Blog

Category Archives: Art

Confused in Berlin

Train Station memorial

Berlin Gleis 17

A weekend in cold and wet Berlin has left me confused.

Can you (should you) make art out of suffering and if so what is appropriate where and who should pay?

Why do I find tourist maps offering tours of Jewish Berlin, tours of Nazi Berlin, tours of ‘fun time’ Berlin offensive … Are we doing the murdered Jews any favours by offering tours of a destroyed civilisation?

Should there ever be a time when tourists will come to Germany and not think about the holocaust that tried to wipe out the once flourishing Jewish presence there?

Well, actually, I don’t have any answers to these questions but they have all been refusing to lie low these last few days. When I looked vacantly at someone today as she asked how my trip had been I explained: I was still feeling rather churned up after my visit.

Oh Berlin is one of my favourite places, she riposted. The Berliners did so much to try and stop the Nazis you know…the big synagogue survived because a brave Berliner prevented the mob …

Stop, I said. I did not want anyone else telling me what to think. But perhaps she was right.

Were there in fact dozens of good Germans rendered powerless by fear and the need to survive who were merely forced into inaction by a tiny minority?  Some 55,000 Berlin Jews died in concentration camps, but approximately 80,000 escaped.  A visit to the small brush workshop run by Otto Weidt for blind Jewish workers moved me most of all partly because it seemed hardly to have changed. Surviving letters, yellow stars and photographs were in simple display cases the tables for the machines with which he made the brushes needed by the German army were in the places they had always been and the wooden floorboards in the secret room still so creaky that my heart lurched. I came as near as I possibly could in the prosperous 21st century to  imagining what it must have been like to hide in a tiny airless room entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers for a mouthful of food, news, clothes everything. A network verging on a hundred brave people was apparently, sometimes necessary to save one life bearing in mind all the bribes and blackmail and lying involved.

This room in a graffiti-rich, little renovated courtyard in former East Germany was an extraordinary survival with no artifice about it. But was it really: “One of many places in Berlin where non-Jews risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbours,” as one guide book stated?

Germany has for years been the most contrite of nations, admitting its guilt in numerous ways and welcoming Jews back.  Berlin today is a vibrant and growing community with thousands of Jews mostly from Russia and Israel now choosing once again to settle in Germany.

You can’t walk around this city without stumbling on a brass plate in any of the cobbled streets Stolpersteine indicating who once lived there and where they were murdered (yes, murdered no soft talking references to dying here) It is a private initiative paid for by anyone who cares, not the government – local or national. But this too has its opponents …should you be trampling on these souls, as some critics complain or since they have already been killed, what more can you do to harm them? Several of the monuments are on steps and one of the most moving for me was a cartouche of names visible on the upward tread of stairs in a once Jewish quarter indicating names and places of abode.  It is termed an installation, a term which I liked less and less…this can never be art. But alongside the steps and at the top are mirrors acting as an extra reminder. You cannot exit this particular U Bahn station without noticing something.

But by the time I came to Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish museum I was starting to feel uncomfortable. It is magnificent and clever but it is very definitely art and, what’s more, art subtly manipulating your responses. Why are the objects displayed in a cabinet with a circular glass surround?  The shape of the building is interesting as it traces a path leading to the Stair of Continuity, then up to and through the exhibition spaces of the museum, emphasizing the continuum of history. The second leads out of the building and into the Garden of Exile and Emigration, remembering those who were forced to leave Berlin. The third leads to a dead end — the Holocaust Void.

The Holocaust Void is cold and empty and unpleasant. But I left it of my free will after five minutes.

I think Berlin and those who have planned some of the memorials have on the whole done an impossible job with tact, sensitivity and feeling. I was moved by the small signs of a phone a pet or a loaf of bread placed on posts in the former Jewish quarter to remind inhabitants of the daily torments suffered by their erstwhile neighbours prior to deportation  (After the Nuremberg Laws they were allowed none of these) And surely few can fault the way German history is taught, even to the very young, actively fostering greater understanding in schools, a point movingly made in the TV interview with Judith (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit) Kerr this week to mark her 90th birthday. Her father was a leading theatre critic and Nazi opponent and her family escaped Berlin swiftly in 1933. Although her parents never fully recovered from the pain of exile she and her brother were resilient, looking on it as something of an adventure. Her book is now a set text in German schools as the film showed. It also filmed her walking along Gleis (platform) 17 of the Grunewald station. Here the memorials are devastatingly plain and simple, the message unadorned. The numbers and dates of Jewish deportees have been carved at the edge of the train tracks where unknowing Jews stood before deportations to Auschwitz, Minsk, Theresienstadt or Sachsenhausen. Fittingly this memorial has been paid for by the train company which profited from the human traffic.

Kerr stood there in 2013 pondering what fate would have unquestioningly befallen her family had they not moved out as fast as they did. All of us who have enjoyed her books owe her brave parents a huge debt.

What Brighton means to me

One of the most powerful images from the Vienna Portraits exhibition currently at the National Gallery is by Egon Schiele of himself and his pregnant wife dying of Spanish ‘flu. He was to succumb to it himself three days later, aged just 28, later described by the Nazis as a ‘degenerate’ artist. I cannot empty my mind of this picture and the thought of all that lost brilliance. Yet in an exhibition where death is continually hovering and suicide ever present,  it’s impossible to know how would he have dealt with all that was to follow after 1918?

Between 50 and 100 million people across the world died of what became known as Spanish ‘flu.  One of the most shocking aspects was the way it could sometimes claim its victims in a day and was especially virulent among the previously healthy young.  After waking up with a shivery twinge, victims might find by lunchtime that their skin had changed colour to a vivid purple and a few hours later they were dead, sometimes choking on thick scarlet jelly that suddenly clogged the lungs. The pandemic has been described as “the greatest medical holocaust in history” and may have killed more people than the Black Death killed in a century.

I have often thought of this pandemic as my own aunt, my father’s older sister, Irene, died aged 12 in 1918. My father’s family had moved to Brighton hoping this would be safer than London because of the new terror of Germany’s doodlebugs. But Brighton, being a port, was in fact more dangerous as the disease was thought to have been carried ashore by travellers. My grandfather, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who had been in England less than 20 years, never recovered from the loss of a favourite daughter and gave up on joy and God.  They were buried with my aunt in a Brighton cemetery.

Brighton can never for me be simply a seaside resort.  I have always known that my father was deeply scarred from the loss of the sister he barely knew when he was six and the consequent suffering endured by his family for whom emotions must have been ‘unexploded’ and so I relished a book which looked at the town twenty years later during World War Two.  Alison MacLeod’s  Unexploded is partly about attitudes to Jews and immigrants in Britain at the end of the thirties but it is also a deeply felt examination of repressed emotions waiting to explode as of course they do in the course of the novel. The background history is fascinating, never intrusive, but there is plenty to learn here about politics and history of art. For example Picasso’s Guernica is on show at the Whitechapel Gallery from December 1938 to mid-January 1939, the hero, Otto,  is a ‘degenerate’ artist and Virginia Woolf, whose suicide frames the book, enters to give sparsely attended lectures. I shan’t tell the story but it’s a powerful, often painful, read and Evelyn and her defective husband Geoffrey are utterly believable protagonists.

One other book I have read this week is Robert Harris’s brilliant thriller,  An Officer and a Spy. In this retelling of the Dreyfus affair virulent anti-Semitism in France is overt, barely repressed and with consequences which have shuddered down the ages. Even those of us who thought we knew this tale cannot fail to see it through fresh eyes.

 

 

April 23rd…white roses and free books

April 23rd…white roses and free books

Last Saturday I was sitting in the grounds of London’s Middle Temple. It was a sunny day and I’d arrived early to hear the formidable Madeleine Albright talk about global political changes since her time in office as the US’s first female Secretary of State. There was no one else around, except a lazy gardener pushing his broom to and fro, so I enjoyed the tepid sunshine. But then a group of tourists ambled down some steps to the pond, near my seat, all clutching long-stemmed white roses.

Ah, religious nutters, I assumed, about to lay down their roses and pray? I was about to move away. But the yellow-jacketed gardener moved towards them and suddenly addressed them with an intensity and directness that forced me to look up from my engrossing thriller and listen. Was he deranged too…someone given to clearing rubbish one minute, uttering beautiful poetry to strangers the next? He soon finished, they went on their way and I continued with my book in the sunshine wondering if I’d stumbled upon a meeting of reformed addicts. But addicts of what?

Fifteen minutes later the ‘gardener’ started picking out the litter from his black bag and, bizarrely, spreading it out on the ground, just as another group of rose clutching tourists wandered down the steps. They too got no further than the pond when they were accosted by the man, who swept for a minute or two before declaiming his love poem. They were mesmerised, as was I. When he cleared up the litter for a second time I could not resist asking him, what on earth was going on?

Ah, he said – big surprise this – he wasn’t really a gardener at all! He was an actor from the Globe Theatre taking part in a special project in honour of Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23rd and the tourists were on a ‘Sonnet Walk,’  the brainchild of director Mark Rylance.  After all, Middle Temple Hall was where,  at Candlemas 1602,  Shakespeare’s newly completed ‘Twelfth Night’ was performed for the first time. So, when the white roses were eventually laid at the gates of the Globe Theatre, perhaps it was a form of prayer, giving thanks for the survival of such literary treasures? http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/special-events/sonnet-walks

But actually today is important for another reason. It’s the day when half a million books are given away by 20,000 volunteers to people who would not otherwise read or have access to books http://www.worldbooknight.org/books/2013  Chosen authors waive their royalties, publishers their production costs and Shakespeare, I am sure, would be proud to share his birthday with such an original idea.

Travelling for Work

Travelling to work takes on new meaning when you have to make a day long journey for just an hour of work, the length of a lecture.

Saltaire

Saltaire

Last week I left home before dawn to get down to Cornwall but hit trouble as early as Reading station. Standing in the freezing, snowy cold, trains were constantly cancelled, changed or delayed because of the floods that had hit the West Country the week before.  The force of the water had dislodged several lines that ran close to rivers and so, although the tracks remained, the ballast underneath them had been washed away in many places.  New landslips were being reported as I stood there. The poor beleaguered train staff did their best and in the end advised anyone to take whatever train was on offer if it was going approximately in the right direction. I did and with a coach ride, plus diverted train, plus car arrived eventually at Fowey by about 5 pm. I quickly changed, gave my lecture on behalf of the Fowey Harbour Heritage Society and went to bed. I left at dawn the next day, happy I’d done what I’d been asked but sad I didn’t have longer to enjoy this beautiful part of the world.

This week I went in the other direction, to Saltaire, the model village just outside Bradford built by mill owner and philanthropist Titus Salt in the early 19th century to improve the lives of his workers. Saltaire is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and the vast Salt’s Mills alongside the River Aire are home to a spectacular collection of paintings by David Hockney, the almost local boy who studied at Bradford School of Art before going to London and the Royal College of Art. Read More

Visiting Germany in 2012

Daniel Liebeskind/ Felix Nussbaum house in Osnabruck

Travelling to Germany to give lectures this week, I go first to the pretty medieval town of Osnabrück. My kind hosts show me the sights, starting with the historic town hall of this so called City of Peace where in 1648 a treaty was signed ending the thirty years war. Ah, if only that had been that… The town hall,  with its impressive oil portraits of the signatories and 12th century chandeliers, is a good place to sit and ponder. Osnabrück is also the city where, as recently as 2009, the British had a garrison, the biggest in Europe outside the UK. It is partly the reason for my being invited to give a talk as British army wives decades ago decided that a good way both to cement relations between victor and vanquished and one which would give themselves a reminder of British culture was to form a group called British Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, an offshoot of the better known National Decorative and Fine Arts Societies – or Nadfas.
Just across from the old town hall, in a cobbled square that no doubt comes alive with Christmas markets, I visit the Erich Maria Remarque house. I’d always wondered about that name and what else he had written. In fact he was born in Osnabrück in 1898 as Erich Remark but later took Maria in memory of his mother and changed the K to the more interesting ‘que’ when he became famous. He was extremely handsome and the museum tells the story of Remarque’s complicated private life as well as his work – his friendship with Marlene Dietrich and marriage to Paulette Goddard – and how he fell foul of the Nazis for his damning indictment of war. When they could not reach him they killed his sister instead. After World War 2, he lived in Switzerland, worked on screen plays and many other novels, some of them bestsellers but never quite repeating the success of his early work. All Quiet on the Western Front, which examined the experience of ordinary soldiers, was rejected by numerous publishers until Ullstein took it on. Seeing the much scribbled on hand written manuscript was a reminder of the many different perspectives have created this powerful country.
“Ah yes that happened in former times,” I kept hearing, or “Those were dark days.“ Many ordinary Germans lost homes, possessions, parents and loved ones and it is true that few of the older generation in Germany have not suffered.
But the strongest and most painful reminder of quite how dark those days were came from a visit to the Daniel Liebeskind museum dedicated to that other son of Osnabruck, Felix Nussbaum. Nussbaum, born in 1904 into a prosperous and cultured family, died at Auschwitz  aged 39 in 1944. The Nussbaum Haus is dedicated to his memory and is extraordinary not least for the vast number of Nussbaum paintings that have survived and come back here, including many self- portraits. The building itself , the first Liebeskind building to be finished, shows how the architecture contributes to the experience as it is full of oblique angled walls, sloping windows and angular niches giving a strong sense of lost orientation and withering hope. The growing coldness of the materials – zinc and cement – add to the sense of impending doom for Nussbaum and yet his most powerfully assertive work was arguably created when, after hiding for months in Belgium, he knew he would not survive yet continued painting. Facing the certainty of death he created The Triumph of Death in which he tried to assert that, even when the world is in ruins, a dance of death goes on. He wanted it to be seen as an artistic response and act of liberation and self -assertion amid all the barbarity.

Image taken from WikipediaThe Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück, Germany. A museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, which houses around 160 paintings by the German-Jewish painter, Felix Nussbaum, who was killed in the Holocaust.”