It was 25 years since Alec had been coached through Checkpoint Bravo Drewitz to visit the Brandenburg regional capital and he was keen to see how it had changed since its Soviet occupiers had left. The town, he found, was being gradually restored but still more impressive was the cultural revival that appeared to be taking place.
Once again, he was unable to enter Frederick the Great’s Sans Souci Palace, but the reason this time was building work. No longer being chivvied along by his Communist tour guide, however, he was able to take his time strolling round the grounds and was even more impressed than he remembered by the greenhouses and nurseries, the statues and obelisks, the Turkish Mosque, The Chinese House, and the Temple of Friendship.
Back in the town itself, now with a busy high street, cultural life was also thriving. Alec picked up a leaflet detailing no fewer than 15 museums and galleries listing exhibitions most of which he had missed. But he was just in time for an exhibition of Brandenburg art from the Middle Ages in the House of Brandenburgish-Prussian History.
Alec also noticed that the music scene was doing well, with regular concerts of classical, film and other music at the Church of St Nicholas and other venues, with Johann Sebastian Bach as a favourite.
Alec was to travel to Potsdam several more times in the future and was always interested to see how its restoration and redevelopment were progressing. By the start of the second decade of the 21st century the town was starting to be carefully restored and redeveloped and was making the most of its cultural assets, as Alec found that German cities and towns almost always do.
The restoration of the town and its attractions was a slow business, not least at the Sans Souci Palace. During all the years that Alec visited he was never able to gain access to the palace because of the work going on. But he kept going back, as the grounds on their own were worth the journey.
Alec’s next port of call was Hamburg, where it was snowing when he stepped off the train. He had gone particularly to see the city’s new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, then under construction by the Elbe estuary where it starts its lengthy journey to the North Sea. Started in 2007, the hall is testament to the fact that the British are not the only ones whose major projects get out of control. It was eventually completed six years late and more than 600m euros over budget. The still largely undeveloped waterfront looked inhospitable in the snow when Alec visited, though if Gateshead, with the Sage (now the Glasshouse), and Newcastle can make their quaysides attractive venues Alec did not doubt that Hamburg would be able to as well.
Away from the waterfront, Alec admired Hamburg’s magnificent city hall (Rathaus), dating from the late 19th century. As Hamburg has been a free state since the times of the medieval Hanseatic trading league and is now a city-region of the German federation (like Berlin and Bremen), its city hall is home to politicians with significant powers of self-government.
Before leaving Hamburg, Alec decided to take a walk along the Reeperbahn, where the Beatles had famously performed in their early days. It wasn’t what he expected: not a narrow city centre street as in London’s Soho, but quite a broad suburban carriageway in the night-life district of St Pauli. As long as a century ago the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Thomas Mann’s fictional hero in The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp, mentions in passing having visited a brothel in St Pauli with fellow students.
On a more savoury note, Alec noted that a local concert hall was staging a performance of the same works by the same string quartet as he had seen recently in Gateshead.
Richter and Mies
Safely back in Berlin, Alec just had time had time to take in an exhibition at the Martin Gropius Building of art and historic documents commemorating 1,000 years of often troubled relations between Germany and Poland. Starting with St Adalbert and Princess Richeza from Cologne who married Miezko II, who became King of Poland in 1025. Plenty of material here that has never penetrated the consciousness of most British classrooms, Alec thought.
He also had the chance to visit another exhibition that he had two reasons for wanting to see: the show itself and the gallery where it was being exhibited.
The show was a retrospective of the works of Gerhard Richter, one of Germany’ most famous artists, who was celebrating his 80th birthday. Richter was born in Dresden, a city that produced many 20th century artists, as we will see later in this series. In 1959 he visited the international art fair Documenta II in Kassel and later settled in West Germany. He was influenced by abstract works by the American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and the Argentine-Italian Lucio Fontana (1899-1968). He moved to West Germany just before the construction of the Berlin Wall.
The exhibition was entitled “Panorama,” and according to its publicity: “The panorama [of around 130 paintings and five sculptures] that opens itself up to you presents figurative paintings alongside abstract experiments in colour, landscapes that echo old masters, sea pictures and portraits alongside town views which, broken down into a series of gestures, are now hardly recognisable as such.”
The gallery where Richter’s work was being shown was Berlin’s New National Gallery, which had co-operated on it with the Tate in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The New National Gallery is a landmark of modern architecture near Berlin’s Culture Forum and Potsdamerplatz and enjoys the distinction of being the work of two celebrated architects: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and David Chipperfield.
It was originally the work of Mies, a German architect who was director of the Bauhaus architecture school before emigrating to the United States in 1933 under Nazi pressure (see Part 7). In 1962 he was commissioned by the Berlin Senate to design a gallery to house the city’s collection of 20th century art – the only building he erected in Germany after the Second World War. It opened in 1968 and underwent a large-scale restoration by the English architect David Chipperfield between 2015 and 2021.
The publicity material for the Richter retrospective drew a connection between the artist’s work and Mies’s gallery in which the exhibition was held: “The idea of the picture as a surface, as a window, as a view onto a scene has led to Richter’s exploration of mirrors and panes of glass. Together with his deceivingly illusionistic paintings of curtains and clouds on show here, they strike up a dialogue with the architecture around them. Just to look at Mies van der Rohe’s building is to see through it.”
Before leaving Berlin, Alec casually picked up an out-of-date magazine on the city’s musical life for November 2011, with a cover picture of the cellist Mischa Maisky – whom he had once seen perform at the South Bank Centre in London. He didn’t pay any attention at the time, but looking at the magazine again later he realised that it also featured a performer well known to North East concert goers: Lars Vogt.
Vogt is featured commenting on CDs by fellow pianists without knowing their identities. After a successful career as an international pianist, he went on to become music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia (RNS) in 2015, a post he held until 2020. He continued to work with the RNS as well as being music director of the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris. Sadly, he died in 2022, just short of his 52nd birthday. Performances of his of works by Beethoven, Brahms and Paul Dessau with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra can still be watched on the Orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall by those with a subscription.
Join Alec again next time as he visits two cities closely associated with the beginning and end of the Nazi regime but contain so much rich historic culture as well.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign the Parliamentary petition calling on the Government to make it easier for schools to organise European trips.