Berlin, Part II: Getting Drunk on Art

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In the last few years, I've had the good fortune to visit a number of great cities famous for their art and culture -- from Paris and London to Beijing and Mexico City -- but the eight days I recently spent in Berlin left an especially indelible impression on me. To put it simply: I never worked so hard and, definitely, I don't remember ever having so much fun.

You know I'm a sucker for museums, but 175 museums in the city of Berlin was more than even this 'art-aholic' could handle. Not all of them are devoted to art, but still, the number is overwhelming. The most famous and glamorous are on the so-called 'museum island,' in the eastern part of Berlin, and I had the time of my life rejoicing in the richness of their world-class collections. But here, I want to mention some of the less famous, slightly off-the-beaten-path museums.

at081021f.jpg It seems that even my affable guide, provided by the Goethe Institute -- one of the organizers of my trip -- was caught by surprise when we stumbled upon a large, colorful poster with an image by Emil Nolde (1867-1956) marking the entrance to a recently opened museum devoted exclusively to the art of this celebrated German Expressionist painter. It's all about intense color and emotional tension; small works exuding heat not unlike that of a smoldering heap of coals in a fireplace. Just a glimpse of one of his images on the banner of the Art Talk website might give you a shiver.

at081021d.jpg On the way to Museum Island, we saw the imposing 18th century facade of the German Historical Museum. I thought we should pass on that, but as we continued to walk and rounded the corner, I literally was floored by the vision of the glimmering glass tower of the museum expansion designed by American architect I.M. Pei. He is 90-plus years old, but considering the joyous optimism that this spiral construction exudes, he should be referred to as 90-years young.

at081021c.jpg Few buildings in the whole world can deliver the painful message of the incalculable tragedy of Jewish history as does Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin. The aggressive, violent geometry of its metal-clad, silvery building makes you think of a broken sword and open wounds still unhealed.

at081021e.jpg Since World War II, Germans have done quite a lot to acknowledge their guilt and to atone for their sins. Two new museums in Berlin speak volumes about the human ability to forgive: the Berggruen Museum and the Helmut Newton Foundation. As Jews, Both Heinz Berggruen and Helmut Newton were forced to flee Germany; one became an extremely successful art dealer -- the other became one of the most celebrated photographers. At the end of their long lives, both chose to return to Germany and magnanimously bestowed on the country of their birth their impressive art collections.

at081021a.jpg It's not easy to gain access to two well-known private collections of contemporary art in Berlin, but it's worth the effort, whatever it takes. The Hoffman and Boros Collections are open on weekends and only by appointment. Erika Hoffman and her late husband began collecting art in the 1960s, and a number of topnotch works of art not just decorate, but dominate her house.

at081021b.jpg The Boros Collection of cutting-edge contemporary art occupies a former Nazi bunker, its brutal architecture only slightly altered to accommodate the display of art. Instead of being an impediment, the dark shadow of the past provides a dramatic backdrop for hundreds of ambitious art installations in its 80 galleries, their walls still bearing traces of this building's history: as a bunker, Red Army prison, fruit and vegetable storage, and later, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall -- in rapid succession -- a dance, a music, a sex club. A few years ago it was turned into a private museum. The march of history indeed.

Banner image: (L) detail of Emil Nolde's Maedchen mit blonden haaren, 1910 (Nolde Museum, Berlin Extension); (R) detail of Pablo Picasso's Sitzender Harlekin, 1905 (25" x 18", Grano-Lithograph, Nationalgalerie, Museum Berggruen)