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Bombings, occupations, and years of social and political upheaval: it seems Berlin has seen it all. But through all the tragedy and turmoil, art springs eternal. Berlin has emerged as a cultural epicenter, drawing creative types from across the globe with its raw, urban energy–in many ways similar to the artistic movements in New York and London in the 80’s and 90’s.
Unlike many other European capitals which have attempted to gloss over the more unpleasant events of their past, Berlin retains its scars. The bullet holes are still evident on prominent historic buildings, bombed-out factories and spy towers are re-purposed as artist colonies, and even the most vulgar graffiti has in many ways become an integral part of the artistic fabric of the city.
Caught in a state of limbo, somewhere between the inevitable onslaught of commercialism and the urban poverty which has dominated it for so long, Berlin is truly one of the most unique art centers in the world. Discover it for yourself with my 7 most essential art experiences in Berlin.
Browsing Galleries on Auguststrasse
The debate over the “gentrification” of the former Jewish district has long been a heated topic among Berliners–in particular, the wealthy art collectors and galleries who have taken over the once dilapidated area. Political views aside, the string of galleries and museums along Auguststrasse house what are inarguably some of the most impressive collections in the city– a must-see for any contemporary art enthusiast. Stand outs include KW (Kunstwerke), a large art space which is housed in a former margarine factory and is known for cutting edge exhibitions from international rising stars in the art world, the Digital Art Museum, and Museum the Kennedys which focuses on the lives of the American political family who had such an influence here in Berlin. But the real treasures lie in the private collectors’ houses like the nearby Sammlung Boros Collection, a private art collection housed in an abandoned WWII bunker (public viewing requires advance registration), and famous collector Thomas Olbricht’s me Collector’s room.
A Stroll Along the East Side Gallery
After reunification and the fall of the Soviet Union, the largest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall that had been left standing was reclaimed by an artist collective and turned into the largest open-air gallery in the world. This ominous barrier which once kept thousands of Berliners prisoner in the Soviet-controlled East now stands as an international platform for artistic expression with painted murals from dozens of widely recognized artists. The colorful paintings depict images dealing primarily with the idea of social injustice and political oppression. Take some time to contemplate your own perception of freedom as you walk past the iconic images like the famous kiss between Socialists Honecker and Breschnew and an image of an East German Trabant (a poor-quality automobile) breaking through the wall.
Exploring Art History on Museum Island
A registered UNESCO world heritage site, the northern end of a small island in the river Spree that is known as Museum Insel (“Insel” means island in German) is home to the most iconic art history museums in Berlin. From the elegant Bode Museum, with its giant baroque dome, to the Alte Nationalgalerie, home of the “most beautiful woman on earth” (the bust of the Egyptian queen Nefrititi), there is something to be discovered for every art lover or history buff. Spend the day wandering through the historical reconstructions like the Ishtar Gate of Babylon inside the Pergamon Museum, then take some time to relax on the grassy lawn while gazing up at the breathtaking city cathedral, the Berliner Dom.
A Tour of Kreuzberg’s Street Art
What was once the biggest slum in the city, the East Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg is now a cultural epicenter. “X-Berg” as it is colloquially called, is virtually riddled with squatter art communities, collectives, and galleries run by young creatives, but probably the most unique feature of the area is the abundance of large-scale street art murals. Go to the Skalitzer’s Ubahn stop and take a walk down the Spree to see the city’s two largest street paintings by famous Italian street artist, Blu. The first mural, “Take off that Mask,” shows two figures representing East and West Berlin removing each other’s hoods (an allegory for cultural reconciliation) and a business man wearing a set of chains (referring to gentrification) “Shackled by Time.”
Hop back on the subway and go two more stops down to Görlitzer Bahnhof, and you will run into two other iconic images–the floating Cosmonaut and a morbid wildlife mural by Belgian painter ROA. If you really want an in-depth explanation of all of the graffiti in the area, there are several companies who offer street art walking tours.
An Adventure Through Grünewald Forest
Take a break from the daily grind of the city center and catch the train out west to the lush, forested Grünewald district. Anyone with an interest in architecture will love wandering past the classic colonial “mansion” style buildings around the Hundekehlsee or a tour through the beautiful Jagdschloss (a historic hunting lodge). There is also Die Brücke Museum which houses the world’s largest collection of paintings from the famous early 20th century German expressionist movement of the same name.
However, for a truly unique adventure, you have to go to Teufelsberg, an abandoned Cold War spy complex built on the rubble of a Nazi military training school. The giant white domes once used by the Allies to spy on the Soviets lay bare and tattered and the entire complex has been taken over by graffiti and street art. Trespassing here is technically illegal but still does not deter people from breaking in to explore the site–although, to avoid angry security guards, it is best to stick with one of the official tours.
Discovering the Photography of the West
The Zoologischer Garten area is arguably one of the most commercialized, touristy spots in the city, but back in the 80’s, this region of West Berlin around Kurfürstendamm “Ku’Damm” was a hub for poets, artists, and even wayward rockstars like David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Although the alternative subculture of the district has mostly vanished, nestled in between the upscale restaurants and department stores are some of the best photography venues in town.
Near the Southwestern tip of the Tiergarten is the Museum für Photographie which houses an exhibition hall dedicated to the life and work of Helmut Newton, a famous fashion photographer known for his erotic nudes. Take a short walk down the road to Savignyplatz and you will find yourself by Camera Work–a photography gallery inspired by the legendary Alfred Stieglitz which boasts a string of big name exhibitors — everyone from from Diane Arbus to Peter Beard. Another heavyweight on the scene, the newly relocated C/O Berlin, which hosts traveling exhibitions from legendary photographers like Annie Leibowitz and James Natchaway, resides in the Amerika Haus on Hardenbergstrasse and is definitely worth a visit, especially during opening night parties.
A Journey Through Potsdamer Platz
The area around the busy cosmopolitan center, Potsdamer Platz is ripe with innovative art museums and cultural institutions, particularly in the architectural complex known as the Kulturforum. Dubbed “Berlin’s Culture Plaza,” the Kulturforum is home to the Kunstbibliothek (Arts Library), the Museum of Applied Arts, and the Museum of Prints and Drawings. However, the most popular museums are the Gemäldegalerie (a collection of classical European portraiture between the 13th and 18th century with works from masters like Renoir and Manet) and the more contemporary Neue Nationalgalerie–a stunning glass-walled museum of modern art designed by legendary architect Mies van der Rohe.
If you can make it through the Kulturforum without doing your head in from the sheer intake of visual stimulation, take a trip just down the road to the historic exhibition hall, Martin Gropius Bau, a beautifully restored renaissance-style building the hosts a range of different traveling exhibitions: classical works like Le Corbusier but also a slew of contemporary artists such as Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol.
Today’s feature was brought to you by one of our sponsors, Splendia Hotels. If you’re visiting Berlin and enjoying these experiences, you’ll want to check out their collection of luxury character hotels throughout Berlin – the perfect nightcap to your Berlin experience.
Photo Credits: Author except 1st and 6th photos, Andi Braun and Chris Phillips.