Kultur club

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 47

Kultur club

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 47

Kultur club

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 47

Kultur club

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 47

Berlin's art scene has one foot firmly in the future – while acknowledging its tumultuous past, writes Rachel Spence

Berlin is a city of the mind as much as of the map. Its legacy has shaped our cultural psyche. Without Berlin, there would be no Walter Benjamin, no Dada and no Bowie. But it's also where Nazism rooted down into the country's soul. The art scene was branded decadent. The Jewish community, some 160,000 strong, was virtually stamped out. Just when it was hard to imagine the city could suffer further, the Berlin Wall split friends, families, museums and even lakes, in an embodiment of the wound of the Cold War.

Yet recently, it has told a more uplifting story. Unification did not bring the chaos some predicted. Rather, Berlin's magnification saw its cheap, dilapidated tenements colonized by a new generation of creatives. The result is a breeding-ground for contemporary art so far out on the edge it should come with a parachute. Little wonder that it has become the site of Europe's most challenging Biennale, which takes place in venues across the city from 4 June until 18 September this year – a good time to visit, for Berlin summers are renowned for their gleaming light and pristine skies. In winter, the temperature can be well below freezing.

I stayed in the area known as the Scheunenviertel ('Barn Quarter') in the Mitte district. Once the crucible of Berlin's underground scene, its long-term residents complain of gentrification. But the streets still pulse with bohemian currents. Whether you fancy ethnic cuisine – who could resist a café called Dada Falafel? – organic apples or a yoga class, this is your 'hood.

Premier destination for art lovers, and usually a chief Biennale venue, is the KW Institute for Contemporary Art on Auguststraße. Sprawling over three floors of a tall, ex-margarine factory, KW is home to temporary exhibitions with a reputation for innovative video and installations, though the odd 'ironic' drawing or painting creeps in. The view from the third-floor window in the stairwell is as compelling as the art: punctuated by the dome of the Neue Synagoge, its gold tip catching the sunlight, an ocean of rooftops flows to the River Spree and Museumsinsel, the island home of five superb 19th and early 20th century museums.

The first decades of the 20th century are among the most seductive in Berlin's artistic history. The best vista onto this epoch is opened by the Berlinische Galerie. Now in a refurbished former glass warehouse in Kreuzberg, the area to the south of Mitte, the building's unpredictable angles and luminous atrium, criss-crossed by a spectacular staircase, make it the perfect showcase for art that is equally spiky and uncompromising.

The permanent display is always changing, but your focus should be the Weimar-era tearaways known as Neue Sachlichkeit. As the city broke free in the 1920s of its stuffy imperial past to enter a louche playground of cabaret dens and gambling houses, artists like Otto Dix and Hannah Höch chronicled its decadence with cruel, insightful draftsmanship. Of the more recent displays, the monochrome images of Berlin both before and after the fall of the Wall, taken by resident photographer, the late Michael Schmidt, are cool, dispassionate surveys of mute apartment blocks and deserted streets that capture the city's watchful, laconic anima.

It's easy to forget that Berlin is home to one of the finest painting museums in the world. Yet a taxi driver looked blank when I asked to go to the Gemäldegalerie. When he finally understood, he looked surprised. "Really? Nobody ever wants to go there."

More fool them for missing this northern Renaissance feast of whey-faced Madonnas, wracked Christs and rock-jawed, fur-trimmed German merchants by the likes of Rogier van der Weyden and Albrecht Dürer. For me, the holy grail is Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Netherlandish Proverbs (1559). A baffling festival of lewdness and oddity – an armored man eating a knife behind a tabby cat, a woman with flames in one hand and a water pitcher in the other – all becomes clear with the gallery guide.

For a taste of Berlin's contemporary scene at its most adventurous yet understated, take a trip to Neukölln. After Tempelhof airport closed, this global melting-pot – once rather shabby – became the city's hippest enclave. On Alfred-Scholz-Platz, if you look carefully, you may notice a mosaic of different stones spread across the pavement. This is the Meinstein project, a public artwork by Berlin-based artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke, who gathered a stone from each of the countries with residents in Neukölln. Such a sensitive intervention fulfills the prophesy of 1920s writer Carl Zuckmayer: "Berlin tasted of the future, and in exchange people were happy to put up with (...) cold."

Rachel Spence writes about art for the Financial Times.

When in Berlin

Where to stay

Berlin's hotel scene has sharpened up with the arrival a few years ago of Soho House Berlin (sohohouseberlin.com; right), an off-shoot of the empire started by London entrepreneur Nick Jones. Located in Mitte, a district beloved of media types, the hotel opened in a vast Neue Sachlichkeit edifice. The building has had a troubled history. It was seized from its Jewish owners by the Nazis, before becoming HQ of the Communist Party Central Committee. It was finally returned to the original owners after the Wall fell. Today, it's a sumptuous enclave with a rooftop pool and a restaurant famed for its brunches.

Those looking for something a little more pared-down could consider booking into Miniloft (miniloft.com). Also in Mitte, it's a suite of loft apartments in a building where the cement columns, floor-to-ceiling windows and kitchenettes were custom-designed by a collective of architects back in the 1990s, some of whom have their homes in the same building. Handily close to the Naturkundemuseum U-Bahn stop, it's the perfect option for minimalists who prefer DIY to hotel rules.

Where to eat

The hottest tables in town are at Dóttir (dottirberlin.com; below left), a restaurant where the Icelandic-themed cooking – think raw fish, potatoes, forests of herbs – is complemented by the sea-green
and turquoise notes that freshen up the Scandi-shabby décor. Such artiness is inevitable given that head chef is Victoria Eliasdóttir, the sister of renowned contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson.
For Swabian flavors given a slow-food spin, try Schwarzwaldstuben (schwarzwaldstuben-berlin.com) – the sweet-and-sour marriage of wafer-thin pizzas slicked with pumpkin cream and dollops of goat's cheese is made in heaven.

A more traditional take on German cuisine is found in Joseph Roth Diele (joseph-roth-diele.de), a legendary bar-restaurant where black-and-white photographs of early 20th century Berlin, and shelves of paperbacks are a homage to renowned novelist Joseph Roth. Non-German readers can borrow at the bar the English copy of The Radetzky March, Roth's most famous book, then dive into the dying days of the Habsburg Empire as they refuel on käsespätzle (a Teutonic macaroni cheese).

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