Wednesday 6 November 2013
The arts, including painting and architecture, had a rich but dark and troubled history in the Nazi decades of the 1920s-40s. Much of the art of the time, by artists who are now regarded as among the greatest of the century, was condemned as un-German and “degenerate”. Bauhaus, meanwhile, the most famous of the architectural movements of the time, was subject to Nazi harassment, as seen in Part 6.
The Goethe Institute made sure that Alec and his fellow students had the opportunity to learn about these cultural developments of global significance through a series of lectures and visits, starting with a presentation on Wednesday 6 November.
What the Nazis referred to as “degenerate art” encompassed such movements as Dada, Expressionism and New Objectivity, with deep, though not exclusive, roots in Germany and others well known outside the country like Cubism and Surrealism.
In power, the Nazis organised an exhibition of degenerate art, for the purposes of mockery, which opened in Munich in 1937 and subsequently toured other German and Austrian cities. Among dozens of artists (not all German) whose work was displayed were such later-famous names as Max Beckman, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, and Piet Mondrian. Work by some of these is now on display at the Berlinische Galerie (to be visited in Part 14)).
Also exhibited was the artist Kurt Schwitters, whose “Merzbarn Wall” occupies a prominent and permanent place in the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University. North East readers can therefore go and see for themselves whether it is “degenerate.”
The word “Merz”, which is used throughout Schwitters’ work, was taken from a scrap of newspaper which formed part of an early collage. As Alec had written elsewhere after studying the “Merzbarn Wall” in Newcastle in 2012:
“Schwitters was something of an enigma. He founded his own one-man art movement ‘Merz’, which was originally based in Hanover. But Merz was not simply a style, it was Kurt Schwitters’ total and all-embracing revolution. It dictated his philosophy on art and on life. He created ‘Merzbild’ (paintings and collage), ‘Merzzeichnungen’ (drawings) and ‘Merzbau’ (buildings). He believed that Merz should know no bounds – embracing poetry, music, and drama, as well as collage, sculpture, and painting, although he considered his Merzbau to be his life’s work…
“Although frequently associated with the anti-art nihilism of the Dada movement, which he joined briefly, he did not agree with their political stance. He believed in ‘art for art’s sake’ and that art should be constructive not destructive. He said that ‘no man can serve two masters, art and politics.’”
Schwitters was born in Hanover in 1887 and died in Kendal, Cumbria, in 1948, having fled Germany during the Nazi years, first to Norway and then to England. The Merzbarn Wall was built on a Lake District fellside near Esthwaite and transported to its present home in Newcastle later, on a low loader.
Sunday 10 November 2013
Alec and his fellow students walked down a pleasant, tree-lined, suburban avenue admiring the gardens of the prosperous detached villas that stretched for its length of perhaps half a mile. As he did so he wondered how anybody could bear to live here.
For at the end of this tranquil approach stood one of the grimmest locations in Germany, indeed in all Europe. Sachsenhausen, in the pretty town of Oranienburg, is about 25 miles north of central Berlin and can easily be reached on the S-bahn.
It served as a concentration camp (KZ) between 1936 and the end of the war in 1945 and around 30,000 people were murdered there or died as a result of the harsh conditions. They included enemies of the Nazi state of all types from political prisoners to prisoners of war – many of them Russians – to Jews and homosexuals. Many were herded into concrete pits and shot.
The camp was used for experiments to find the most efficient ways of murdering people – shooting, gassing, and hanging among them.
Sachsenhausen was also used by the Nazis as an administrative centre for the whole KZ system. After the war it was used by the Soviets, and 12,000 prisoners are estimated to have died there between 1945 and 1950. Today it is a memorial and open to the public. Alec and his classmates were in a solemn mood as they travelled back to Berlin.
The New Museum
Monday 11 November 2013
The New Museum is one of five clustered on Museums Island in the River Spree in central eastern Berlin. It was built in the mid-19th century – so not all that new – largely destroyed during the Second World War, restored by the British architect David Chipperfield, and reopened in 2009. It contains collections of prehistoric objects, ancient Egyptian artefacts and classical antiquities spanning the Mediterranean worlds from the Middle East to the Atlantic and from North Africa to Scandinavia.
Perhaps most famous of the 6,000 exhibits on view is the exquisite bust of Queen Nefertiti. It is believed to date from 1345 BC. As with the British Museum, the Greek authorities and the Elgin Marbles, the Egyptians would like it back.
The Old National Gallery
Saturday 16 November 2013
The Old National Galerie was the second of the five museums and galleries on Museums Island to be visited by Alec and his fellow students and is devoted to Romantic and Impressionist masterpieces of the 19th century.
Raised on a plinth and having the appearance of a temple, it was the third museum/gallery on the island when it was opened in 1876. It too was badly damaged during the Second World War and was restored and reopened between 1949 and 2001.
Among the best-known of the 1,800 paintings in the gallery’s collection are “The Monk by the Sea” (1808-1810) by Caspar David Friedrichs, “The Iron Rolling Mill” by Adolph Menzel (1872-75) and “In the Conservatory” (1978-79) by Edouard Manet. There are also 1,500 sculptures.
Next time join Alec as he visits a gallery dedicated to the modern art of Berlin specifically, looks around the Culture Forum, yet another of Berlin’s cultural centres of excellence, and takes a guided tour of the city’s underground railway, U-Bahn.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign Parliamentary petition calling on the Government to make it easier for schools to organise European trips.