Gimme a Berlin Art Injection!


Berlin is a city where art lives and breathes.

I went there recently for a dose of art and culture. My little Mediterranean island is piled with history, many stones deep. And beauty is present too, but art is scarce. And I need art to remind me of what my work could be.

I was searching for a serious injection of creative inspiration. And so I began with the area I understand least: modern art.

My tired city feet led me to the Hamburger Bahnhof. Once a grungy railway station, it’s now home to Berlin’s main contemporary art museum.

While I don’t claim to understand all this stuff, I was challenged and inspired by Body Pressure — an exhibit of contemporary sculpture representing the human figure. From the twisted and surreal to an old lady so lifelike you’d swear she was a visitor, these fragmented images expand sculpture to interactive and even performative dimensions.

One of my favourites was a reclining woman made of wax. Inside were several lit candles, burning and melting the figure, changing its shape and spreading it across the floor in a swirl of colour. Gradually. Month by month. A drip at a time. Just as our lives spread out and melt into the world around us.

While we couldn’t take any photos in the Body Pressure exhibit, we were able to capture a few others from the permanent collection:

Exploring the Wall Works exhibit at Hamburger Bahnhof
Exploring the Wall Works exhibit at Hamburger Bahnhof
Sneaking a shot of Body Pressure from above...
Sneaking a shot of Body Pressure from above…
It's scandalous! But I can't look away...
It’s scandalous! But I can’t look away…
Getting wow-ed by Andy Warhol's Mao...
Getting wow-ed by Andy Warhol’s Mao…

Museums like this are important. But the real pulse of Berlin is found in the many small galleries you’ll stumble across throughout the centre of the city.

In the neighbourhood around the corner from our rented apartment, we stopped for coffee and pie at the the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, where a group of young art enthusiasts was hosting an exhibit of Christoph Schlingensief’s work.

I was amazed by the massive chaotic room-sized installations. The noise and the flashing images. The symbols and the grotesque. But it was far too political for me, and I didn’t understand very much of it. I don’t connect with political art.

Scratching my head at an exhibit of Christoph Schlingensief's work at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art...
Scratching my head at an exhibit of Christoph Schlingensief’s work at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art…

Just down the street we passed a small single-room gallery showing work from the photographer Barbara Klemm. Images of ordinary people living ordinary lives, taken at a distance. The sort of distance I often feel.

... a small single-room gallery showing the work of Barbara Klemm...
… a small single-room gallery showing the work of Barbara Klemm…

We even found a gallery in a tiny apartment flat, the only identifying sign being a little paper name tag next to the door buzzer. Bettina Hutschek was holding an exhibit here. And I liked this one the best.

The surrealist worlds she creates in her short films splice a new reality onto existing scenes. They depict a world running parallel to our own in many ways, just one short reality-jump to the side. But one that has always been here. Images and emotions float through my subconscious as the artist’s hypnotic narrative weaves its mesmerizing way across the film. And I understand something that I didn’t understand before.

I think Hutshek said it best when she wrote, “…sometimes you have to tell a fictitious story to get closer to the truth…

I leave the little two room gallery deep in thought. Feeling settled somehow. Comfortable in my own skin. And feeling the pulse of a similar murmuring narrative running through the cold evening streets of Berlin that I’m now walking through.

I’m glimpsing things just beyond my peripheral vision. And sometimes I can’t quite put my finger on them…

We do our best to keep what is outside, out. And what is inside, in. But nothing I’m seeing is identical to itself anymore.

This is the kind of art — and music — I like best.

What’s that…? You’re not impressed? Do you think modern art is a bunch of nonsense? “Gimme the good old days when painters painted people! And naked ladies! BAH!

Don’t worry, I’ve got that too…

If the 19th century is more your thing, you can pop down to Museum Island and spend a little time in the Alte Nationalgalerie. They’ve got some beautiful Neoclassical sculpture on the ground floor. And Romanticism, Impressionism and Symbolism are well represented.

Here are a few of my favourite pieces — and if you like this stuff, please click over to this website, where you can view a large portion of the Alte Nationalgalerie’s collection in much better images than my pathetic efforts on a phone’s camera will allow.

"Seated Victoria, Throwing a Wreath"
“Seated Victoria, Throwing a Wreath”

This marble statue of the winged goddess of victory throwing a laurel wreath feels like it was frozen in that moment between intention and action. Her robe slides down, leaving a shoulder bare… Her clothing gathers and folds as she flexes her legs… And look at those wings, so delicate and thin! It’s difficult to believe this is made of cold stone.

"The Dance of the Muses on Mount Helicon"
“The Dance of the Muses on Mount Helicon”

This incredible marble relief, inspired by Hesiod’s Theogony, shows us the dance of the Muses on Mount Helicon — a site associated with their worship.

The Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Menemosyne (“memory”). And they personified inspiration in literature, science and the arts. In their sacred dancing-ground near the summit of Helicon, “their pounding feet awaken desire”…

Perhaps that’s why I was so drawn to this sculpture. Inspiration is exactly what I need.

When it came to paintings, my favourites were these works by the 19th century German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich:

Caspar David Friedrich's "Woman at a Window" on the left and "Solitary Tree" on the right
Caspar David Friedrich’s “Woman at a Window” on the left and “Solitary Tree” on the right

“Woman at a Window” seems to capture that dreamy sense of melancholy I felt as a child, staring out my bedroom window at the summer and the trees, dreaming of what I would become one day, and of the adventures I knew i would have.

In his “Solitary Tree,” a single oak stands at the centre of the composition. Battered by the weather and by the harsh winds of life, twisted by elemental forces beyond it’s control, but still reaching upwards. It inspires feelings of loneliness, solitude, and the simple determination to follow one’s purpose. Because it’s really the only thing we can do.

"Moonrise Over the Sea" by Caspar David Friedrich
“Moonrise Over the Sea” by Caspar David Friedrich

“Moonrise Over the Sea” seems to capture something I’ve felt on so many of my trips. Moonlight glowing from above, and from within a soft sea or silent desert landscape. A strong rock that is slowly releasing the heat of the day. And the silence of friends, so close and yet so far away, each lost in our own solitary recollections. Man, what an atmosphere!

I love wandering alone through a museum like this, because it allows me to sink into the solitude that I feel so deeply. I can stand in front of these landscapes and lose myself in their depths and swirls of colour. I can let myself soar off to their horizon, just as I soared out my bedroom window as a child. And the dark shadows of Friedrich’s canvases seem to speak to a darkness deep within myself.

But it wasn’t all Gothic gloom and morose Romanticism… I spent a very long time sitting in front of these two paintings by Claude Monet too:

"Summer" on the left and "View of Vétheuil-sur-Seine" on the right
“Summer” on the left and “View of Vétheuil-sur-Seine” on the right

I could feel myself within that spring day just by looking at them. The dry tickle of sun-drenched grass on my arm… Warm air that smells of green things… The slow buzz of insects… And the gentle sun on my skin… Paintings like this are capable of kindling an inner warmth, even in the dark December streets of Berlin.

And I’ll leave you with that image as I wrap up my scarf and step back out into the city.

There’s so much more here. So many ideas crackling through the air.

I can feel it happening all around me. And I need another hit…

All photos ©Tomoko Goto 2013, except Alte Nationalgalerie images by Ryan Murdock

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • I’ve been to so many museums I feel all “museumed out” most of the time, but every now and then I come across a post or recommendation like this one and it actually makes me want to go check them out.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  • to be fair to didn’t go to any museums in berlin but the open air gallery at the berlin wall was for me one of the best galleries i’ve ever been to. a fine example of “living” art. oh and the wall2wall exhibition on the side facing the river is really good too.

    • Yeah, there’s just so much art in the city. That’s what I loved about it – art was a part of everyday life.


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