World Wars, Walls and Art – Welcome to Berlin
There are ostensibly two times that art flourishes: at the height of a civilisation or after great periods of austerity. Travelling over Europe for the last year I became acutely aware of this. Wandering the endless corridors of galleries and reading all the didactics, you notice distinct eras and circumstances in which the art and culture of a place prosper and how in times of hardship and upheaval, interesting art and artistic movements emerge. In some present-day European cities art is definitely booming and the smell of paint is still fresh on the walls. With a contemporary history of dizzying highs and extreme lows, Berlin is one of those cities.
Walking around in the spring sunshine outside the Brandenburg Tor it could be easy to forget Berlin’s dark past, but the sculptures, information plaques and even the graffiti remind you. It’s this history, staring you in the face on every street corner that is the reason why Berlin serves as a pilgrimage for contemporary counterculture, and a haven for street artists. To understand why, you need to jump back in time. Following the devastation of the WW1 Germany and its supporters were left paying for all the loss and damage suffered by the Allies. The result was austerity and hyperinflation. Despite the economic depression important artistic and cultural developments emerged. By the time Germany’s economy was back on track in the mid 1920’s aided by American loans, Berlin the nation’s capital, briefly entered a Golden period of art and design with the development of artistic and cultural expressions and ideologies such as German expressionism, Jungian psychology, Einstein’s theories and Bauhaus design . Then in 1933, Hitler rose to power, and not long after WW2 commenced. During this era the individual artistic expression of the Golden Twenties in Germany was stamped out by the Nazis in favor of a program of cultural propaganda. Individualism fell to fascism. In 1945 the war finally ended and Hitler committed suicide.
If Germany was battered after WWI, it was unrecognizable after WWII. Communist Russia took the Eastern half and the Allies (specifically Britain, France & America) took the Western half. Berlin as the capital was dissected into four parts and austerity prevailed again. For the next twenty years there were tensions between the two halves and artists moved into the West to avoid being silenced by the Soviet Union. Then came the Berlin Wall in 1961 dividing the sectors with cement and armed guards. For nearly thirty years Berliners were forced to carry passports to move between the East and West. Then seemingly overnight in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down.
After the fall of the Wall, the West side of Berlin became more affluent and artists drifted to the East where the rent was lower. Nearly one hundred years of turbulence and the impact of several different cultures in such a huge way left plenty for artists to draw on. Coming out of such a harsh period, after being kept under the thumb of the Nazis, Soviets and Allies, Berlin was ready to fully express itself. Consequently, Berlin today has a reputation for cutting edge contemporary art and exhibitions, and International cultural landmarks, such as the East Side Gallery. The East Side Gallery is perhaps the strongest nod to where and how art matters after a dark period in a city’s history. The 1.3km stretch of the Berlin wall was painted in 1990 following the Wall’s collapse and has over 105 paintings from artists all over the world as an international memorial to freedom. It is currently the world’s largest open air gallery. I have witnessed through my recent travels, and many hours spent admiring art and history in locations such as Berlin, that when a civilisation is at its peak, there is the money and time to invest and showcase the arts in a impressive fashion that reflects that particular society’s wealth and ambitions. Paradoxically, when a civilisation is at its lowest, inspiration also emerges out of disenchantment and chaos, resulting in significant and ground breaking, poetic and political works. I loved spending time experiencing the art and culture of Berlin, circa 2013.
“Berlin is a pulsing, exciting city with so many varied and distinctive neighbourhoods,
iconic history all around, great food at all levels and from every corner of the world…
an excellent place to set up camp and make a great record.”
(R.E.M. who recorded their new album in Berlin, 2010)
“Du bist verrückt mein Kind, du mußt nach Berlin.”
(“You are crazy, my child. You must go to Berlin.”)
(Franz von Suppe, composer, 1800)
All photos in post credited to Aaron Ashley.