests have to take the one-and-a-half-hour guided tour. Open Friday through Sunday.
Lucio Fontana and Frank Stella are among the artists represented at Sammlung Hoffmann, a private contemporary-art collection displayed on two floors of a former factory. Open Saturday by appointment.
The Story of Berlin
Complete with a “time tunnel” and movie-set-like exhibition rooms, the Story of Berlin sounds a little Vegas (at least by Berlin standards). But it’s a great museum if you’re traveling with kids (or even if you’re not) and want to get a handle on Berlin history. Each exhibition hall has been turned into a different period, from Prussian royalty and the roaring 1920s to World War Two and everyday life in East Germany (you can sit on the couch in a typical living room of that time or see what an atomic bunker looked like). There are enough multi-media displays to keep even the most impatient of museum goers entertained.
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