So its about midnight in Australia. I guess it's a civilised time somewhere civilised? I don't know whether it is the state of Australian politics or the state of Australian art which has me sitting at an ungodly hour clutching a tepid sparkling water trying to keep in my howls of despair. It's most likely a good dose of both to be perfectly fair. At this exact time about a month ago I was sitting in the bar of the Hotel Savoy in Berlin. If one hasn't stayed at this hotel, one must. It is on Fasenenstrasse in the old West Berlin, about 2 minutes walk from the Paris bar (more on this in another post) and a further 5 minutes from the great shopping street of Kufersstendamm. It has a cigar bar next to the lobby (whose scent permeates every room in the building, heaven) and though I no longer smoke cigars, I find great joy in people-watching here. I like to watch thin, wily-looking women out of Otto Dix paintings flirt with fat older men out of George Grosz drawings until early in the morning when either he has successfully gotten her into a suite upstairs, or she has successfully secured his vote at the Reichstag (this is a popular spot for politicians). I have a feeling that there is a fair amount of quid pro quo goes down in this particular room.
George Grosz, Beauty Thee Will I Praise, 1919 - or How the Savoy bar
Feels after the third Gin and Tonic
Feels after the third Gin and Tonic
If anyone has ever read the Len Deighton series of books, Game, Set, Match etc., then I am almost positive that the hotel is Deighton’s story for Frau Hennig’s guest house. The layout feels right and the geography is precise. Anyway, suffice to say I’ve been staying here for 20 years and the breakfast room has not changed one iota. I have a feeling people were eating the same black bread with gravlax and hard-boiled eggs in this room whilst the Horst Wessel Song wafted up the street from the nearby zoo station as brown-clad youths disembarked the train from Munich. You cannot wake up to your day in one of the most historic cities in the world and not feel the weight of history on your shoulders. There is something about Berlin that makes people of an artistic persuasion scratch at the doors of the airport as they are dragged kicking and screaming back to from whence they came at the end of their trip. It is simply one of the greatest clinics in the world in which to receive a strong dose of culture. I treat it as a sanitarium. When one has overindulged on ordinary exhibitions, lackluster arts criticism and pretty piss poor presentation in the commercial galleries of their home city, they simply book in for a week or a few days in Berlin to take the cures. Receiving a good culture injection feels something akin, I would imagine, to how 16th century sailors must have felt when mercury was injected into their urethra as a cure for gonorrhea. It is absolute agony, for me at any rate, to visit a museum or gallery in Berlin. The standard of scholarship with which the exhibitions are put together staggering but is nothing compared to the level of attention that is offered by the public. When one compares this with home (and not just an Australian home, really anywhere in the world) it must hurt to think that you can’t be here forever.
Objectivity painter from the 1920s. One of the great discoveries of my most recent trip.
Buy the catalogue here.
I came close to tears standing in a room at the Berlinische Galerie during its recent exhibition, Vienna / Berlin. It wasn’t because the exhibition was so gloriously crafted curatorially, or that it was so immaculately presented with limited but elegant design; both of which are true. What brought me to an emotional state of shock was the fact that, quite without noticing, I became aware that suddenly, in a room that boasted a very fine early Beckmann (that my wife pointed out because I was too busy gawking at some pretty bloody great Oskar Kokoschkas nextdoor), Iwas surrounded by children. These boys and girls must have been between 5 and 13 years old. There wasn’t a mind-numbing label in sight. They were sketching. I looked on in august reverence as a girl about 12 stood sketching a painting of a boy about 12 by Max Pechstein. I hurriedly looked around for their teacher to heap praise on her cohort; these kids were more orderly in their behavior in this room than I had ever seen a group of corporate visitors from a big Sydney bank ever behave during their junket visit to an AGNSW sponsors’ event. But there was no teacher to be found. These young children were in awe, largely unattended, as I was, of simply breathtaking art. They were aware not only of the quality but of the political and social significance of the works they were considering. In the 1920s room I half-expected to see a warning label. How would an education officer in the post-dumbed-down age at home, here or Britain, have dealt with this hang? “This painting is of two Soldiers”“Can you see their red armbands? Red is a pretty colour” or “See the two Gestapo Men interrogate the young Jewish Woman”“How many women do you know? Can you draw a woman?”. No, we might just have gritted our teeth and stuck up the culturally sensitive wall text. “Items in this room contain imagery that might offend some viewers. If you are afraid to think for yourself, then you had better not come in here, because there are big, scary ideas”. Sometimes those labels should just be put on the outside of the building: BEWARE, BIG IDEAS INSIDE. But then again, sometimes the museums and galleries need the big ideas in the first place.
Visit the Berlinische Galerie website here.
The Berlinische Galerie is in the heart of the old border area section of East Berlin, near Checkpoint Charlie. I happened to be reading Anna Funder’s Stasiland over breakfast that morning (yes I put it in my bag consciously back in Sydney to read whilst I was in Berlin, because I am a bit weird like that). It occurred to me that the parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts etc. of the children in that museum, had all lived through a version of these paintings less than fifty years ago. When I was their age, the wall had only just come down. I remember being in Kindergarden, 1990, and a little girl brought in to show and tell in inner-city Sydney, a piece of the Berlin wall. It was one of those crappy souvenirs you can still buy in the Kochstrasse stores, I am sure, but back then, it was probably more likely part of the sprawling megastructure than simply a bit of jazzed up concrete on a plaque. It was FASCINATING to me. I remember grappling with this concept of totalitarianism as she, the little girl holding the wall in front of 30 five year-olds, told us the version of what life in Berlin on the east (that she had been told) was for the people who lived there. It was that beautifully naïve potted version, heavy on the: “you had to line up for bread” narrative. She wasn’t a Berliner, her dad picked it up on a business trip. But since then, in the decades I have been going to Berlin I have heard many firsthand stories from people my age, and older of life on both sides. I have also sat in a biercaffe near the Reeperbahn in Hamburg being given a quick rundown on rightwing ideology from bona-fide neo-nazi and heard stories from an older man whose mother was raped by the Russians. Since 1946, when my father was born in Suburban Brisbane and the most arduous invasion we have had to endure in this nation has been a fictional war against boat-people, Berlin has been grappling with division, post-nazi era guilt, more division and now its own war on immigrants tearing at the Merkel government. It is a bit unfathomable to think of why a place like Berlin is what it is, but I think somewhere deep down, there is its magic. Being in the real world helps people’s understanding of art. I guess I can’t really blame our wall labels, or our politically-correct gallery texts. We don’t know any better yet.
Pablo Picasso, Suite 347 (Raphael and Fornarina Series), 1968, etching
I once gave a lecture on Picasso’s eroticism during an exhibition of his collection at an Australian institution. It was an outstanding collection, and I will give it to the museum, they made it look stunning. But there they were, those sodding wall texts: “Parents and whatnot, be careful with your kiddies, there are willies in the next room” that sort of thing. I had written at Cambridge on the banned Picasso etchings within his famous Suite 347 which were removed from their exhibition when the Suite was shown in Chicago in ‘68, were separated in Paris and had to be campaigned for by Roland Penrose, writing in the evening standard at the height of 1969 swinging London to be included at the ICA. Anyway, whilst sensitive of a few penises on the walls of its state gallery, all over Brisbane the week I was giving a version of my lecture, in HUGE pink neon letters, on the sides of busses, on billboards, on this, on that, were advertisements for SEX in the City, the movie, with the first word writ large. I think the little girls of suburban Brisbane had far more to fear from the puerile ramblings of four fictional-floozies living a vacuous existence in New York than anything profoundly pornographic poor old Picasso could ever conjure up. I remember a couple of friends who work in the arts in the sunshine state skipping my lecture to go watch the movie. Probably more sex in the movie. Fair call. It’s late in Australia and I am awake because my little boy is sick with a cold and when he coughs it tears at my heartstrings so I don’t sleep. As we flew out of Berlin I was finishing Anna’s book and I read the chapter about the couple whose Child was born with serious stomach problems. I read how on the night of 12 August, 1961 the boy was stable in Westend hospital in West Berlin as Frau Paul slept in her bed in East Berlin. That night the wall was erected and she was separated from her son. I was born on the 13th of August (some years later) and my boy was born on the 19th of August last year. He was born with a fairly serious heart condition called Transposition of the Great Artery and underwent successful open-heart surgery on his fifth day alive. He remained in ICU and on the ward at Sydney Children’s Hospital for about a month. The agony I went through being in Paddington whilst he was 20 minutes drive away in Randwick was excruciating. Frau Paul might as well have been on another planet. Her story doesn’t get much better and I wont spoil the book. If you have never read it, its one of the finest, easiest to read pieces of 20th century history to be found, and if you have read it, its worth, as I did, re-reading it as our government starts to build walls.
Buy the book here.
If art is to mean anything anymore we must all be more aware of our lives. I have spent the last 5 years at the pointier end of the Australian commercial art world. I no longer want to have conversations with artists and patrons and visitors about the market, or about the climate of sales. I want to talk about the world we live in, the Australia we are becoming. We have had five years of vacuousness and product-making, I predict the next era to be of much sharper focus as the nation becomes more divided on political grounds, as our national broadcaster has the axe taken to it, as the UN places us on human-rights watch for the first time and frankly, as the nation becomes uglier.
You should have stood in that room in east Berlin amongst the well-dressed Berliners whose grandparents would have walked the nearby streets in the 1920s hoping those nasty little men in Brown shirts went away. Thank god Grosz and Dix and Schad and Beckmann and Kirschner were paying attention. Who will pay attention to Australia in this generation?
Copyright © 2014, Evan E. Hughes, Sydney
For more on the exhibition, see here.