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.

Remembrance in Berlin


This week’s trip to Berlin straddled the results of the US election and the anniversaries of Kristallnacht and the end of the Great War.  And my hotel was less than five minutes from Checkpoint Charlie.  The first reaction to news of the victory of a man who wanted to build a wall between the US and Mexico was to walk to a site where a divisive wall had been taken down within my own lifetime.   Were it not for the ghoulish tourist industry that has sprung up around Checkpoint Charlie, cashing-in on the wall’s notoriety, you would never know that Berlin had ever been a divided city.

If there is one grain of comfort to be gleaned from Donald Trump’s victory it was that it pushed Brexit down the agenda in dinner-time discussions with European colleagues, though the consensus was that both were manifestations of similar social phenomena.   And, many told me, nationalist and anti-EU parties are on the rise in other countries too.  Marianne Le Pen is using Brexit as a springboard to make her own overtures in France, and she is not the only one.   It would be highly ironic if one consequence of Brexit was that the ambition of those who have been arguing for “ever closer union” has to be tempered as a result of anti-EU sentiments encouraged by Brexit.   The other side of this argument is that the UK is generally seen as a voice of moderation within the EU and some fear the loss of our voice against the federalists.

A short walk on from Checkpoint Charlie brought me to the Jüdisches Museum, housed in a wonderful building by Daniel Libeskind (who also designed the 9/11 Memorial in New York: see “Reflecting absence”).   I visited this museum on my first visit to Berlin not long after it opened in 2001 and was impressed by the way that the building itself drew you in and subtly adjusted your mood to fit the ambience of the museum and its message.   The only comparable experience is a visit to one of Europe’s great Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals.   The message of the Jüdisches Museum is not pretty in a time when Trump and Farage are stoking up fears of the “other”: Jewish communities have lived their distinctive lives for well over a thousand years in Europe, often in peace alongside their Christian neighbours, but sometimes not.   The coincidence of the rise of nationalist movements with increased suspicion of Jewish communities is stark.   We need “them” in order to define “us” and the Jews have been the convenient foils for nationalists for time immemorial.   Perhaps Islam now takes that role in Europe?


I wonder, too, if the Jüdisches Museum is somehow symbolic of Germany’s determination to make a Europe that transcends old nationalistic prejudices and limits?  The Second World War feeds the UK’s national myth of a small proud independent nation, the “Few” battling against, and ultimately overcoming, forces of Evil.   Germans walking through the Jüdisches Museum and contemplating the history of the 20th century can only leave with the question “what must I do to ensure that this never happens again?”

Libeskind’s building is more than just a container for the museum’s exhibits: it also speaks directly to visitors.   He created “voids” into his design: empty spaces that extend vertically through the whole museum as a counterpoint to the exhibits themselves.    His intention was that these voids illustrated the absence of Jews from modern German society.   One of these contains an installation, Fallen Leaves, by Menashe Kadishman, an Israeli artist, who has filled the floor of the void with 10,000 faces punched out of steel to represent all the innocent victims of war and violence.   The eleventh hour of the eleventh month passed while I was in the museum but the atmosphere inside was such that there seemed no need to mark that moment.  The building, itself, more than compensates for two minutes of silence that, in UK, we mark at this time.


Menashe Kadishman, Fallen Leaves  / Shalekhet, Jüdisches Museum, Berlin.  

A wet afternoon in Berlin …

A happy coincidence brought me to the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin just as I was reading Laura J. Snyder’s book Eye of the Beholder, which is a joint biography of Anton van Leuwenhoek, the pioneer microscopist, and his neighbour (and, most likely, friend) Johannes Vermeer.   The Gemäldegalerie has two fine Vermeers, the culmination of a series of galleries which gives an impressive and coherent overview of the Northern Renaissance which then lead into a series of galleries showing paintings from the Dutch Golden Age.   What we see in the Northern Renaissance can be very roughly summarised as the outcome of experimentation at many levels – with oil paint rather than tempera, with non-religious subject matter and with compositional techniques such as single-point perspective.   Ideas had filtered up to the north from Italy, but the range of outputs is distinctively different from those of their southern European contemporaries.   There is no hard and fast delineation between the Northern Renaissance (roughly 16th century) and the Dutch Golden Age (roughly 17th century) but the Golden Age pictures are distinctively different. Experiments with light and perspective have borne fruit (Vermeer, of course, but also Pieter Saenredam), portraiture becomes more naturalistic and, indeed, intense (Rembrandt and Frans Hals), landscape, the “background” to many Northern Renaissance paintings, becomes a legitimate subject in its own right (Jacob van Ruisdaal, Aelbert Cuyp) and activities hitherto too mundane for consideration become legitimate subjects (Vermeer’s domestic interiors; also Pieter de Hooch).


Johannes Vermeer: Woman with a pearl necklace (1664, left) and The Wine Glass (1660, right). Both in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Laura Snyder’s book offers some insights. The possibility that Vermeer used optical technology such as the camera obscura to ensure accurate depiction of perspective has been examined before.   The issue, however, may be less to do with the “tricks” that Vermeer used than with the broader intersections between artists and natural scientists at the time, both exploring new ways to “see” the natural world. Look at Jan van Eyck’s Madonna and Child, in the Gemäldegalerie. In this masterpiece of the Northern Renaissance there are aspects of perspective and the proportions of the baby Jesus that suggests that he is following tradition rather than looking afresh at the world.   The priority on direct experience over tradition is key to understanding both the scientific revolution and the art of the Dutch Golden Age and the intersection of the lives of van Leuwenhoek and Vermeer – two men who are remembered for the way in which they saw the world around them – is no mere coincidence.


Jan van Eyck: Madonna in the Church (c. 1440). Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

This, however, is not the whole story.   Snyder and others (Simon Scharma’s Embarrassment of Riches springs to mind) point to the wealth of the Dutch Republic during this period and how this fuelled an art market to provide paintings for the burgeoning and prosperous middle classes to decorate their homes. The market, in other words, fuelled creativity.   This takes us down some interesting paths: is it demand, or is it competition amongst artists to satisfy the demand?   There was an interesting item on the BBC website recently that argued that creativity is, to some extent, dependent upon repetition.   The demand for art, in other words, drives the process.   Vermeer, to be fair, with only 34 paintings unambiguously attributed to him, may be the exception to this rule, but living in an environment where so many artists were simultaneously trying to solve the same problems of perspective, colour and composition must surely have fuelled his own investigations into the depiction of the world around him?

Just to be clear, the free market coupled with craftsmanship may have produced the best art in the seventeenth century.   In our age of mass production and multinational corporations the opposite may well be true. That’s a topic for another day…


Snyder, L.J. (2015). Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the reinvention of seeing. Norton, New York and London.