Berlin is not beautiful like the places I visited in Italy, but it is very interesting and in many ways reflects the history of the 20th Century – World War I, the creativity of the 20’s, depression, World War II, the Cold War and finally the end of the Cold War.
I spent a week in Berlin, there to visit family more than anything else, but I set out to do a number of things, too. One of those was to visit the Helmut Newton Stiftung (Foundation), a museum dedicated to Newton’s photography. As usual with Newton, the photographs were rather provocative. The ground floor exhibit was called Private Proverty (the title of one of his books), but this exhibit was a display of things that Newton owned and used, including his cameras, passports and the document changing his name from Helmut Neustaedter to Helmut Newton. Perhaps the most impressive items, though, were some of the high heeled shoes he used in his photos. Those stilettos are killers!
Upstairs was an exhibit devoted to his huge book Sumo on the tenth anniversary of its publication. For those interested, Taschen is publishing a smaller and more manageable (though still large) copy of the book. Amazon lists the publication date as September, but the bookstore there already had copies.
One thing I certainly didn’t expect to see were some photos of models who I have actually photographed myself, but that’s just what I saw. The guest exhibitors were three photographers who studied photography in Pasadena and later became Newton’s assistants. One of them, George Holz, was represented by a lot of nude photos he made, including two that he made at (or around the time of) a workshop I attended with him in upstate New York seven years ago.
I also went over to the Camera Work gallery, a gallery mostly dedicated to fashion photography. The exhibit on view was of photos – mostly fashion and nudes – by the Italian photographer Paolo Roversi.
In looking through a magazine of events and places to visit in Berlin, I came across a listing for the Aktgalerie, a gallery specializing in artistic nude photography. I thought I’d pay a visit to see what was on display, but as I had one business card left with me (and it had on it one of my nude images), I also thought I’d give the card to the gallery owner/manager to see if I might develop some interest in their showing some of my work.
The gallery is located in the Friedrichshain section of Berlin – an area I had never been to before on any of my many visits to the city – so I looked over the train map and found my way there. It was a bit past 1 p.m. on a Friday, and to my disappointment the gallery was closed. I looked up its listing in the magazine and also found the gallery’s website, and both said that it’s open from 4 to 8 p.m. on Friday.
I didn’t have the chance to go back on Saturday, but I saw that it would be open on Sunday from 2 to 6. So, I decided to try again. The first thing I did was to pay a visit to the Reichstag – the old Parliament building, recently renovated and with a new transparent dome designed by the British architect, Sir Norman Foster. I had to wait on line a long time to get in, and I didn’t get out until around 2:30. I had something to do that evening and couldn’t stay out too late, so I quickly headed off to the gallery. I got there a little after 4:00 – well within open hours – but guess what? It was closed again!!! So, I never got in and never got to give them my business card. I just wonder when it really is open.
Not to be shut out totally, I decided to go next to another gallery that the magazine had listed as also being open on Sunday from 2 to 6. The exhibit was of portraits and nudes made by a German photographer in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Well, when I got there around 5, guess what? It was closed, too! The hours posted on the door listed Saturday from 2 to 6, but nothing about Sunday. I could see some of the photos inside through the large glass windows, but ultimately, those last few hours on Sunday afternoon were a complete waste of time.
One of the train stations in Berlin I went through a few times was Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse. I can still remember the first time I went through this station. It was in 1985, and it was the point I used to cross between West Berlin and Communist East Berlin. That was on my second visit to Berlin. The first was two and a half years earlier, and I remember crossing over between East and West on December 23, 1982, via Checkpoint Charlie.
As I normally do on a visit to Berlin, I visited the area of Checkpoint Charlie. Now it’s mostly populated by tourists. The guardhouse where Allied servicemen would have to check in before crossing to the East is back there, after having been removed for several years. Two people dressed in military uniforms were standing in front, each asking one Euro to have their photos taken. (I passed.)
The most legitimate item left from the old days is the sign that warned you that you were about to cross over to go behind the Iron Curtain. Ever since I crossed over on that winter’s day in 1982, those words have been burnt into my memory: Sie Verlassen Den Amerikanischen Sektor. Vous Sortez Du Secteur Americain. You Are Leaving The American Sector.
It meant something back in 1982 and 1985. Let me tell you this, what I have told to first time visitors to Checkpoint Charlie who were never there before the Berlin Wall came down: standing there today, one cannot possibly imagine what it was like in the old days to cross between West and East. If I ever took for granted the freedom that people in the West have, I didn’t after that. Crossing over to the Communist side was like diving underwater, holding one’s breath as long as one could before re-surfacing in the West and being able to breathe again. The overcast, wintry weather on that December day in 1982 certainly added to the gloomy atmosphere.
Still, it was instructive of how differently people lived over there, going to a supermarket, for instance. There was one bookstore by Alexanderplatz (which I think is still there) that had in its window display books about Lenin, Marx, Fidel Castro and East German president Erich Honegger. The travel section had books about Moscow, Leningrad, Budapest and Bucharest. (I guess London and Paris weren’t approved destinations.)
Still, it wasn’t all gloomy. I attended my very first opera on that December day. We saw Der Barbier von Seville – Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” – sung in German at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. My sister and I had good orchestra seats, fairly close up, and the tickets were cheap. It was also quite a spectacle: the beautiful ornate old theater, the women dressed in evening gowns, the men in tuxedos and military uniforms – and among them all, me wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, and my sister wearing jeans and a sweater.
Back to the present, I went with my sister and my niece to see Mozart’s Die Zauberfloete (“The Magic Flute”) at that very same theater in east Berlin. It was my first time back there since that day in 1982 as well as my first time to see that particular work. The theater is still as ornate as I remember, but this time we were sitting in the top row of the top section. As the theater is still a fairly small one, we still had a good view.
I also went by myself the following two nights to see Carmen and Turandot at the newer Deutsche Oper in west Berlin. I had actually planned my trip to be in Berlin to see my favorite singer, Angela Gheorghiu, sing the title role in Tosca at the Deutsche Oper, but I had received an e-mail informing me that she had cancelled. That was a disappointment, so I got a ticket for Turandot instead.
Both were good, though I had some problems with the moderninstic staging of Turandot, which is set in ancient China. Carmen was given a traditional staging, and afterwards I went to the stage door exit to meet the evening’s leading lady, an American named Kate Aldrich. I had met her in April when she sang at a concert here in New York, and when I told her I’d be seeing her in Berlin, she asked me to come round later to say hello. This I did, but sadly I never got to see her. (Apparently she left via a different exit.)
On the other hand, I did meet another American singer – the beautiful Nicole Cabell, who was the evening’s Micaela, the good girl in the story. She told me that she’ll be singing the part of Musetta at the Met next February in La Boheme. I told her that I was once in Boheme as an extra – one of the French soldiers who march down at the end of Act II – and when I mentioned that I was thinking of trying to be an extra again, she said to me,”Oh, come on. Do it! We could use more people.” (I will consider it.)
I also went one day to the Pergamom Museum. This is one of the world’s great treasure houses of antiquity, housing the great altar from Pergamom in Asia Minor, the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, the entry gate to the market at Miletus and so on. Perhaps next time I’ll get to see the famous portrait bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, as well.