Berlin is a city of tragic memory. In its post-Wall years, it has also been a city in a rush to confront that dark past with a dramatic energy.
For the traveler, enjoying Berlin’s art scene is to discover the art in public and private spaces often linked to the Third Reich or the Cold War.
In a visit of just a few days, and with a little planning, you can enjoy world-class contemporary installations in a converted Nazi bunker, walk the heart of a pre-war Jewish neighborhood now lined with the most prominent small contemporary galleries, visit a palatial home housing a noted Picasso collection given to the city by a Jew who had fled the Nazis, and see the city’s two dramatic architectural attempts to get the collective mind around the Holocaust through public art.
The converted Nazi air raid bunker holds the Boros Collection, right in the center of Berlin. It requires an online reservation for the Thursday-to-Sunday small-group English or German tours. Once an East German prison, then an S&M fetish nightclub, the bunker was bought in 2012 by the Boros family to house just part of a mammoth personal collection of avant garde contemporary sculpture and spatial installations in 80 cell-like cement rooms. There are works by 23 internationally prominent artists that include Damian Hirst and Ai Weiwei. There’s a different experience each time you round a corner from one cell to another — suddenly you might be at nose level with a maze of black inner tubes knotted in bunches and hanging from the low ceiling, in a work titled Clouds of Berlin. Or enter another cell where the installation is a standing popcorn machine that is motion-activated and has been filling the room with popped corn since 2012.
Not far away is the Oranienburger Strasse – Auguststrasse area, once a heart of Jewish life from the late 19th century up till the Nazi era. Just look for the gilded dome of New Synagogue, which was rebuilt after Allied bombing. Nearby streets are lined with prominent private galleries, many extremely cutting-edge (some with works some visitors might call pornographic). A visit to the neighborhood can be capped by dinner at one of Berlin’s hottest restaurants, Pauly Saal, housed in a former Jewish girls’ school.
On the opposite end of the city, and in many ways at the opposite end of the modern art spectrum, is the Berggruen museum. In the far Western sector, across a wide avenue from the 17th-century summer Charlottenburg royal palace, is an elegant mansion housing early 20th-century masterpieces owned by the late art collector and dealer Heinz Berggruen, a Jew who fled to America in 1936 and then donated his enormous collection of Picassos to his beloved native city. The Picassos date from the artist’s student days up to 1972. The Berggruen collection also includes other standout paintings and sculptures of the period, including works by Klee, Matisse and Giacometti.
Berlin’s most important public attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust is architect Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also called the Field of Stelae (headstones). Berlin debated for decades how and where to erect a public memorial and finally, on this central site very near the Brandenburg Gate, just north of where the Reich Chancellery stood and the underground bunker where Hitler died, this vast work of public art officially opened in 2005. It confronts the visitor as Eisenman said he intended. Initial impressions of the many rows of sharp-edged large blocks of dark grey concrete change as you move from looking at it from outside to venturing into the narrow stone paths among the rows. You realize the unevenness of the ground, the almost threatening, claustrophobic feeling standing among the stones of many different heights and aligned in sharp rows on paths that gradually slope on several planes. It looks from afar something like a field of grey dominoes, but in its midst, it seems like chaotic arrangements of tombstones.
A mile to the south, in the former West Berlin, is American architect Daniel Liebskind’s enormous zinc-clad Jewish Museum. It is famous for its angular wings that appear like a shining, deconstructed Star of David, and its uneven floors and corners, all meant to express the chaos of the Holocaust. One of the most famous aspects is the five voids Liebskind created inside to express the vacuum left by the absence of Jewish life. He explained that no usual museum exhibit could portray humanity reduced to ashes, so the voids were his artistic answer. One of them, at the intersection of wings, called the Memory Void, is a trapezoid 66 feet high with one narrow shaft of light; its angular floor is covered by thousands of metal discs with eyes and mouths cut into them, a work of art titled Fallen Leaves.
And just around the corner from the Jewish Museum is the Berlinische Gallerie, devoted to works by Berliners since the 19th century. It includes paintings by such noted early 20th-century Berlin artists as Max Liebermann and George Grosz, and is also known for its contemporary collection of works since the Wall came down. You can find the museum by keeping your eyes peeled for the two-story-high pickle sculpture on the curb.
Nancy Nathan, Special for USA TODAY