Gustav Seitz’s memorial to Käthe Kollwitz, Prenzlauer Berg
On Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg there is a statue of the woman for whom the leafy, prosperous square in the north of Berlin is named. It stands in the heart of the square, next to the playground, facing the spot where the artist Käthe Kollwitz used to live having moved to Berlin in 1891 at the age of twenty-four. She would go on to spend the next fifty years living on the square, almost the entire rest of her life, as her husband worked as a doctor in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and she worked on some of the greatest artwork produced in Germany in the 20th century.
The experience of living in Germany through the rapid growth of industrial Berlin and the First World War, the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism, certainly had an impact on her work. But more specifically, it was perhaps working class Prenzlauer Berg that influenced her the most, both on the streets that she walked daily as well as the stories of the patients who passed through her husband’s surgery. This was a Berlin of extreme poverty, of overcrowded apartments, of illness and child labour, and Kollwitz did not shy away from depicting these realities in her work. The writer Max Egremont describes her art as having ‘a preoccupation with suffering, a horror at what people could inflict on others, at how painful so-called progress could be’. It is true. What I would add to the quote is that there is also a sense of responsibility, both in the work itself but also for those who look upon the suffering and horror; a responsibility to challenge a profoundly unjust society.
It was a strange time to travel to London. The attacks on London Bridge and Finsbury Park, and the desperate scenes from Grenfell Tower – let alone the stories that were emerging of how something like that could come to pass, let alone how the survivors were being treated – seemed to weigh heavy on the city as the temperatures soared to record levels. We had lots to do and lots of people to see, but there was one free morning. Over breakfast Katrin and I discussed our options.
‘I’d like to see this,’ I said, pointing at a picture of a mural on my phone. It was only a short walk away, down Brick Lane and under the railway. A place I had never been to but a name which resonated. Cable Street.
On the 4 October 1936, Oswald Mosley and his British Unionist of Fascists planned a march through the East End of London. That their route took them down Cable Street was no coincidence. This was a neighbourhood with a large Jewish population, and Mosley’s Blackshirts were marching to intimidate. The mural that now stands on Cable Street on the side of St George’s Town Hall shows what happened next: the combined forces of locals and anti-fascist demonstrators made up of Jewish, Irish, Communist, Anarchist and Trade Union groups among others, gathered on Cable Street to barricade the route and stop the Blackshirts passing through. Continue reading
Photo: The Baltic Shore
Yesterday the publishers Influx Press announced the release of my book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast, which will be published in June 2017. The book is an exploration of the shoreline between the old inner-German border just north of Lübeck and the boundary with Poland on the island of Usedom. The idea behind the book was to tell the stories from the shore, from folklore, art and literature to the history of the 20th century, as well as personal memories of Katrin and her family and their time living on the Baltic coast during the GDR.
So the subject of place and the importance of memory, particularly in this country I have now called home for fifteen years, has been consuming me for the past couple of years as I have been writing the book and it was therefore with great interest that I headed to the Martin-Gropius-Bau on Friday to see the exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation. The exhibition, which first appeared in London alongside a Radio 4 series and an excellent book by Neil MacGregor, has been subtitled in Berlin as “the British view” because of its origins. On the day we were there our fellow visitors in the gallery were overwhelmingly German. I had already read the book, so most of the objects and the reflections in the accompanying text were not new to me, but nevertheless it was a fascinating exhibition that in its essence asks of us the question: what is a nation anyway?
With the weather in Berlin suddenly reaching summer-like levels of warmth, it might seem like a funny time to write about and recommend a museum visit, but the skies were grey last weekend when we headed to the German History Museum, and the special exhibition we found there is definitely worth a look the nice time the temperatures drop.
FARBE FÜR DIE REPUBLIK (Colour for the Republic) is a collection of images taken by the photojournalists Martin Schmidt and Kurt Schwarzer in the German Democratic Republic. The two men were both freelance photographers, but were hired by different companies and mass organisations in the GDR to take images to be used for trade fairs, products, cookbooks and more. As the introduction to the exhibition makes clear, the images were supposed to depict elements of a fulfilled life under socialism in the GDR, and the fact that they were in colour was no accident:
Archival pigment print
© the artist
With Under a Grey Sky being based in Berlin, and Berlin being in Germany, it is probably not surprising that the forest has been something of a theme during this the first year of the website. Those who have visited Berlin and arrived in the city by plane will have seen how the forests, dotted with lakes, make up much of the hinterland, and indeed, within the city itself. After all, how many city states have their own forestry department? But Berlin needs one, as the forests that the surround the city pay no heed to official boundaries, and even in parts of the Tiergarten – Berlin’s central park right in the centre – it is possible to lose yourself in the trees. With no mountains or coast for miles around, it is a walk in the woods that is the normal escape from the bustle of everyday life.
(above: the Video Box at Linienstraße 142, and sculptures from Tobias Sternberg)
Walk down Linienstraße in central Berlin at some point after 5pm over the next few months and you will come face to face with a shipping container transformed into a video box, as part of the re:MMX public art project from the folks at Co-Verlag here in Berlin. The original MMX project was in the same location – Linienstraße 142 – and was a year-long project in an old abandoned building that by its end had featured over two hundred artists from Berlin and around the world.
As one of the few remaining unrenovated buildings in this part of town, it was no surprise that it was bought by developers and plans were put in place to renovate the old buildings and re-build the front house that was presumably destroyed during the Second World War. But the developers, conscious of the passionate debates around gentrification in Berlin, and perhaps even that the iconic squatted Tacheles arthouse around the corner finally closed this month, invited the Co-Verlag team to return to the space to run a series of public art exhibitions during the renovation process.
(above: Charlottenburg, Berlin – Rolf Schröter)
I first met Rolf Schröter when we organised a Slow Travel Day at the Circus last year, and he came along with the other members of Urban Sketchers Berlin to put together a sketching tour for people who fancied the chance at trying to capture their immediate environment on paper. Since then we have seen each other a handful of times, usually at a similar events, and I think that I probably would not recognise Rolf if he did not have his trusty sketchbook in hand.