Female Impersonators In Mirrors -Diane Arbus
I am officially an art tourist. I’m two days in to my latest trip to Berlin, and all I’ve really done is visit art galleries. So far it’s been much more pleasurable than visiting London’s obscenely busy galleries, shuffling around the special exhibitions like cattle making its way into an abattoir. In the Berlin galleries I’ve visited so far, I’ve found it possible to have entire rooms of art work completely to myself, it’s as if I’d died and gone to heaven.
Martin Gropius Bau: Diane Arbus Exhibition
The gallery is a short walk away from Potsdamer Platz, situated right next door to the Topography of Terror. It’s a rather pretty building, designed in the neo-renaissance style with ornate staircases and lots of golden décor.
I’ve never been to an exhibition before which is exclusively the work of a photographer, but what I already knew of Arbus’ work had me intrigued, and I was not disappointed. In truth I wasn’t expecting it to be as big as it actually was, every time I thought I must be in the last room I was pleasantly surprised to find it carried on.
The pictures are a wonderful collection of eccentrics and freaks across America, especially New York. Arbus managed to capture the lives of outsiders, tattooed men, a fat lady, nudists and female impersonators with genuine fondness. The faces that stare at you from the shadowy prints are endearing, beautiful and oddly familiar. Some of the most incredible shots are of the work she did with mentally handicapped patients. Most of these shots are untitled, but they appear to be Down’s Syndrome patients, dressed up in Halloween masks or playing in the grounds of the care home. They’re incredibly moving, honest and show how ‘normal’ the day to day life of the ‘handicapped’ can be. There’s a group shot of women dressed up for Halloween, if you look to the right of the picture, one of the ladies has her face painted like a cat. The end of her nose is painted into a black triangle, and thick whiskers are etched across her cheeks. Her smile is priceless, a cheeky ear to ear grin that would cheer anyone’s grey day.
Diane Arbus must have instilled a lot of confidence in the people she met. She took pictures of people exposing them at their most vulnerable, there’s something admirable in that. What she’s left us with as a result is a catalogue of a fringe society, the kind we find in books or forgotten art house films. She gave us the first glimpse of the kind of outsiders that would eventually find refuge in Warhol’s factory. I want to know every single one of the people in those pictures, and thanks to Diane Arbus, in some small way I actually feel like I do.
If you know me you will have come to learn that my love of Berlin can reach profoundly nerdy levels of irrelevant detail, so it’s a bit of wrench to admit that there’s a side of the city which upsets me. That side is the former West Berlin, it’s okay in places, generally the places where it meets the East, but otherwise it’s a strangely blank and uninspiring place. However, I do like German Expressionist art a great deal so, I braved the banality of West Berlin to visit the Brücke Museum. I took a bus, which is a form of transport I’ve never used before in Berlin, it went well and I got there thanks to the 115 service.
My knowledge of the Brücke Museum was that it contained German Expressionism, and that David Bowie visited it a lot when he lived in Schöneburg. The latter had nothing to do with me visiting it today. Alright, I did kind of want to see some of the paintings that seem to have inspired some of David’s own art work, especially in the 70s, but that genuinely was a sort of side curiosity for me.
The Museum is down a side street in a part of the city which appears to be ridiculously affluent. It was actually like I’d stepped into a time machine and gone back to the 70s. The place is full of those sort of stylized white suburban houses you see in Sci-Fi films, the sort where nothing good happens to any of the characters. I felt a little uncomfortable.
When I got to the Museum I paid, I walked around and it was tiny and full of ‘retired’ people. The art work was interesting but felt like a sampler, like there should be a door that leads you to a huge room that shows you everything. It’s a place of great artwork, but there’s so little on show that you actually feel a bit cheated. Kirchner is worth seeing, the rather large exhibition of artist’s postcards takes up far too much space, and isn’t nearly as interesting as it would like to be.
I was curious about the people there though, I’ve never been to a gallery anywhere that seems to be visited almost exclusively by the retired generation. Nothing wrong with it, it just seemed odd that it should be that way.
I wasn’t there that long, in fact I probably travelled longer to get there. I wanted to leave West Berlin, with its long, wide, non-descript, tree lined streets and return to the East, to the part of the city that’s poorer, dirtier and more alive.
I got back to Köchstraße, the station for Checkpoint Charlie, from there I made my way to the Berlinische Galerie. The gallery is just around the corner from the Jewish Museum, I memorised the route last time I was here and could possibly get there in my sleep. I got stopped for directions, which I gave and felt oddly quite helpful.
‘No Positions Available’
The Berlinische is a decent size gallery, it has a permanent exhibition of modern Berlin art (1880 – 1980), and changing (contemporary) exhibitions. One of these current exhibits carries the theme of Montage art, really interesting, especially if you’re a fan of Dada. But I was really there to see the permanent exhibition.
I love this gallery so much, it’s full of the kind of art work that I find inspiring and breathtaking. The interwar years, with its avant-garde, the Dadaists and Expressionists is an absolute dream. Otto Dix, Hanah Höch, Beckmann, Lieberman, Puni, if I could collect art it would be this wonderful display of utter originality. I was there for around four hours, and I walked around the earlier stuff twice because it’s so damn good.
Art is personal, I’m not a fan of the abstract, I can love or leave cubism and surrealism occasionally bores. I don’t expect people to be as excited as I was by the Berlinische collection, but it’s really worth seeing. It reflects Berlin life, I could see Brecht in some of these paintings, war, poverty, revolution, fear and defiance. It shows the spirit of this city and if you’re in anyway intrigued by that, this collection will inspire.