The art and places of Käthe Kollwitz

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.

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On Cable Street, London

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

Baltic Lagoons and Ghosts on the Shore

The lagoons of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – the many Boddens that stand between spits of land, islands and half-islands – are a fundamental part of the Baltic landscape. The tourists may head for the long stretches of beach between Travemünde and the Polish border, but for thousands of years the focus of life has been the sheltered waterways, teeming with fish. The Bodden has a hold over the local imagination in a way that the open waters of the sea do not, and there is a certain poetic and melancholy appeal to the reeded banks that hide shy birds from all but the most patient of watchers: in the inlets and coves and sandbanks; in the fields of sheep and cows that run down to the water; and in the thatched villages and their small harbours that face not the Baltic but the Bodden. As I caught the bus from Ribnitz-Dammgarten it followed the single road that led on to the peninsula from the west. The Bodden approached and retreated when viewed through the right-hand side windows of the bus, across ploughed fields and wide expanses of marshland through which drainage channels had been cut in dead straight, unnatural lines. 

From Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast

Things have been a little quiet of late here on Under a Grey Sky, mainly because of a number of deadlines as different projects managed to come together at the same time. But I decided to break radio silence because last week we took delivery of copies of my new books Ghosts on the Shore, published by Influx Press. It was not only an incredibly exciting moment, to hold it in my hands for the first time, but it was a fitting day for it to arrive as that very evening we drove north for a weekend in Wustrow, on the Fischland-Darß-Zingst peninsula and the location of one of the chapters of the book.

As well as history, family memories, stories and the people that live along the Baltic shore, one of the reasons that the area became so interesting to me that I decided to write a book about it is the landscape. In particular, the bays, inlets and lagoons that can be found all along the coast have a particular feel and atmosphere that shapes my feeling about the area. It is very different to the rugged, rocky coastline of North Wales that shaped my ‘idea’ of the coast as a child, and it has its own haunting, often melancholy beauty. For the first time, we were staying in a house that looked out over the harbour and the Bodden beyond, and it seemed like a fitting place to celebrate the publication of the book.

We will be holding a launch event in London on the 21 June at Burley Fisher Books and in Berlin on the 16 June at FC Magnet. At the Berlin event we will also be screening a short film made by my good friend Eymelt Sehmer that is based on the book and which we travelled to Usedom to film earlier this year.

From Sharp Haw, Yorkshire

The path leads up from the Grassington Road first along a farm track and then across slightly muddy fields towards the shapely cone of Sharp Haw, rising out from the ground like a child’s drawing of the perfect peak. Ahead of us stands a pheasant on the path. There are lapwings and meadow pippets. The call of a curlew. And then, overhead, the roar of two vintage aircraft, jousting in the ever-changing skies above the Yorkshire Dales.

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Trans-Pennine Express

At Manchester Airport we climb aboard. Tired travellers struggle down the narrow aisle in search of empty seats, lifting wheeled cases and plastic bags of fags onto the overhead shelves before sitting down heavily with hungover smiles. An announcement warns of travelling on the wrong ticket, inducing slight beats of panic in even those passengers whose paperwork is in order. And then, with a jolt and a lurch, we are off.

Northern England passes by outside the window. We are travelling across the Pennines from Manchester to Leeds, a journey I used to take from home in Lancashire to university in Yorkshire. Crossing the great divide. Lotte asks me what has changed. Not much, I say, as we look down on suburban back gardens and their trampolines, the overgrown edgelands between the tracks and the back fence a tangle of bushes, brambles and fly-tipped waste. Across the rooftops we spy a cricket pitch and a primary school. 20th century blocks of flats and more modern, sandstone-coloured new-build estates. Shipping containers and a mechanic’s yard. An ice cream van under an overcast sky. Pink and white blossom adding colour to the scene. Continue reading

Postcards from the Edge, Part Ten: The Long Silence of the Factory Bell

For the past few months I have been walking the outskirts of Berlin for a new book project. Along the way I published a series of postcards from the edge here on Under a Grey Sky. The walks are now completed, and you can find the postcard archive here. Now I just need to write the book…

Outside the old brewery friends gather in the spring sunshine, taking a seat on one of the benches that line the waterfront north of Spandau’s old town. There has not been beer produced here for a long time. Instead, the old brewery has been transformed, with a mix of re-purposed old red-brick buildings and architecturally complementary new-builds to create a harbourside complex of apartments and a ‘premium residence’ old people’s home, with restaurants and cafes on the ground floor. The view from the upper floors includes both the citadel and the power stations beyond.

An iron bridge takes me across the river to an island. The remnants of an armaments factory still stand, re-purposed during the Cold War to store the reserves of the West Berlin government should the USSR attempt another blockade of the island city. Now the warehouses and factory spaces are used for events, part of a multi-million euro plan to re-invent this island on the Havel as a residential and commercial zone. The landscaped paths and gardens are ready and waiting. As are the jetties and landing stages. Only the apartments remain imaginary; depicted on a billboard that stands on the edge of a muddy expanse of wasteland.

The re-imagining and re-purposing of places and spaces built for very different uses can take time. Off the island once more, the old industrial complexes that fuelled the rapid rise of Berlin in the second half of the 19th century are now less about making things and more about providing space for those 21st century activities that have square metres as the highest priority when it comes to real estate. Film studios and storage halls (private and commercial). Indoor football pitches and paintball. Logistics companies and winter parking for campervans. Infrastructure is still important, but whereas once it was the canal, the river and the railway, it is now access to the autobahn and a pledge of high speed internet access that is offered up outside properties with square metres to spare.

Lots of space, but little passing traffic. A red kite hovers above a fenced-off strip of marshy land, that somehow escaped the city’s relentless advance. Apart from the odd car on the main road, there is little other movement to catch the eye. No one waits at the bus stop. No one is following me along the pavement. And across the street the billboards stand empty. In this corner of the outskirts, on a weekday morning, there is no one to advertise to.

Postcards from the Edge, Part Nine: Karolinenhöhe

Over the next few months I will be walking around the outskirts of Berlin, starting each walk where I finished the last, until I complete a loop of the edge of the city. These walks will be written up for a new book project, and here on Under a Grey Sky I will publish some postcards from along the way…

I walk away from the lake, up a narrow path that cuts along the bottom of a gorge formed by two steep wooded hills, the floor covered in soggy leaves. This sense of enclosure evaporates as I cross the street, following a path into an open expanse of fields separated by high pathway avenues. These are the Karolinenhöhe Rieselfelder, part of a series of sewage irrigation fields built in the second half of the 19th century to process the waste of the rapidly growing, industrialising city. These fields were set up outside Berlin’s limits back then, although by now the shifting boundaries outwards mean that most are contained within the outskirts. Some were in operation up until the 1980s, and are now either farmed or have been turned into nature reserves.

Here, just south of Spandau, the traces are more visible the other former sewage irrigation fields I have crossed during my walk. Mostly grassed over, there are tell-tale fixtures and fittings that speak to its previous function. Concrete canals and drainage ditches. Steep-sided basins. Cobbled service roads, lined with trees. I have been here before and yet it is just as strange as on the first visit. In a way it is emblematic of the outskirts as a whole. Neither city nor country. Aspects of both. An in-between place. An edgeland place.

Most of all it reminds me of the polders on the banks of the River Oder, right where Germany meets Poland. To get to the river and the coloured boundary posts the path drops down from one dyke, crosses the dry polder, and then rises up to a dyke on the other side. All the way across you are aware that you are walking in a place that perhaps you shouldn’t. A place created by humans where, at any moment, the water’s could rise and you would be literally up to your neck in it. At Karolinenhöhe I have a similar, uneasy-yet-illogical feeling, and I find my pace quickens as I follow the raised service road in a diagonal line towards the very edge of Berlin, on the other side.