Notes from Berlin

Whenever I pass though Liverpool Street Station on the eastern side of London, I always take a moment to pause beside “Kindertransport – the arrival” sculptures by Frank Meisler.   They show Jewish refugee children arriving in Britain with their small amounts of luggage, fleeing from Nazi persecution.   In this age of fear and distrust of migration, they remind me that these fluxes are nothing new, and remind me that we need to show generosity towards the helpless and dispossessed.  As I walked past Friedrichstrasse station during a visit to Berlin last week I saw a companion piece to the Liverpool Street sculptures.  However, the statue at Friedrichstrasse (“Züge in das leben, Züge in den tod, 1938 – 1945” – literally: “trains to life, trains to death”, also by Frank Meisler) differs in one important respect: the German children at the start of their journey are facing in two directions: some are awaiting the Kindertransports to the west but two are heading towards the death camps.

Züge in das leben, Züge in den tod, 1938 – 1945.  Bronze sculpture by Frank Meisler at Freidrichstrasse station, Berlin (photo taken in low light – apologies!).  The photograph at the top shows “Kindertransport – the arrival, also by Frank Meisler, at Liverpool Street Station, London.

Berlin does not flinch at confronting its recent past.   I spent the hour or so between the end of my meeting and my trip out to the airport at “Topographie des Terrors” – a museum on the site of the former Gestapo and SS Headquarters.  It was a reminder of what the children depicted in Meisler’s sculptures were fleeing from.  After a gruelling hour, I was ready for a change of atmosphere and turned towards the Martin Gropius Bau – one of Berlin’s best galleries, just a short distance away.  By coincidence, one of the exhibitions was a series of etchings by Lucien Freud, himself a Jewish refugee (though not part of the Kindertransport).   Freud’s portraits have an intensity that can be unsettling to a viewer; however, seen immediately after my immersion in Nazi atrocities, they had the opposite effect.  I was left wondering how my reactions would have differed had I seen the exhibition before, rather than after, Topographie des Terrors.  The irony of a Jewish refugee’s art being exhibited so close to the former headquarters of the powers that forced him to flee in the first place did not escape me either.

A year ago, I was here on the night that Donald Trump was elected president of the USA (see “Remembrance in Berlin”).   This time, my visit started just a day after the AfD (“Alternative for Germany”) won 74 seats in the Bundestag at the federal elections, becoming the third largest party.   Anger at Germany’s own tolerant policy to refugees was one of the reasons that they did so well, particularly in the former eastern states.   As I write, I am not sure how this meshes with my statement about Berlin’s ability to confront the less savoury aspects of its past.  There is a willingness to do this within the Federal government, and the middle-class, well-educated Germans I meet share a desire to look back objectively.  The rise of AfD is worrying partly because it has happened in a country that has tried so hard to learn from its past.   Let’s hope that Germany does not forget to remember ….

The Martin Gropius Bau rising above a section of the Berlin wall.  Topographies des Terrors is behind the wall.  The right hand image shows the row of cobblestones marking the path of the wall in places where it is no longer standing.

The art of icons …

A week off from algae, as I travel around Bulgaria on holiday.  In between exploring mountains (and, I admit, pulling a toothbrush from my knapsack on a couple of occasions for a sneaky diatom sample), I have been learning about the intricacies of Eastern Orthodox icon painting, as a break from my normal scientific and artistic routines.  My interest was piqued by a visit to the superb icon gallery at the National Museum of Art of Romania in Bucharest last year, though this mostly served to demonstrate how little I knew, either about icons or their context in Orthodox worship.

Context is important because, in our secular age, we are most likely to encounter religious art in a gallery rather than a church.  My initial response to an icon, such as that in the image below, is to place it into a Western art historical context.   I note the relatively simple modelling of the features, depicting archetypes of religious figures and the flat background.  There is no attempt to place the figure in three-dimensional space, as most religious painters from the Renaissance onwards would have tried to do.  They were trying to draw the viewers in, creating space inside the picture that encouraged them to engage with the subject matter.  Painters of the Counter-Reformation, such as Rubens, went further, painting the protagonists in their religious paintings life size and dressing them in contemporary clothes to encourage viewers sense of participation.

An icon of Christ Pantocrator from the Bankso school of icon painters (late 18th / early 19th century) in southern Bulgaria.  The image at the top of the post shows the iconostasis at Mānāstirea Stavropoleos, Bucharest, Romania.

By contrast, by flattening everything but the subject’s physiognomy, the Orthodox icon painter projects his subjects into our space, encouraging a different type of engagement.   Orthodox Christianity has a strong tradition of contemplative prayer, in which knowledge of God is attained through meditative practices such as repetition of a meaningful word or short phrase.  In this context, icons can serve as objects that help viewers to concentrate their minds while they step away from the everyday world and towards the divine realm.  One manifestation of this is that there is typically more activity in an Orthodox Church, compared to a Catholic or Protestant church, outside of organised services, as worshippers make their own private devotions in front of icons.

This use of repeated phrases suggests parallels with eastern religions – the Hindu incantation “Om mani padme hum” being the best-known example.  Look, too, at the right hand of Christ in the icon below.  That, too, resembles the symbolic hand gestures – mudras – found in Hindu and Buddhist contemplative practices.   Whether there is more than a superficial resemblance, in this particular instance, is a moot point.  Christ’s hand is raised to confer a blessing on the viewer and the position of the fingers is related to this.  They spell out “ICXC” –  IhcoyC XpictoC, or “Jesus Christ”.   The confusion with eastern practices arises, I suspect, from the way that the fourth finger is bent over to touch the thumb, similar to the Chin Mudrā.

On the other hand, there would have been ample opportunity for exchange of ideas along the Silk Road.  Early Christianity extended much further east, and Buddhism further to the west before the rise of Islam. Diarmaid MacCulloch has suggested that the principle of monasticism, for example, may have been brought into the church by early missionaries returning from the east and, if this is the case, then it is possible that practices associated with monasticism would also have flowed east.  And, equally, there is no reason to assume that the movement was entirely one-way or solely between Christianity and Buddhism.  Our first reaction on walking into Rila monastery in southern Bulgaria was to notice the physical similarities with the huge Madrassas that we saw in Uzbekistan earlier this year (see “Reaching for the stars …“).

What we can see an Orthodox icon, in other words, is a product of time and place, only if we also recognise that time and place are continua, that ideas can flow and that there is a ‘natural selection’, of sorts, that selects and shapes these to fit local circumstances.  Traveling broadens the mind, without a doubt, but sometimes you need to unload your preconceptions in order to free up the mind to see the world through fresh eyes.

The courtyard of Rila monastery in southern Bulgaria with the Church of the Nativity on the right.