Archive for October, 2008

Lord Vishnu’s Miniature Footprints

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Vishnu’s Footprints, 19th century,
watercolor and gold, Lahore, Pakistan, 33.5×29 cm
(photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

In Indian culture, the foot is considered to be the vehicle of humble and base activities. Veneration of the foot of a respected person is the ultimate gesture of humility or devotion. In India reverence is expressed by touching the feet or taking dust from a teacher’s feet upon one’s head.

Among the Hindus, the tradition of vishnupada (the footprint of Vishnu) is an ancient belief supported by several myths. One, Vayu Purana, tells how Vishnu as a dwarf tricked the demon king Bali (Mahabali) into granting him three steps. He stepped over the whole universe, on the last crushed the demon. The Hindus most probably appropriated the custom from the Buddhists, as the footprints of Buddha have been a source of worship since antiquity.  There are other myths of vishnupada—they vary in character and setting—but the Vayu Purana seems to me the most heroic.

Coincidentally, the Islamic faithful believe that whenever Muhammad trod on a rock his foot left an imprint, although this was not sanctioned by the orthodoxy. The Islamic veneration of feet has antecedents in both Judaism and Christianity. When Islam arrived in India under the Mughal rulers (beginning in the 16th century), the worship of footprints was already well established. Thus, it was an easy matter for Muslims to continue their practice, and shrines for the Prophet’s footprint were built across the northern provinces of Indian and in parts of contemporary Pakistan.

Began by the Persians, miniature painting reached full flower in India under the Mughal emperors between the 16th to 18th centuries. Some as small as a few inches in dimension, they accompanied manuscripts. Like the one above, miniatures typically display meticulous and detailed workmanship, warm and vibrant scheme of colors (the colors of India herself) and a charming stylization that often eschewed perspective and natural accuracy. Miniatures embrace all manner of themes, religious and not, but generally depict a particular human activity or crucial mythic moment.

The print above is part of a 19th-century collection of miniatures (in Berlin’s Ethnological Museum) about the everyday activities of the Hindu faithful—worship, leisure, playing Parcheesi. It seems to me the arabesque floral design around the edges and the gold owe something to Islamic traditions appropriated during Mughal times.  It would be fitting if the symbols on the footprints referenced reflexology, but I don’t know that for sure.

The city Gaya in eastern India is most associated with the vishnupada myth and the Vishnupada Temple there is said to mark the actual spot where the deity left his footprints on a rock when he defeated the demon. The footprints are set in a silver basin and are the chief object of worship in the Temple. This miniature would seem to reference the Gaya spot, if not actually, then metaphorically.

Wider Connections
Edward Tyomkin—The Hindu Pantheon: An Introduction Illustrated With 19th Century Indian Miniatures
Feet & Footwear in Indian Culture
More Indian Miniatures

Close to Kandinsky?

Posted in Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , on October 30, 2008 by Liz Hager

Chuck Close, “Self Portrait,” 2000, oil on canvas

All artists trawl the art historical waters, appropriating consciously or subconsciously concepts, images, and techniques from the net  It’s a natural part of developing a unique and, if one is gifted, a progressive artistic voice.  All artists are linked thus linked in a long, unbroken line.

In past eras the trawling process was facilitated by the teacher/disciple, atelier, and guild traditions.  Today a good art school performs the function (though often it doesn’t). Without a good working knowledge of the work of previous generations of artists, or more importantly, without a strong sense of the work that is personally meaningful,  how can an artist develop a truly unique style?   Sometimes the connection between artists is obvious (e.g. Matisse/Dufy); other times, a legitimate connection is buried, perhaps even in the mind of the artist.

In the 1970s, Chuck Close began to develop his signature style—thousands of individual marks harnessed in the production of gigantic and commanding highly-realistic portraits. Beginning in the early 90s, his debuted a brilliant technique—cell-bound millefiori, each of which operated as its own abstract painting, but ensemble morphed into a stunning portrait.  It’s a clever contemporary twist on the Impressionist concept of thousands of colored strokes defining patterns of light and shadow.

Close has always been tied to the grid—larger or smaller cells—as the starting point for his paintings.  But where did these colored circles as painterly mark originate?

(detail) “Self Portrait”

As influences on his own work, Close acknowledges de Kooning and Ad Reinhardt’, in particular the latter’s writings. He has said that Vermeer is his favorite painter, describing the works as “magical apparitions” blown onto the canvas like “divine breath of air.”  He’s said that his marks have no symbolic meaning. I suspect, if asked about the circles, Close would say they just happened while he was working. And he’d be right. Those transformational moments tend to happen while an artist is at work, not thinking about it.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Farbstudie Quadrate,” 1913, oil on canvas

Close’s circles may be entirely accidental, spontaneous. Or he could have appropriated them from anywhere—afterall targets as a human “mark” are found on even the most primitive of artifacts. And Kandinsky’s abstract circles, completed early in his career, served a different function from Close’s (i.e. abstractions in themselves). Still, I can’t help but wonder whether Kandinksy’s work and these images in particular sneaked into Close’s subconsciousness at one point through a back door. And whether the hand cracking open the door belonged to de Kooning.

Wider Connections

Chuck Close on Charlie Rose

Laura Cumming, UK Observer: “What Drove Kandinsky to Abstractiion?”

The critic who made de Kooning—Harold Rosenberg: The Tradition Of The New

Venetian Red in Berlin: Pergamon—The Story That Wasn’t

Posted in Liz Hager, Sculpture, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Temporarily Closed (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

The sign that greeted me outside the Pergamon Museum blared its message in hot-pink, as if there were a chance that one otherwise might fail to digest the supremely-disappointing news. “Vorübergehend geschlossen.” To non-native speakers this phrase, like many in the German language, sounds oppressively final. A death-knell was ringing in my ears.  Pergamon was perhaps the art reason for my trip to Berlin. The cheery English translation—”temporarily closed—offered no solace.

Since wandering all over the hilltop site of ancient Pergamon last October, I had been dreaming about the day when I could actually see the Great Altar of Pergamon in all its marmoreal grandeur. Widely considered to be the finest intact altar of the Greek Hellenistic period, since its discovery, the Altar has resided in its eponymous Berlin museum.

Pergamon site itself is worth the visit—though located on a somewhat inhospitable promontory about 10 miles inland from the Aegean,  it boasts a beyond-dramatic view to the Turkish city of Bergama in the valley below. However, one feels alternately cheated and sad that just about everything in the city, except for the remains of a few of the acropolis buildings, has been stripped away long ago. The site of the altar, which was orginally built in the 2nd c. BCE on an outcropping below the acropolis, is now marked by ruins (below).  The dusty hillside, the sorry remains of the grand altar, and accompanying trees only heightened the already necropolitan air of the whole site.

Pergamon—Site of the Empty Altar (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

Nineteen century Europeans were obsessed with ancient and exotic cultures. In the accepted practices of the day, archeologists “liberated” thousands of artifacts from sites, and weren’t always too careful about how they did it. In particularly friezes and wall paintings were often removed using methods that disregarded the condition of what would remained. One likes to think that this was all in the name of scholarly study, but regrettably a lot of it was also for fame and fortune, both individual and national. (See Swimmers in the Desert and On the Trail of Alexander.) The Germans were no exception. Their particular interest lay in ancient Greece and her sphere of influence.

In 1878 three men—Carl Humann, Alexander Conze and Wilhelm Dörpfeld—began to excavate Pergamon. Carl Humann (1839-1896), leader of the group, was a self-educated archaeologist. An innkeeper’s son, he studied engineering until a diagnosis of tuberculosis necessitated a move to a southern European climate.   He worked as a surveyor in Turkey on railway and road construction departments.  There, Humann gained a personal familiarity with the classical-era ruins. The same year he started at Pergamon, Humann was named foreign director of Royal Museum in Berlin, responsible for all Prussian archaeological expeditions in the Near East.  He continued at the Pergamon site until 1886.   After Pegamon he went on to excavate Tralles, Magnesia-on-the-Maeander, Priene, and Ephesus. At his death in 1896 Humann was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Smyrna, but fittingly his remains were re-interred at Pergamon in 1967.

Beyond Pergamon, Dörpfeld directed much of his energy toward proving that Homer’s Odyssey was based upon real places.  He would became famous for his specific method of dating archeological sites based on the type of building materials found in the strata in which objects were found. A young Heinrich Schliemann convinced Dörpfeld to assist him with the excavation of Troy in 1882.

Like a good citizen, Humann shipped the altar and other items back to the Museum, where from 1901 to 1909, a small building on the site of the current Museum accommodated the important excavation finds of the Berlin Museums. As the collections grew, the building required enlargement; the current structure, though started in 1910, was finished in 1930.

After WW2, the frieze reliefs from the altar were relocated to the Hermitage Museum, ostensibly as a compensation for damage inflicted by the German invaders on Soviet museums. At the behest of Nikita Khrushchev, the frieze reliefs were returned to the Pergamon Museum (at that time under East German jurisdiction) in 1956.

Pergamon—Remains of the Acropolis (photo ©2007 Liz Hager)

In its heyday Pergamon must have been spectacular site to behold. Considered in some ancient circles as a Wonder of the World, in addition to its temples, the city was reputed to have had a library bested only by the one in Alexandria.

A full conception of the glory of Pergamon would have to wait until another day. I reminded myself that the setback was only “vorübergehend,” which sounded a whole lot less final without the “geschlossen.

Wider Connections

Germany Stole Pergamon —interesting tidbits about the Pergamon theft of the sort that are rocking the world of antiquities.

Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970

Telephos Frieze from Pergamon

Venetian Red in Berlin: To the Expressionists’ House We Go

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Printmaking, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Friz Bleyl, Winter, 1905
Woodcut, 17 x 9.9 cms
(Brücke Museum, Berlin)

At the end of a tranquil cul-de-sac on the woodsy fringe of Berlin’s suburban Dahlem district sits Das Brücke Museum, an unassuming, low-slung modernist structure, in which much of the work of the German Expressionists resides. The Museum boasts a collection of more than 400 paintings and sculptures, as well as thousands of prints.  One of the benefits of having a body of work this large and varied under one roof is the clarity of perspective it affords relative to the influence of German Expressionists on later movements, particularly the American Abstract Expressionists. What a wonderful paradox that a museum that houses once-radical art is situated in this rather conventional location; in a world in which most museums of modern art are sited in downtown locations, this suburban location is actually anti-conventional.

The first part of the 20th century was characterized by the ascendency of German-speaking artists.  After centuries of French domination of the art world, members of the Wiener Secession, Das Brücke, and later Der Blaue Reiter stepped into the spotlight, rebelling against Impressionism and pushing artistic vocabulary toward the abstract.  Because the founders of Das Brücke—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Fritz Bleyl—were studying at the technical university in Dresden,  the group originally took their aesthetic cues from the Dresden-based expression of the Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau), which staked its artistic legacy on highly-stylized curvilinear forms, mostly floral in origin.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Parterre, Akrobatin, und Clown (Parterre, Acrobat, and Clown), 1909
Lithograph
(Städel Museum, Frankfort)

The Brücke ultimately rejected the traditional notion that lines, objects, and color were tools in the service of the artist’s representation of “reality,” believing instead that these were elements in their own right. For them, objects symbolized ideas and conveyed moods. Not just color, but vigorous line work was critical to the expression of mood. The group’s use of then-unconventional themes—nature-worship, religious ecstasy, nudity as a symbol of the freedom of the soul, exotic and primitive art—enhanced their reputation as avant-garde artists. Nature was a subject the group often tackled, but primarily as a vehicle to express an inner emotion. In their hands, reality was transformed and reduced to its unembellished essential; color became an abstraction, detached from traditional objects and associations.

All of these elements are well-illustrated in Kirchner’s lithograph above: the acrobat and clown have been reduced to a few essential and complementary curvilinear lines; and the flattened red and yellow colors, as well as the poses and accoutrements, evoke an exotic, and exciting, locale.

Albrecht Dürer, St. Anthony, 1519,
copper etching

While best known by the general public for their paintings, the Brücke artists used the woodcut and lithography media extensively. Perhaps their technical training pushed them naturally in this direction, for the print medium certainly allowed them to maintain a close relationship between art and craft in the tradition of the Jugendstil. Interestingly, a large portion of Brücke woodcuts is devoted to advertising the group—cards, posters, and catalogues—belying this connection to the technical, or graphic, arts. The e German Renaissance masters Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grünewald, and Albrecht Dürer were hugely influential on the Brücke and the group was deliberate in its attempt to revive this venerable German tradition.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Bäume im Winter (Trees in Winter), 1905
Woodcut, 11.8×16 cms
(Brücke Museum, Berlin)

Like the Impressionists, the Brücke members were smitten by Japanese woodcuts—the Japanese emphasis on line and flat color, as well as oblique compositional angles in their work fit in naturally with their aesthetic beliefs. Nowhere is the the Japanese influence more acutely demonstrated in the collection it seems than in Schmidt-Rottluff’s woodcut above. He has pared down the scene to such an extreme that all color and embellishment has been banished. What remains is the essence of winter, brilliantly evocative in its simplicity.

Wider Connections

Spaightwood Galleries
Charles Harrison et al. —Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction

Venetian Red in Berlin: John Finneran at Upstairs Berlin

Posted in Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Travel with tags , , , , , on October 27, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

John Finneran, Night Fence (Backgrounds), 2008,
Oil and enamel with nails on aluminum, two panels, each approx. 84 x 96 cm.
(photo © Liz Hager 2008)

John Finneran, Night Fence (Backgrounds), 2008,
Oil and enamel with nails on aluminum, two panels, each approx. 84 x 96 cm.
(photo © Liz Hager 2008)

Berlin is on its way to becoming the Hauptstadt of contemporary culture. It’s already a magnet for collectors and young American artists, many of whom call it home, if temporarily.

John Finneran seems to be an example of the kind of younger American artist who has found Berlin a sympathetic milieu.  His work is physically big in the way that so much of gallery-oriented emerging art so often is, and he’s clearly focused in on the elements that tend to facilitate commercial success (one of which is good representation in the European markets). Since completing his BFA at Cooper Union in 2002, he’s kept to a rigorous schedule of a show a year, mostly in New York, where he lives. Admittedly I was unfamiliar Finneran’s oeuvre, when I walked into Upstairs Berlin.  His new work definitely caught my attention, and prompted me to investigate more deeply.

Finneran’s use of aluminum as a substrate, while no longer revolutionary in the world of art, achieves what a similar work on canvas could not—it provides a subtle luminosity that perfectly complements his overall somber palette. The glazing technique seems to be new in this year’s works, though not with these pieces in particular.  It’s a technique that is extremely effective in creating an overall murky, if not mysterious, tone in the work. Vestages of figural gestures remain embedded in the abstraction—noses, mouths, eyes—although they are more shrouded by the abstraction than in earlier work. Further, in stapling or riveting the sheets together to form a larger surface, Finneran proves (once again) that craft can be an eloquent partner to abstract art. Additionally, the canvases are irregularly-shaped—some sport mildly uneven edges, others, like the one above, sprout cock’s combs. This adds a modicum of whimsy to the pieces, a sly antidote to his restrained palette. Finally, the artist has dispensed with the frame, a time-honored technique that breaks down the barrier between canvas and viewer, by suggesting an endless picture plane.

Finneran’s execution engaged me, and I paused a bit more than usual to ponder what the artist might be trying to communicate with it. In this department I admit difficulty. I could quickly summon the panoply of artists that might have influenced Finneran, but was having trouble figuring out whether what he appeared to be saying was new or unique.  Still I remain interested enough to see where the artist might go from here.

Upstairs Berlin certainly took a risk in mounting this young artist’s first solo exhibition. My sense is that it might not have paid off today, but certainly Finneran is an artist to watch. His willingness to experiment with a range of media and techniques will serve him well as he continues to develop his voice.

Wider Connections

More Finneran images

Saatchi & Finneran

Upstairs Berlin

Venetian Red in Berlin: The Path of the Wall is a Work of Art

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture, Travel with tags , , , on October 25, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Mauerweg (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

Since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, points along its former path are marked by ceremonious memorials, public facilitators of enduring collective remembrance. Still other segments have been marked by a benign path—two parallel lines of cobblestones—embedded in the asphalt or earth. If you didn’t know better, you might think you had stumbled fortuitously upon a site work by Andy Goldsworthy or Richard Long. In fact, this path is a work of art. Beyond marking the past, it embodies, like all great works of art, a powerful axiom of the cosmos.  Already wearing a mantle of living earth, the cobblestones remind us that dust irrevocably returns to dust.

Connections

Berliner Mauerweg


Venetian Red in Berlin: Armin Göhringer at Galerie Gerken

Posted in Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture, Travel with tags , , , on October 23, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Armin Göhringer Untitled, 2004,
Blackened wood, 72x80x14cm

As I walked from across the street, I spotted the tell-tale yellow banana discretely stenciled near the door of Galerie Gerken. Not that I was looking for this gallery in particular, but it amused me to actually see the “sign of the banana,” my first in Berlin.  In preparation for this trip, I had consulted videos on Geobeats; at the onset of the episode on gallery crawling, the hostess let on that an artist from Cologne had gone around Berlin stenciling the banana on galleries he thought particularly good. But I didn’t know until I stepped into the Galerie Gerken just how reliable his recommendation would turn out to be.

On display inside was the latest work from Armin Göhringer. Göhringer was born in 1954 in Nordrach, Germany, one of those picture postcard municipalities nestled in the rolling hills of the Black Forest. (He still calls it home.) Wood working is a proficiency in the area, and no doubt this heritage pushed Göhringer to one of his media—blackened wood.  What he wreaks from the material is inspiring, for the finished pieces recall ancient tribal artifacts, while embracing modern-day abstraction. Whether Göhringer is working in large scale appropriate for site work or on a small intimate level, an inescapable metaphor of his work is fiber—presented either as individual threads or as weaves (the work above).  Achieving this effect is no small feat, as Göhringer starts with a solid block of wood and industriously carves to the void. The finished pieces artfully embody opposing characteristics—sturdy rigid building material and delicate pliable gauze. With some of the works at Galerie Gerken, the artist has cleverly pushed the fiber concept farther, shrouding the wood in hand-made paper.

The new pieces are smaller, and many are displayed on the wall. The lattice-patterned shadow formed behind the piece creates a contorted echo of it, a Doppelgänger of sorts. The effect emphasizes the totemic nature of the work—an animate spirit lies inside each of Göhringer’s works.

Wider Connections

More Göhringer work

Still more Göhringer work

Venetian Red in Berlin: Festival of Lights

Posted in Architecture, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Site Work, Travel with tags , , , , on October 23, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Festival of Lights (Photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

Every October in Berlin over the course of 12 days light artist Andreas Boehlke and his crew put  on a joyous show illuminating Berlin’s streets and monuments with spectacular designs. It attracts crowd participation. One night after dinner, we drove around the city looking for the show; by a stroke of luck our route took us by the Berliner Dom on Museum Island. The night was cold and windy. The cathedral was looking quite goth all a-glow with the fog swirling around it.

You can catch a hosted video filmed high above the events on Gendarmenmarkt; very entertaining even if you speak no German. Be sure to catch the first minute or so with the “Alex” (aka Alexander Platz) Fernsehturm (TV tower), one of Berlin’s famous landmarks. Then, if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, just scroll in to around 4:00 minutes for the crowd action.

You can catch the live action at the Brandenburg Gate on October 24 at 10pm (Berlin time) by clicking here.

The Dom Front Side (Photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

The Dom Back Side (Photos ©2008 Liz Hager)

Wider Connections

Festival of Lights website

Venetian Red in Berlin: Ethnological Arts from Azerbaijan

Posted in Central Asia, Embroidery, Liz Hager, Textiles, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on October 22, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Azerbaijan embroidered coverlet, 19th century, silk, metallic thread

Azerbaijan embroidered coverlet (detail)

Ethnology is the branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the origins, distribution, technology, and social structure of the ethnic, racial and national divisions of humanity. Simply put, ethnologists interpret the output—whether language, artifacts, social customs—of various families of man.  By the mid-19th century, Europeans were captivated by the Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures, both ancient and contemporary. So much so, that the term “Orientalist” was coined to describe the people who studied these cultures.

Though perhaps not as well-known as their English counterparts, German “Orientalists,” such as  Albert van Le Coq and his contemporaries were actively digging in the Sahara, the Levant and Chinese Turkistan. Like the British, they ultimately “liberated”  huge caches of artifacts from their resting places with the result that an exceptionally good collection of ethnologic art resides in Berlin.

For anyone with an interest in the tribal arts, a visit to the Ethnologisches Museum is a compulsory stop. Founded in 1873, the composite Museum (several separate collections have been merged under one roof) boasts over 500,000 artifacts, representing peoples from every continent, including North America, although only a fraction of the collection is on display at any given time. Still, the serious student could spend hours, if not days, properly absorbing it all.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that (for now) the Museum is located in Dahlem, an idyllic spot southwest of the city center, which has retained its leafy village origins, despite being within city limits. Or that Die Brücke, the Museum of the German Expressionist movement, is a short walk up the road.

Although on a pilgrimage specifically to see the Kizil Cave frescos, I nonetheless wound up spending much additional time (though not nearly enough) in the comprehensive Oceanic collection and a temporary exhibit—”Azerbaijan—Land of Fires.” Apparently the first of its kind in Europe, this exhibition features 5,000 years of Azeri ethnographic arts; it encompasses not only household and decorative items, but fine arts.

The nation state of Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran on the Caspian Sea. Beginning in the 6th century the Turkic tribes, migrating in vast numbers from the Mongolian steppe, overpowered local populations throughout Central Asia. Azerbaijan was no exception. The term “Azerbaijan” refers to the dominant Turkic tribe in the region, but derives from a root word—Azer—”fire keeper,” because the local population were fire worshippers.  By the early 20th century observers in the capital, Baku, noted the effects of the ever present smoke from fires pluming out of the city’s numerous oil derricks.

The tribal arts of Azerbaijan generally reflect either Iranian or Turkic traditions, although some Russian traditions were absorbed when the country came under Soviet control in the early 20th century. In the case of textiles, like other Turkic peoples, Azeris use embroidery to decorate many household objects—cushions, covers, wall panels, details of clothing, purses, comb cases, etc. Typically artisans embroidered intricate geometric or fanciful floral and fauna motifs on cotton or velvet using “chain” or “satin” stich techniques in silk or metallic threads. In the above detail, the chain stitching is particularly evident.  The wide use of spangles tends to differentiate Azeri embroideries from others, although this aspect is not well demonstrated by the example above.

Embroidery Craftsmen, Azerbaijan—Yelizavetpol Province, late 19th century
(Photo courtesy Russian Museum of Ethnography)

Wider Connections

Berlin Ethnographisches Museum
Azerbaijan State Museum
Azerbaijan History
More embroideries
Tom Reiss—The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, the absolutely fascinating story of Essad Bey, a Jew from the Caucasus, born in the first throes of the Russian Revolution, he styled himself a Muslim prince.

Venetian Red in Berlin: The Wall that Divides

Posted in Architecture, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Travel with tags , , , on October 21, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Brandenburg Gate pre-1989—Berlin Nummer B92 ©Ute + Berndt Eickemeyer/Berlin

Last week, I stood in the middle of the expansive Potsdamer Platz trying to imagine, as so many before me, just exactly where the Wall had run. At equally famous Pariser Platz, the photogenic Brandenberg Gate has stood intact through the decades, so it’s not surprising that it became the über-symbol of Soviet-fashioned state imprisonment. By contrast, virtually all of Potsdamer Platz is new, rebuilt after the 1945 bombing of Berlin and again when the Wall came down. Once one of the busiest traffic nexuses in Europe, through architectural metamorphosis the Platz has been returned to a gleaming and bustling space, albeit completely unrecognizable from its historical self. Crowds now gather in the atrium of the Sony Center not out in the streets as they did before the War.  Surrounded by shiny steel and glass towers with people and traffic streaming by, I found it nearly impossible to imagine Potsdamer Platz as a Cold War Dead Zone. But that’s pretty much what it was while divided by a nasty military-style border that included not only a 12-foot Wall, but wide buffer zones of empty space bordered by barbed wire, guard towers, and a back up wall.

Brandenburg Gate November 1989—Berlin Nummer B94 ©Ute + Berndt Eickemeyer/Berlin

Nearly 20 years after its dismantling, the Wall is still an obsession, though perhaps mostly with non-Berliners. On a Sunday morning my family group (including a native Berliner) joined a healthy crowd of internationals already at the Wall Memorial on the corner of Acker and Bernauer Strassen, all reading the historical placards with reverence and awe. Though historical tidbits about the Wall abound, one truth is overwhelming—in its circumnavigation of the city, the Wall not only fenced in East Berlin, but also isolated West Berlin, creating an island symbolically cut off from the rest of the world.

Throughout the week, I stumbled across other remnants of the Wall in different parts of the city. (A Mauer-Map is handy tool in more deliberate searches for the Wall.) Most of these slabs were pitted and defaced, shabby and seemingly ordinary.  Nevertheless, these sections still pack a powerful symbolic punch. Superficially, they might be mistaken for a metaphor of the failure of Soviet-style Communism— remnants of that system do live on, like the Wall sections, in the attitudes and behaviors of its former citizens. Upon deeper consideration, I prefer to think of them as a warning signal, a call to action for the eternal vigilance we must maintain against the forces that would divide us.

Brandenburg Gate, Recently ©2008 Liz Hager

Wider Connections

Antony Beevor—The Fall of Berlin 1945
Edward R. Murrow’s account of Berlin bombing
Potsdamer Platz
Wall factoids
Billy Wilder’s One Two Three



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