Art and memory in Berlin

Kathryn Hallam-Howard, BA History of Art student, writes about the recent course trip to Berlin where she and her classmates explored museums, considered architectural practice and discussed methods of memorialisation.

Birkbeck students in Berlin

On Monday 15 April 2018, a group of enthusiastic students gathered on Berlin’s Museum Island to begin this year’s History of Art field trip. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius and her husband Stefan Muthesius coordinated the trip and brought considerable expertise and personal experience to it.  Inside the futuristic Humboldt Box, we learnt about the work to construct the Humboldt Forum. This world centre for culture will sit upon the former site of the historic city palace of the Hohenzollern Prussian kings. A stroll down Unter den Linden took us to Bebelplatz, where in 1933 the burning of books by Jewish writers took place. A counter-memorial, designed to challenge the monumentality of conventional memorials sinks into the square and can only be seen through a glass panel. Created by the Israeli artist Micha Ullman, it consists of plain white, empty bookcases, capable of holding 20,000 books. Continuing this theme, we then arrived at The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  The work of New York architect, Peter Eisenman, it consists of 2,711 slabs of varying heights and is continuously accessible day and night allowing for a completely immersive experience. Slightly uneven and disorientating, it allows the visitor a unique personal experience and its size and lack of a focal point questions the conventional concept of a memorial. The day concluded with a visit to the Reichstag parliament building and Norman Foster’s glass dome with its double helix, spiral ramps.

‘Fallen leaves’ memorial

Glorious sunshine greeted us on Tuesday and we again found ourselves on Museum Island, analysing the purpose of a museum. We visited three of the island’s museums  – the Neues Museum, the Altes Museum, the Bode Museum – examining in detail their fine staircases and expansive entrance halls. In the Alte Nationalgalerie, we saw the eclectic range of one of Germany’s foremost nineteenth-century painters, Adolf Menzel.  This was followed by another fine staircase and an exhibition, The Beauty of the Big City, containing paintings of Berlin from 1800 to the present at the Museum Ephraim-Palais.

On Wednesday, we enjoyed a bus tour around some key sites in the outskirts of Berlin. First stop was the Albert Einstein Science Park to see Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower. This unique building was erected between 1919 and 1922 and is where Einstein worked on part of his Theory of Relativity. It is a fine example of expressionist architecture. This was followed by a tour around the garden suburb of Dahlem, where we saw villas, built by Hermann Muthesius, Stefan’s great-uncle and a noted architectural historian. This also presented a great opportunity for the architecture fans to see excellent examples of modern Berlin housing estates. These six examples of low cost housing were built by housing cooperatives and are now designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Based on English Garden Cities, they combine multiple occupancy flats with green spaces, emphasising health and wellbeing – and not one bit of graffiti in sight!   After refuelling in the magnificent student canteen at the Free University, we went to the Moabit AEG factory, designed by Peter Behrens, in whose architecture practice, Water Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier all worked. Our final stop was a fabulous exhibition of German painting, montage and caricature from 1890 to 1930 – Berliner Realismus. It included works by many artists declared degenerate by the National Socialists, like George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and John Heartfield. Dinner at Zum Shusterjunge Kneipe in the fashionable Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg rounded off the day.

Einstein Tower

Thursday began with a walk to the old Nazi air ministry, designed by Mies van der Rohe before arriving at the Kulturforum, to see his only post-war building the Neue Nationalgalerie, which was unfortunately shrouded in scaffolding and tarpaulin. The Kulturforum is a collection of cultural buildings built up in the 1950s and 1960s at the edge of West Berlin after most of the once unified city’s cultural assets had been lost behind the Berlin Wall. It is characterized by its innovative modernist architecture. After a visit and lunch at the Gemäldegalerie, we visited the site of the German Resistance Memorial Centre dedicated to the many Germans who actively resisted or sacrificed their lives opposing the Nazi dictatorship. Two of the best known was the writer Thomas Mann and the painter Käthe Kollwitz. The day drew to a close with a visit to the Berlinische Galerie, which is dedicated to modern art, photography and architecture. It lies close to the Jewish Museum, where we were given a tour of Daniel Libeskind’s interactive building, which uses axes and voids to articulate the Jewish experience of diaspora. One memorable exhibit is ‘Fallen Leaves’ by a Jewish artist, Menashe Kaddishman, which commemorates all victims of violence. Over ten thousand round iron plates lie on the floor in one of the building’s voids. Each plate has facial features cut out of it. The artist invites you to walk across the work and it is totally unsettling to trample across people’s faces and to hear the sound of iron grinding against iron. Eerily, those visitors who walked to the end of the void partially and then completely disappeared.

Our final day came around all too quickly and we emerged onto Karl-Marx Allee to see the wide boulevard created to accommodate the monumental military parades of the East German communist government. At the Berlin Wall memorial, we followed part of the route of the wall along Bernauerstrasse. Here the façades of the now disappeared buildings formed the East German border whilst the footpath beside them was West German territory. This led to residents jumping from windows to escape to the West until the East German authorities bricked and cemented the windows and doors to prevent this. After a visit to the exhibition in the Visitor Centre, we hopped onto the U-Bahn to visit an area called the Hansaviertel. After WW2 much of Berlin lay in ruins including this neighbourhood. To rebuild the old Hansaviertel, fifty-two architects including Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, Alvar Aalto, and Max Taut were called upon to design an entirely new quarter, complete with church, theatre and library. The project was christened “Interbau 1957” and the eventual outcome was a less dense, green residential area. It was seen as an impressive showcase of the modern lifestyle and seemed a suitable place to conclude our review of the art and architecture of Berlin. Our heartfelt thanks must go to Kasia and Stefan for organising such an interesting and informative trip.


2 thoughts on “Art and memory in Berlin

  1. Michael Gibbs

    Thanks Kathryn for a really good summary of our action packed week in Berlin. As a part-time student who works full time I found it really inspirational to be able to spend so much time with the other students as well as with Kasia and Stefan who were so generous with their time.


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