The searing satire by George Grosz. Edvard Munch’s dream figures. Revolutionary works by Picasso, Klee and Léger… all this is reason enough to hop on a plane to Berlin to see the amazing exhibition The Art of Society 1900-1945 at the Neue Nationalgalerie.
After six years of closure, this flagship museum is one of a number of top attractions in the German capital to open virtually unnoticed during the lockdown fallow years.
The good news is that this outstanding cavalcade of more than 250 paintings and sculptures, highlighting artists’ powerful response to two terrible wars, runs until July 2, 2023. Equally impressive is the gallery itself, a graceful black steel and glass hangar designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1968 and now brilliantly revived by British architect David Chipperfield.
Nigel Tisdall explores Berlin’s (pictured) art scene and notes that the city has a sense of “openness and creative energy”.
A more controversial opening is the Humboldt Forum, a haughty baroque ensemble in the heart of the Museum Quarter that was conceived 20 years ago.
“They probably wouldn’t build it now,” admits a guide when I take an introductory tour of this €680 million Prussian replica castle. The cultural behemoth took eight years to build and entry to most exhibitions is free, including the superb top-floor galleries dedicated to Asian art, which will be fully open from September 17th.
If that sounds overwhelming, head up to the rooftop where you can admire the domes, spiers and skyscrapers of a city scarred by the 20th century like no other.
For an even better view, zoom up the Alexanderplatz TV Tower, which resembles a knitting needle piercing a ball of yarn and was erected in 1969 as a tribute to the Sputnik satellites.
Pictured is the recently reopened Neue Nationalgalerie, a museum housed in a ‘graceful’ building that has been ‘brilliantly revived by British architect David Chipperfield’.
Children love the elevators, which shoot up 200 meters in 40 seconds, while the 360-degree panorama over the flat, sprawling metropolis on the Spree reveals many surprises.
One is how forested Berlin’s main park, Tiergarten, is, which still clings to its formative days as aristocrats’ hunting ground. Another is the huge green Tempelhofer Feld. More than twice the size of London’s Hyde Park and just a 20-minute tube ride from the city centre, this was an airport until 2008.
It’s another of Berlin’s unsung wonders, with redundant runways that have become a playground for joggers, cyclists, walkers and – most spectacularly – urban windsurfers who rip the tarmac on skateboards.
Above is Tempelhofer Feld, a park that was an airport until 2008. Nigel describes it as one of “Berlin’s unsung wonders”.
Before the pandemic, the monumental art deco terminal in its north-west corner drew 70,000 visitors a year eager to see one of the largest Nazi-built structures in the world, with more than 7,000 rooms and imposing facades decorated with stone eagles.
They began in 1936 and never ended, using the site for mass rallies, airplane construction with forced labour, as a prison and concentration camp.
It’s now open again for tours that explain its turbulent history, including a key role in the Berlin Airlift of 1948-9, when up to a thousand military planes flew in and out daily.
Everything in Berlin feels huge, but it’s remarkably easy to get around by bus, tram, and U-Bahn. There are no ticket barriers, just plainclothes inspectors who mysteriously appear to check that you’ve paid.
Many visitors stay in the lively, graffiti-strewn Mitte district, where budget hotels like Motel One Berlin-Hackescher Markt get the job done, if you want to spend most of your time sightseeing and dining at crowded restaurants that offer dishes ranging from Israeli to Vietnamese , and delve into the Bacchanalia, which is Friday night.
For a quieter scene, head to the wide streets and large apartment blocks of Prenzlauer Berg, which includes the Hotel Oderberger, a 1902 public bath that has been converted into a stunning family-run hotel with a gorgeous indoor pool.
The freely accessible museum in the Kulturbrauerei, pictured, is reminiscent of everyday life in the GDR
Its entrance features a delightful tableau of putti washing and drying themselves, while the 70 rooms are decorated with hooks, doors and tiles from the former dressing rooms. This is also a good place to learn more about the Berlin Wall, which divided the city from 1961 to 1989. The Berlin Wall Memorial Trail outlines the physical reality of this brutal barrier, while the open-access museum in the Kulturbrauerei evokes everyday life in the GDR.
Moments of nostalgia, like driving on vacation in a lime-green Trabant fit for a rooftop tent, are tempered by shocking stories like that of 19-year-old Baldur Haase, who was charged over a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four .
Berlin is a much happier place now, with an openness and creative energy that is key to its popularity. The art historian Karl Scheffler stated in 1910 that it is a city that “ever becomes and never is”. Go there to see how it changes and it will probably change you too.