Portraying a Nation at Tate Liverpool – Part 1 – People of the 20th Century

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On Saturday we drove over to Liverpool – the main purpose being to visit the latest exhibition at the Tate, Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919–1933. It’s actually two exhibitions: ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander, and Otto Dix: The Evil Eye.

August Sander was a German photographer who between the two World Wars attempted to document the people of Germany in a series of photographs People of the Twentieth Century. The exhibition includes well over 100 photographs (I lost count) from this series

Sander August, Self-Portrait, 1925

August Sander – Self Portrait

He took portraits of people from all segments of society grouping them into seven distinct categories: ‘The Farmer’, ‘The Skilled Tradesman’, ‘The Woman’, ‘Classes and Professions’, ‘The Artists’, ‘The City’ and ‘The Last People’.

To take the photographs he used an old-fashioned large-format camera, glass negatives and long exposure times. This allowed him to capture his subjects in minute detail.

August Sander, Farmer’s Child, 1919

At the same time his set up meant that there was a shallow “depth of field” which meant that the background is out of focus. This means that the viewer concentrates on the subject rather than their surroundings.

The image many people have of the Weimar Republic was of a rather wild, bohemian society where “anything goes”. He certainly captured this aspect of the times with photographs like this one of a secretary with her fashionable, shapeless dress,  androgynous, almost masculine hairstyle and manner. She looks like someone out of Cabaret


Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne

He also photographed intellectuals such as the subject of the second half of the exhibition – Otto Dix

August Sander, The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha, 1925/26

The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha

But the majority of his subjects were ordinary workers, farmers, mothers and children. which probably paint a truer picture of life between the wars in Germany




The Man of the Soil

August Sander, Police Officer and Master of the Watch, 1925

Police Officer

He also included portraits of people on the fringes of society – including the blind and disabled people. The same people who would soon be persecuted by the Nazis. His portraits however, for the times, are sympathetic.

Sander had leftist views and was clearly on the side of the outsiders. Included in the exhibition were a number of Jewish victims of persecution, such as this young lady.

Victim of Persecution

A victim of persecution

The photographs were originally taken for their passports as they were attempting to leave Germany towards the end of the 1930s. They show real, ordinary people at a time when the Nazis were presenting  distorted caricatures of Jews.

Sander wrote

”It is not my intention either to criticize or to describe these people, but to create a piece of history with my pictures.”

and to achieve that aim he also photographed the very people who were responsible for the persecution

August Sander, National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture

National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture

even though one of their victims was his own son, an active socialist.


Political Prisoner [Erich Sander]

The Tate has displayed the photographs chronologically along with a commentary listing the events occurring when they were taken, rather than grouped by ”type,” as Sander intended. I wonder whether this loses something. Nevertheless I felt that it was an excellent exhibition of outstanding portraits, showing the skill and the dedication of the photographer as an artist.

Easter Egg Tree


During our trip to Dessau recently, while wandering round the Törten Estate, we spotted a number of trees decorated with Easter eggs. A little research on the fountain of all knowledge (i.e. Wikipedia) revealed that the Ostereierbaum is a German tradition where trees and bushes are decorated with Easter eggs. Afterwards we spotted eggs on sale in the supermarket around the corner from our hotel in Berlin. Like the Christmas tree, which also originated in Germany, a pagan tradition alive and well.

Rosa Luxemburg Platz

Rsa Luxemburg Platz stands at the top of Rosa Luxemburg Strasse, in Mitte, Berlin, close to Alexanderplatz. The street and square are both named after the Socialist thinker and activist, born in Poland, who became a leader in the German Social Democratic Party (then a Marxist organisation) before the First World War. She was ostracised by the SPD and imprisoned when she opposed the war. Reluctanly drawn into supporting the Spartakist Uprising in 1919 during the revolutionary turmoil that followed the German defeat, she was murdered along with Karl Liebknecht by the Freikorps, a right-wing paramilitary group mainly made up of World War I veterans.

Quotations from her works are engraved into the pavement in the square and the nearby streets.

Although her political ideas were certainly not consistent with those of the Stalinists who were in charge of the German Democratic Republic, they named the street and square in her honour – an attempt to claim some legitimacy. But Rosa would have been appalled by their policies and methods.

    Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of a party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenter. Not because of the fanaticism of “justice”, but rather because all that is instructive, wholesome, and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effects cease to work when “freedom” becomes a privilege. (Die russische Revolution. Eine kritische Würdigung, Berlin 1920 S. 109; Rosa Luxemburg)

    The square itself is dominated by the Volksbühne theatre. A large, grand neo-Classical building completed in 1914. To me it had a Modernist look about it with it's relatively simple form.
    The origin of the theatre was an organization known as the “Freie Volksbühne” (“Free People's Theater”) formed in 1892 to promote naturalist plays at prices accessible to workers. It was a cultural society and membership subscriptions were used to fund theatre productions which could be attended by the members of the club at a reduced rate. The society allowed workers – organised and led by the Social Democrats – to gain access to and participate in Berlin’s cultural life. The slogan “Die Kunst dem Volke” – Art to the people – was originally engraved on the front of the building, summed up the objective of the society.

    Karl-Liebknecht-House, formerly the headquarters of the German Communist Party (KPD) and now the Left Party (Die Linke) also stands on the Square.

    Red Rosa has also now disappeared

    Where she lies is unknown

    Because she told the truth to the poor

    The rich have hunted her out of the world.

    (Bertolt Brecht)


    The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

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    One of my favourite films is Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). In the opening shot, the angel,Damiel, played by Bruno Ganz, is seen peering down on passers by from the top of a tower with a damaged spire.


    This is the iconic Berlin building, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche) located on on the Kurfürstendamm, very close to the Berlin Zoo railway station.

    Like Coventry Cathedral, which I visited recently, it’s a modern church built within the ruins of an older structure that was damaged by bombing during the war.

    The original church on the site was built in the 1890s. Damaged on December 23rd, 1943 and completely destroyed in  air-raids in April 1945.

    After the war it was decided to build a new church on the site, dedicated to reconcilitation as is Coventry Cathedral. The new building was designed by Egon Eiermann with an octagonal church building and hexagonal bell tower clustered around the remaining ruins of the old church. It was originally intended to demolish the damaged tower from the old church but after a public outcry it was preserved. The foundation-stone of the new church was laid on May 9th, 1959 and the building was completed in 1963.

    The ruins of the old building have been undergoing restoration for a number of years and during our visit were partially obscured by hoarding erected to protect the workers from the elements. The work should have been completed last year but is still ongoing. The following picture from Wikipedia shows what the tower looks like.



    Underneath the tower, the former vestibule of the old church is now the Memorial Hall. On the ceiling there a series of mosaics showing a procession of Hohenzollern princes.



    The new church is constructed from hexagonal concrete elements containing stained glass, held in a steel frame. The glass, was designed by Gabriel Loire, The predominant colour is blue, with small areas of ruby red, emerald green and yellow. The walls are double skinned with 2.15 m cavity in which lamps are installed, creating a wall of blue and flooding blue light into the interior.


    The double skin helps to keep noise out of the church as it is situated on a busy traffic island. The hexagonal bell tower is constructed of the same elements, but is only single skinned.

    The golden statue of Christ on the cross was created by the Munich artist Karl Hemmeter, and is made from tombac, a special kind of brass with a high copper content.


    The church is dedicated to reconciliation and there are a number of objects to celebrate this. Inside the main church, on the back wall, there is the drawing of The Stalingrad Madonna, created in 1942 by Kurt Reuber, a German soldier, of which there is a copy in Coventry Cathedral. 


    In the Memorial Hall there is the crucifix from the altar of the old church and a  from Coventry and the icon cross of the Russian Orthodox Church.


    Due to its distinctive appearance the new church is often referred to as the  "Lippenstift und Puderdose” (the lipstick and the powder box).

    Der Hackeschen Höfe


    A feature of Berlin architecture from the 19th and early 20th Centuries was the linked courtyards behind the large buildings used for housing and commercial purposes.

    Due to targeted immigration polices of the Prussian rulers as well as other factors, Berlin’s population began to boom in the 19th century and new residential buildings had to be constructed. In the 1870s, Berlin developed a population of over one million people, whereas ……..

    The city center residential districts had to be utilized as optimally as possible – this resulted in tenement houses. Behind the prestigious street-front buildings that served as the homes of the bourgeoisie, rear buildings were built across the city, which housed domestic employees, workmen, and the poorer social strata.

    The building’s courtyard served as a separation for these differing social and spatial lifestyles – often three or four courtyards were placed in a row.  (Source)

    One example of this type of arrangement that has been restored and renovated and which is a popular tourist attraction is the Hackeschen Höfe, which is in the Hackeschen Market district and literally around the corner from the hotel we stayed in during our recent visit to Berlin.

    The compex, designed by August Endel in the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau)  style , has a total of 8 interconnected courtyards which contain shops, bars, restaurants, offices and apartments. There’s even a small cinema and a theatre.

    The first courtyard is particularly impressive with it’s coloured glazed brickwork and highly ornamented windows.



    The buildings in the second courtyard were mainly occupied by offices but those in the other courtyards were mainly residential with smaller shops etc. on the ground floor.






    It was very pleant wandering around the courtyards and browsing in the shops, some of them selling quite distinctive products including one, the Golem Kollektion, that specialised in Art Nouveau style tiles.




    Lovely – but quite pricey!

    Jewish Museum Berlin – The Exhibition


    During our visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin we weren’t only interested in the architecture but spent some time looking around the permanent exhibition located on the top two floors of the building. It didn’t just concentrate on the Holocaust, portraying the Jews simply as victims, which is the case with the Holocaust Memorial. It showed how they became part of European and German society and how they became integrated to a large extent in Germany.


    Although  I had a reasonable understanding of the history,  I learned more about why the Jews were well positioned to the advantage of the development of Capitalism because of the role they had played as itinerant traders and in finance, roles that "native" Germans were less likely to play. There were displays about certain individuals who played a key role in German life, culture and society such as the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, the poet  Heinrich Heine, industrialist, politician, writer, and statesman  Walther Rathenau, who served as Foreign Minister of Germany during the Weimar Republic and the Socialists Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle.


    There were displays about Jewish life in the Middle Ages and the 19th and 20th Centuries.


    And given what happened in the 1930’s and 40’s it was ironic to see these gravestones of Jews who dies for the “Fatherland” during the First World War


    The sections on the holocaust were moving, and also informative, but are covered in more depth at the Holocaust Memorial.



    The most disturbing and moving part for me was seeing the roll of yellow cloth printed with the stars – and the revelation that the Jews were charged 10 pfennings for the privilege of buying one to wear.


    Back to Berlin


    At the end of our short holiday in Berlin last July, which we’d combined with a similar period in Prague, we knew we would have to go back. We knew there was so much that we’d missed seeing and doing. So another trip was arranged, flying out from Liverpool on 17 March – St Patrick’s Day.

    We stayed in the Adina Apartment Hotel Berlin Hackescher Market in Mitte, close to Alexanderplatz and Museum Island. A good location and excellent hotel. We had a large studio room with a kitchenette which meant we could keep drinks bought at the supermarket round the corner in the fridge and we ate a light meal of pasta we cooked on the stove one evening. I thought the breakfast was a little pricy, but we had an inclusive deal. Of course, anyone who didn’t want to pay could have made their own in their room.

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    We packed a lot into just short of five days, including a day trip out to Dessau and a night at the Berlin Philharmonic. Although we mainly tried to do new things, it was interesting to revisit some of the places we’d seen in the summer, but when it was dark. It was interesting to see that very few buildings were lit up and the street lighting was generally dimmer than in British cities.

    The weather was reasonably kind to us. The first two and a half days were grey and chilly (about 10 degrees) with a very occasional rain shower, but wrapped up well that wasn’t a problem. The Thursday and Friday morning were very warm and sunny, especially the Thursday when we had clear blue skies all day and the temperature was getting close to 20 degrees.

    Here’s a few photographs I shot

    The Berlin Dom with the Fernsehturm in the background. It’s visible from all over Berlin.

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    Here it is, lit up green. We wondered why, but then realised it was Paddy’s Day.

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    The Victory column, in the Tiergarden. The statue of Victoria is enormous.


    The view from the top of the Victory column


    The Fernsehturm and the Marienkirche from Karl Liebenicht Strasse


    The World Clock in Alexanderplatz.


    The Jewish Museum


    The Philharmonic Hall in the afternoon before the concert we attended


    Inside the Sony Centre – a large plaza / food court covered over (but not completely) with a tent like structure which is illuminated at night


    We saw and did a lot, but, of course here were still things we would have liked to do but ran out of time again. We’ll have to go back.

    Berlin to Prague by train

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    Berlin Hauptbahnhof (photo source: Wikipedia)

    We’d enjoyed our time in Berlin and, in some ways, were reluctant to leave. There was lots more to see and do. But we were also looking forward to seeing Prague. We’d booked rail tickets in advance so made our way from our hotel to the main railway station by S-Bahn arriving with plenty of time to spare. We’d booked first class tickets as they weren’t that much more expensive than second class, so that allowed us to use the first class lounge in the station, with free drinks and croissants, while we waited for the time our train was due.

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    (photo source: Wikipedia)

    A short while before our train was scheduled to arrive, we made our way to the platform, which was very busy, so it looked like the train would be packed. But we had our seat reservations so that shouldn’t have been a problem. When the train arrived chaos ensued. One of the two first class carriages that should have been on the train was missing – ours! As we boarded the train we were told that seats have been re-allocated and we were verbally told our new seat numbers. Of course somebody was sitting in one of our seats. He moved, reluctantly. The train set off and it was obviously pretty much full. In the sole first class carriage confusion reigned with people sitting in the wrong seats and others without reservations sitting where they shouldn’t have been. Our experience with Virgin trains in the UK is that they would have washed there hands of it all, cancel seat reservations and let everyone fight it out between themselves. But all credit to the German guard. She listened patiently and sorted it all out, quietly insisting people move if necessary. I wasn’t impressed by the chaos but was by the way she sorted out the mess.

    After everything settled down we were able to relax and enjoy the journey. The train itself wasn’t as nice as I’d expected. The service ran from Hamburg to Budapest via Berlin, Dresden and Prague and the carriages were Hungarian and a little worse for wear. But the seats were fairly comfortable and we had plenty of leg room so I was able to relax, watch the world go by through the window and read. The toilets were a little rough – they reminded me of those we used to have on the old Inter-City trains in the UK.

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    (image source:Wikipedia)

    The route took us through some pleasant, flat countryside down as far as Dresden. But after that the route went along the River Elbe valley, the first part through the stunning scenery of “Saxon Switzerland” with it’s rugged, wooded hills.

    (Image source here)

    As the train was moving fairly slowly through the valley, I managed to take a few photographs with my phone. They are a little blurry but give an impression of the fantastic scenery.

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    The sandstone cliffs have been weathered and worn into a series of fantastic sculptured pillars, towers and arches and we could see buildings and bridges crossing over from one peak to another

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    Here’s a close up from the previous picture.

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    The river itself looked very pleasant and inviting.


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    There was a cycle path running along the bank, canoeists and pleasure boats on the river and we could see people perched precariously on top of some of the rocky cliff tops.

    The scenery continued after we crossed the Czech border (we knew this had happened after the last stop in Germany when the crew changed and we started getting announcements in Czech over the tannoy and a Czech guard came along to check our tickets).

    At one point we passed a castle built on top of a the cliffs. I wasn’t quick enough and missed taking it’s picture, but a little research on the web revealed that it was Strekov castle.

    (picture source from Regional government website)

    Wikipedia tells us that the castle

    was built at the beginning of the 14th century on a basalt rock above the river Labe* protect the important waterway and to collect duties. Střekov castle enchanted many world known artists notably Richard Wagner who was inspired to write a poem that served as basis for the libretto to the opera Tannhäuser.

    (*The Labe is the Czech name for the Elbe)

    As we travelled further into the Czech Republic there was more evidence of industrial activity and eventually we reached a wider, flatter valley with less interesting scenery.

    The journey took about 4 1/2 hours. It ran a little late and we arrived in Prague about half an hour behind schedule. But still with plenty of time to make our way to our hotel, settle in and explore the old town during the late afternoon before we got something to eat.

    Saxon Switzerland looked like a really good place for an active holiday – canoeing, walking and climbing. A little research revealed that a number of companies organise bike trips along the river from Prague (which is on one of the Elbe’s tributaries) to Dresden. Given that there’s a cycle path all along the route, it shouldn’t be too difficult and is something to consider for the future (but there’s too many things to see and do and too little time)

    The Reichstag


    The Reichstag today once again is the home of the German Parliament – these days known as the Bundestag. Opened in 1894 It was originally the home of the Imperial Diet, of the German Empire and then, after the overthrow of the Kaiser in 1918, the parliament of the Weimar Republic. It was gutted in a fire in 1933 which was used as a pretext by the Nazis to ban and persecute communists and other left wing groups and consolidate their dictatorship.

    After the Second World War it was in West Berlin and the building, which was badly damaged during the war, was disused and in a dilapidated state. Following the reunification after the Berlin Wall came down, it was decided to reinstitute Berlin as the national Capital and to move the Bundestag to the Reichstag. So the building needed to be repaired and renovated and this task was awarded to the British architect, Norman Foster. His design was very radical. The building was gutted and an entirely new, very modern, interior created within the neo-classical exterior walls. “Green” technology for lighting, heating and water supplies to minimise the building’s environmental impact.

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    A major feature of the renovated building is the glass dome on the roof, and this has become a very popular visitor attraction. Entry is free, but places have to be reserved in advance via the web. It’s open from 8 a.m. until midnight and it provides great views over the city. It’s also possible to take a guided tour of the debating chamber.

    We wanted to visit the Reichstag during our stay in Berlin. When I checked on the web I found the dome was closed that week for cleaning but it reopened on the Saturday, our final day in the city. I went on the web to sort out tickets, but the only slots available were during late evening. Undeterred I booked tickets for 8:45 p.m. and this actually worked out well for us. It made a great finish to our stay.

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    We turned up just before our slot and then had to pass through a security check. We had to wait outside with a small group before being led inside and taken up a lift to the top floor to access the dome. Free audioguides are provided, and it was worth picking one up.

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    We then proceeded to walk up the spiral ramp towards the top of the dome.


    In the centre there’s a large conical mirror – ‘light sculptor’ – which reflects daylight into the building to reduce the need for electric lighting. There’s a a large sun shield to reduce solar gain and glare which moves around, following the path of the sun.


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    Reaching the top we could see the opening in the roof which allows rainwater to fall down into a collection funnel at the top of the light sculptor.


    The collected water is used in the building.

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    By the time we reached the roof dusk was starting to descend. But we had a good view looking over the Spree, the Mitte district, the Tiergarten


    and towards the Brandenburg Gate.


    The Alte Nationalgalerie


    The Alte Nationalgalerie is one of the museums on Museum Island in Berlin. It is home to a collection of  sculptures and paintings from the 19th century, many of them by German artists, not necessarily that well known outside the country, together with a number of French Impressionists works including paintings by Manet, Cezanne and Renoir and sculptures by Rodin (including yet another cast of “The Age of Bronze” – the fourth I’ve seen – and a cast of “The Thinker”).


    They’re housed in a neo-Classical building, built in the style of a temple raised up on a dais, it was completed in 1872. Since then the interior has been renovated on a number of occasions and modified to suit the exhibits.



    We had a few hours to spare on our last day in Berlin so decided to take a look round. We decided to concentrate on the Impressionist paintings, Rodin sculptures and other works on the 2nd floor and also looked around the first floor. After that, and all the other galleries and museums we’d visited during our short stay in the city, we were pretty much “arted out” so didn’t go up to the third floor – we’re not great fans of the Neoclassical and Romantic movements in any case.


    They have a relatively small selection of Impressionist paintings. I was particularly interested in the Renoirs which had been painted over a number of years and showed different aspects of his work and the development of his style.


    “Summer” (1868) is an early painting from his late 20’s. I didn’t recognise it as a Renoir when I looked at it as it is not that typical of the style of later portraits. It looked more like something painted by Manet.

    And this group family portrait of  a mother and her children, “Children’s afternoon at Wargemont” (1884), is also not that typical of his style. It’s more “realistic” and a little “flat”


    “Chestnut in Bloom” (1881), however, was a typical Impressionist landscape.


    Of the other works on the second floor, I particularly liked the bleak Impressionist style landscapes painted by the German artist Christian Rohlfs (1849-1938)

    “Chaussee nach Gelmeroda” (1893) (The road to Gelmeroda)


    “Hugelige Landschaft im Spatherbst” (Hillylandscape in late autumn) (1900)



    “Berkaer Landstrasse” (The Road to Berka) (1889)


    He is better known for the Expressionist paintings from later in his career (1900 onwards) and was considered a “degenerate” artist by the Nazis. His paintings were confiscated and removed from State owned galleries.

    I thought these “Roman Goats” (1898) by Ernest Gaul (1869-1921) were rather “Rodinesque”


    On the first floor, I rather liked these portraits by Franz von Lenbach (1836 – 1904)


    “Lady Curzon (Studie)” (1901/2)


    “Theodore Mommsen” (1897)

    But my favourite room in the gallery, on the first floor, contained Secessionist era paintings and sculptures. I particularly liked three paintings by Franz von Stuck


    “Tilla Durieux als Circe” (Tilla Durieux depicting Circe) (1913) – a very attractive woman (an Austrian actress) – I rather liked the frame too.


    “Die Sunde” (Sin) (1912)

    and a self portrait which I neglected to photograph, but here’s a picture from Wikipedia

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