Renowned Canadian artist Landon Mackenzie describes Berlin as “a city of shadows and hope, the perfect place for an artist”. And she should know, she has spent a ton of time there over the past 20 years teaching, painting and inspiring.
In her view, 1989 was a seminal year. Lots of things happened. Students marched on Tiananmen Square. The Soviet Union left Afghanistan. A fatwa was issued rewarding the death of Salman Rushdie. The Exxon Valdes spilled 240000 barrels of oil off the coast of Alaska. The Dhali Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize.
And the Berlin Wall came tumbling down unleashing a series of events that would lead to Berlin becoming the go to city for Contemporary Art.
Berlin has a love hate relationship with the arts going back to the time of Frederick William I who, in the first half of the 1700’s, sold as much of what he saw as pointless, state art as he could, to raise money to buy soldiers. Frederick the Great loathed his father. When he inherited the throne he set about undoing the damage his dad had done and began buying art like crazy, often, whole collections at a time. He displayed contemporary (for his day) works beside those of old masters and built museums to house his purchases. Berlin was on its way to being a world-class artist center.
Then came Napoleon. When he marched through Berlin in 1806 he decided the city’s best pieces should be used to pay for his invasion so he packed them up and took them back to Paris. Many are still there.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that Berlin got its cutting edge groove back. Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism and satirical –grotesque genres flourished. It was a time of pushing boundaries in the visual arts, music, literature and architecture. The Avant-garde was making headlines. But a lot of people were put off by this development, finding it immoral and incomprehensible.
It wasn’t difficult for the Nazi’s to convince the masses that this new art was degenerate. Once they took power in 1933, the Nazis moved with surprising swiftness to ban and burn books, stop the performances of plays and movies and confiscate paintings and sculptures. The artists were persecuted. Many fled Berlin and Germany. Others went into internal exile, working in secret or not at all.
After the war, very few returned to what was now a divided city. The East German portion of Berlin fell under the restrictive communist regime (no lovers of experimental art). The rest of the city struggled to recover from the devastation, both physical and psychological, of the war.
This was a long process. The healing could not be completed until 1989 with fall of the wall and the reunification of Berlin. Landon explained to me that Berlin suddenly had everything artists need to thrive…space, time and money, or at least an inexpensive place to live and work.
The opening of East Berlin led to the closing of hundreds of ineffective factories in the former communist part of the city. Suddenly there was an abundance of cheap big space available that was perfect for studios. There were also a lot of old rent-controlled apartments where artists could live for next to nothing.
The mayor offered another incentive… a special visa was available for anyone in the arts to come live in Berlin and work on their craft as long as they didn’t take a job from a German national.
There was a no rules feel to the city. The government allowed huge artistic freedom. Things that wouldn’t have been allowed in other cities were tolerated here. This was a reaction to the history of art in the city… Frederick William, Napoleon, degenerate art, the crackdown of the communists… an apology of sorts. A determination to make up for lost time and to ensure the horrors of the past would not happen again.
Word gets around fast…. In no time Berlin was the hub… artists started flocking to the city. It is unique in that it has an artist driven rather than commercially propelled scene. Works are shown in studios or in galleries founded and run by the artists themselves.
Landon explains there is a “utopian ideal” among artists who are harking back to the values for the 60’s and 70’s; not creating to make money. They are cynical about the profit making in New York and London.
I can’t help be skeptical about this level of optimism. After all, money changes people. Writers and curators are flocking to Berlin in hopes of discovering the next great thing. But whatever the reason, it makes for an amazing place for the contemporary art enthusiast to visit now.
There are terrific well-established museums like the Hamburger Bahnhof or the Mies Van der Rohe New Gallery. Wandering along Auguste Strassa, you can pop into Galerie Elgin & Art, one of Berlins most well established and famous galleries, or visit many of the dozens of other spots on the same street. Other roads notable for their plethora of artistic hotspots include Postdamer, Brunnen, Zimmer and Fasanen. All easy to reach on Berlin’s fantastic public transportation system.
Regardless of where you start exploring, it is worth grabbing The Index, a paper pamphlet available at most galleries or check it out their website at http://www.indexberlin.de. It offers a fabulous list of what opening, events and a helpful map.