Art of Stone: Berlin Exhibit Commemorates City’s Old Monuments

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From "Unveiled: Berlin and its Monuments" at Spandau Citadel, Berlin.
From "Unveiled: Berlin and its Monuments" at Spandau Citadel, Berlin.Credit: Uri Tzur
Ouzi Zur
Ouzi Zur
Ouzi Zur
Ouzi Zur

There’s nothing sadder than a monument that has become obsolete, with no one to remember who or what it commemorated, or one that the municipality decided to uproot and move to the monuments graveyard.

There are few cities with a past quite so marked by monuments as Berlin: monuments that have survived on their topographical spots in the city; those that have been shunted from one place to another; those wrecked by war; destroyed by one revolutionary ideology or another; and those erased from the consciousness as symbols of shame after the defeat of the Third Reich, their absence as palpable as that of ghosts.

For some reason, Spandau has become a cemetery for monuments that have been removed from their sites or gravely damaged — perhaps because of its location, perhaps because of its medieval fortress, where some of them have been gathered.

An exhibition sited in the former Provisions Depot at Spandau Citadel, “Unveiled: Berlin and its Monuments,” has turned this “graveyard” into a kind of paradise for those forgotten monuments. They tell about a fascinating aspect of Berlin’s story — the monumental and symbolic side, over various eras.

Mostly, a monument represents the conservative, academic and artistic taste of the establishment at that time. It is intended to satisfy the “good taste” of the masses, the wealthy and the powerful. For the most part, “outdoor sculpture” — by the very fact of its realization through “the appropriate committees” and because it costs a lot money for materials and labor — is mired in grandiose mediocrity. And this is also true of most of the monuments in Berlin.

From "Unveiled: Berlin and its Monuments" at Spandau Citadel, Berlin.Credit: Uri Tzur

However, what’s fascinating about the permanent exhibition at Spandau is the compacting of individual monuments into blocs, into groups of statues by period — from the 18th century up till 1989. Then they suddenly take on a life of their own, with contexts and relationships, an interplay of glances among them and the various weights of their masses — quantity becoming quality to tell the story of a certain era in the city’s life.

At the same time, the exhibition also enables visitors to interactively locate where the statue once stood in the city’s various quarters, what was at the site in its day, and what stands there now. So, in referring to the living city beyond the fortress walls, the exhibition brings the “retired” sculptures back into its current urban life and memory, if only for a brief moment.

Amid the rooms of the citadel’s brick buildings, the 12th-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II — with his curled periwig, swaddled in the cloth of the flag — mingles inextricably with the sober-faced Frederick William III of Prussia, who gazes at the horizon in his guise as a general.

Then there’s the refined image of Queen Louise as a Protestant Madonna (around the base of her monument, a tightly packed relief — classical for its time — has mothers protecting their children from the soldiers of a cruel conqueror). Or a knight leaping out from the mists of the Middle Ages, brandishing a cross raised high against the unbelievers. There are also bishops and judges, while King Frederick I soars above the populace in a monument that once stood in the Tiergarten.

Wings above Berlin

Some lack a nose or arms, but the damage only serves to emphasize the richness of, say, a lace collar or the intricate ironwork of a suit of armor. Winged angels, who once gazed down at the city’s inhabitants from above, raise imperial banners alongside sculptures dressed in narcissistic Napoleonic fashions, while others sport Spartan Prussian garb.

In need of a nose job: From "Unveiled: Berlin and its Monuments" at Spandau Citadel, Berlin.Credit: Uri Tzur

At some point, we arrive at Weimar Berlin and the post-World War I, post-revolution era with a 1928 memorial to railroad workers: A single figure, monumental yet human and expressive, harking back to the male eroticism of agonies that become pleasures in the Greco-Roman statue “The Dying Gaul.” In a photo from 1945, the sculpture stands on a massive stone pedestal, pocked by bullet holes and blackened with soot against the backdrop of the ruined Hamburger Bahnhof train station in Berlin.

The exhibition also documents “The Revolution Monument,” which was dedicated to the memory of working-class fighters. Deliberately, it was not a classical-figurative, capitalist sculpture, but rather a brick structure of abstract masses lying atop one another so it’s possible to feel the oppressive weight. The monument, created by the then-unknown German architect Mies van der Rohe, was erected in 1926 beside the graves of the murdered Marxists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It served as a site for illegal gatherings by communists and was destroyed by the Nazis in 1936.

A colossal statue of Paul von Hindenburg was erected in 1915, in front of the Victory Column (the Siegessäule, which was dedicated in 1873 to commemorate victory in three wars and was later moved by the Nazis from in front of the Reichstag to the Grosser Stern (Great Star) plaza in the middle of the Tiergarten). The masses climbed up to the “Father of the Nation” on decorated scaffolding as though he were Gulliver in Lilliput. Today, only a photograph and cast bronze model remain of the statue.

The exhibition also covers the period of Nazi rule, 1933-1945. A model of the planned People’s Hall (Volkshalle) — designed by “Hitler’s architect,” Albert Speer — is on display. Next to it is a similarly scaled model of the Brandenburg Gate, with the latter looking like a grasshopper compared to the megalomaniacal monumentality of the vision of the Reich’s “eternal capital.” And the “Memorial Stone” from 1933 looks like a pagan Teutonic tombstone from a Wagnerian opera.

But the real jewel in the exhibition is a completely dark acoustic space. When you enter, it seems endless. This is a brilliant sound installation that simulates the soundtrack of the Third Reich reverberating through the megalomaniacal structures had they been built and were they still standing in Berlin. Grating, hair-raising voices; metallic sounds of indistinct propaganda broadcasts; marching storm troopers coming closer and closer until the iron floor starts to tremble, and then marching away again; the dictator’s voice cracking like a whip amid the unclear shouts of the mob; desperate screams receding into the darkness; wild, whistling winds; echoes of intimidating shouts and frightened cries.

When you emerge back into the light, the effect of this room is far greater than all the monuments put together — just like that black hole gaping in the sequence of European history.

The postwar split into West and East Berlin comes next. The Berlin Airlift Monument soars at Tempelhof Airport in memory of the U.S. airlift to the besieged western part of the city in 1949 (it was the first monument to be built in West Berlin). It’s a striking contrast to the naturalistic, almost naive, memorial to the East German border police officers who, with their weapons, prevented citizens from defecting to the West.

Most impressive of all is the gigantic head of Lenin that has survived from a monument sculpted in 1970 by Nikolai Tomsky (and which sat in East Berlin’s Leninplatz). The head lies eternally comatose on its side, leaving the earthly life far behind, like those heads of Buddha. It’s only when you walk around it that you fully comprehend the power of its dimensions.

The monument was dismantled in 1992 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its body parts were “lost” (echoing the scene from the German film “Good Bye Lenin!” and, before that, Lenin’s statue drifting along Europe’s rivers in the Theo Angelopoulos film “Ulysses’ Gaze”). A few years ago, the head was found buried in a sandpit and, in a complex archaeological feat, was dug out and transported to Spandau. It now serves as a remnant of a period about which some from the former East Germany still wax nostalgic.

“Unveiled: A Different Perspective on Monuments” is a temporary exhibition in the Old Barracks at Spandau. This offers a deeper historical and artistic perspective on the permanent exhibition, trying to provide commentary and context by contemporary artists, and expanding the view to incorporate the various monuments still standing in Berlin.

Rare emotional power

There are few cities in which there are so many different kinds and modes of commemoration. These include the “stumbling stones” (Stolpersteine) at the entrances to the onetime homes of Jewish families; the street signs that state prohibitions on them; and the dates of transports stamped on the railroad tracks at Grunewald Station — memorials with a rare emotional power.

In the artistic section of the temporary exhibition, sculptor Liane Lang exhibits a series of tiny monuments cast in bronze and placed upon white pedestals, mocking historical pomposity. Hitler’s head is squashed by a fist; Otto von Bismarck is recast as a small, sad clown from the circus of history; Lenin is depicted as a small prophet; and Kaiser Wilhelm I and his trusty steed roam the expanses of time like Don Quixote and his horse, Rocinante.

Lang also presents a “company” of 18 mustaches cast in bronze — just mustaches, framed like wretched and pathetic insects. Mustaches of “Prussians and Other Villains” (Barbarossa, Karl IV, Napoleon II, Ferdinand II, Matthias, Hindenburg and others): an artistic, female revenge on the patriarchal hierarchy of the monuments of this world.

Fallen idol: This face of Lenin is all that's left of a giant statue that was situated in East Germany from 1970-1992. From "Unveiled: Berlin and its Monuments" at Spandau Citadel, Berlin.Credit: Uri Tzur

The Jewish umbilical cord connects to the antique tombstones from Spandau’s medieval community, in another part of the fortress: the “Jews’ Street” in ancient Spandau, where the original synagogue and mikveh (Jewish ritual purification bath) stood. The memorial to a later synagogue that stood on the banks of the Havel River is a clumsy monument totally lacking in splendor. It serves as a meeting place for Spandau’s youngsters, under the watchful gaze of police officers in a nearby patrol car, guarding it day and night. This prompts the question: Is there scope for a monument that needs to be watched day and night? Is this place deserving of a monument? Indeed, is there ever a need for any monument?

“Unveiled: Berlin and its Monuments” is at Spandau Citadel, Berlin. “Unveiled: A Different Perspective on Monuments” runs until October 30, 2016.

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