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Thursday, 21 November 2013

Berlin's Arts Mojo Returns

Museum Berggruen, Berlin

The 'boys' are back in town.
Welcome Matisse, Picasso, Klee. And dozens of other Modernist artists, who, as in the pre-World War II era, are again the talk of town.
These mostly 20th-century artists, notoriously labelled by Nazi censors for their advocacy of 'degenerate' art (read Modernism, or 'Jewishness') and who Adolf Hitler personally dismissed as not upholding the Aryan 'ideal' of National Socialism, have found a new, ever-widening berth in Berlin. Once purged and confiscated from then-existing museums and stolen from private collectors, masterworks by these formerly banished artists are now an increasing force within Berlin's ambitiously expanding museum community. This particularly in the last decade as Berlin brims again with Expressionists, Impressionists, and Surrealists in exhibits at the Museum of Design; the Museum of Modern Art, Photography and Architecture; and the Brüke (Bridge) Museum; and even in old venues such as pre-war Old National Gallery. Also add a new exhibit of 450 works by Salvador Dali, each of which would have made Hitler gag.

This renaissance of Modernism may well be most striking in two jewel-box collections in the Berlin's West End, the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg Museum and, across the street in the Museum Berggruen, what is arguably the city's most comprehensive collection of 'rehablitated' art by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, and Henri Matisse. And, yes, some African sculptures that would have triggered Nazi wrath as well.
It wasn't always easy.
Despite German unification in 1990, Berlin remains a pyschologically conflicted city, wrestling with the horror of its 20th century past. While never white-washing the terror of the Nazi era (a scant twelve years from 1933 to 1945), Communist domination in the East, and even the political and economic instability of the louche, decadent Weimar Republic in the trough between the Great Wars, Berliners have faced this history in remarkably different ways. Most significant is the sharp contrast between how the eerily similar ideologies of National Socialism and Communism have played out in everyday life -- from tourism, cultural activities, to architectural preservation, and the like -- in post Cold War, 21st Germany.
Once unleashed from Nazism and Communism, free expression in literature, cinema, theatre, dance, and other performing arts were quick to bloom. But the reconstitution of the city's vast art network, gutted by the Nazis, was more complicated, sensitive, and expensive. 
Moreover, the developing arts scene contrasts sharply in how Berliners treated architectural preservation, involving another art form and one, thanks to the enabling hand of Nazi Architect-in-chief Albert Speer, that catered specifically to Hitler's monomaniacal aspirations of a thousand-year Reich (Empire).
Flash forward to the war's end, and the division of Germany between East and West. For the most part, East Berlin and its 'good bits' (including the Brandenburg Gate on the Unter den Linden and areas surrounding Wilhemstraße and Fredrichstra3e in the central Mitte district) just suffered from benign neglect. (An exception was Hitler's bunker, now a car park).

In the West, the question of what to do with Nazi-era structures  -- did they constitute an historical record to be preserved lest future generations forget -- was quickly settled. Despite their conditions from Allied bombs (many were in fact salvageable), the buildings were for the most part razed. And, as critics now point out, in the process also erasing physical reminders of the horror.
Contrast this to how the remnants of East Berlin Communism have been treated. With the exception of the Berlin wall, nothing purpose-built in that Communist era has been torn down to intentionally scrub the physical past clean. As for the wall, inch-square bits are now sold in tourist shops, along with East German military caps and other relics. This tourist market, along with the re-creation of Checkpoint Charlie, has kindled a kind of Disney-fication of the former Communist regime. Any similar marketing scheme of the Nazi era -- think swastika buttons, or maybe even black Gestapo caps! -- would be understandably unthinkable. 
The re-stocking of the city's art venues was, in some ways, as thorny as the preservation issue, given the possible pre-war provenance (confiscated? stolen? looted?) of many paintings that were once on display here.
This dilemma was thrust into sharp focus recently with the discovery in Munich of a cache more than 1,200 paintings and drawings in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt, an eighty-year-old recluse son of a Nazi-era art dealer. Included in the trove were works by Chagall, Renoir, Picasso, and dozens of other prominent masters. Again, provenance is in question, and German authorities and art experts are having no easy time in sorting this out.
Fortunately, Berlin's recovery as a world capital of the arts has been given in recent years a boost in a more conventional, old-fashioned way -- by personal donation. Perhaps the most significant display of this largess has been Museum Berggruen, whose contents were a gift from the late collector-extraordinare Heinz Berggruen.
His tale is similar to many private collectors who with passion, perseverance, and connections -- Picasso was a friend -- were able to amass fabulous art troves. But in Berggruen's case, there was a twist. As a Jew, he was forced to leave his native Berlin as a penniless young man in 1936, later finding fortune in Los Angeles where he bought his first Klee. As an enlistee in the US Army in 1944, he served during the liberation of Germany, eventually moving to Paris after the war where he founded a well-respected, lucrative gallery, thus forging the beginning of his impressive collection. In the early 1990s, Berggruen returned Germany, finally terminating his personal exile as well as those, at least symbolically, of his favorite artists whose works accompanied him to Berlin.
Since 2000, the Museum Berggruen's has been housed in the Schloss Charlottenburg complex, featuring a 165-piece permanent collection, including the single largest presentation of works by Matisse in any German museum. The museum was Berggruen's self-less legacy to his native Berlin. With no strings attached. And no drama.