Trundling around the main art galleries in any city can get a little stale after the third visit and so it was I decided to search out some less conventional artistic locations. I’d recently overheard a couple of friends discussing the art centre-cum-nightclub called Kunst Haus Tacheles and so had decided to have a gander, as they say.
Located on Oranienburger Strasse in the Mitte district of Berlin, it covers a giant area of land, which looks derelict at first glance. Yet this is not the Chernobyl-style, uninhabited waste ground that one could easily be forgiven for assuming. It is instead a hub of the Berlin arts scene. Gigantic graffiti murals coat the walls of part of the main complex; some are quite beautiful, others tacky. It is nevertheless loud, not in sound, but in visual vibrancy, which cries out as one approaches.
The central building was originally built in 1907 as a huge shopping mall; later it was to be used as a marketing space, a Nazi administration office, a detention centre for French POWs, and a storage warehouse for general building materials. It also suffered some bomb damage during the Second World War. In 1990 it was saved from being demolished and was taken over by a group of young artists from around the world and was later to be declared a historical architectural monument.
It now has a worldwide reputation and is mentioned in many Berlin travel guides. It’s even given a small subsidy from the government. Artists from a wide variety of nations and cultures show their creativity here. Nationalities include German, American, British, French, Japanese, Turkish, Russian, and even Iraqi.
So there I was, arriving at the entrance one April afternoon. On the ground floor, various doors were wide open with welcoming signs gesturing for passers-by to enter. I wandered around two of the street-level galleries taking in the quite wonderful metal-work sculptures and, in places, erotic paintings.
It was there that I came upon the likely great-grandson of Baron Von Richthofen, the Red Baron famous for his flying prowess in WWI dogfights. The grandson was sitting in the furthest corner behind a computer screen. He never looked up to greet my presence or question who was around. He wore a green flying cap with flying goggles upon his head; his unshaven face looked hazy, perhaps with ground-in dirt. His eyes, glued to his monitor, were unblinking. I thought for a moment he was a waxwork of the finest quality, but then his black mongrel dog stirred behind him and he muttered some command – or obscenity.
There was a sculpture of a chair, possibly made of iron, which was reminiscent of the electric chairs they use in U.S. executions. Picturing the man behind the computer on this seat gave the rather disconcerting image of Francis Bacon’s screaming Pope.
I left after a good look around and continued upstairs to what I presumed were further galleries. Upon leaving a shop or gallery, I usually like to bid a farewell, but on this occasion I chose to contemplatively step out in silence instead.
I went back out onto the main route and into another doorway that led to a dilapidated staircase. The walls were covered with graffiti, posters, stickers, and swabs of paint so that rarely was there a little square of untouched plaster to be seen. The windows were either broken, cracked, or in most cases, totally void of glass. I was a little uncomfortable after the first dozen steps; the feeling of walking into a druggies’ paradise became perceptible. There seemed to be no one around on the stairs or in the corridors, nor was there any noise save for the humming of traffic outside.
“Obviously nothing much up here,” I said to myself, “Best get home before the weather turns sour.” I kept going. The thought of later berating myself over missing an opportunity or wondrous painting began to dilute any apprehension.
On what I think was the 2nd floor, I stumbled into a rather sophisticated little cafe/bar, sophisticated compared to its precursor at any rate. It was empty apart from a young Mediterranean lady behind the counter, who was absorbed in reading an Italian architectural magazine, Domus.
On the next floor, I discovered a large room that was partitioned into a variety of sections by makeshift walls. The graffiti, as in the cafe/bar, had been compassionately left in the corridor, and instead the walls were white, where visible. This was a studio-cum-gallery and on the far side of the room was an artist painting away on canvas. I felt slightly at home now, amongst my kin; the place reminded me of my old Art College back in England. There were some truly beautiful paintings on display; in some areas, not a bit of wall was to be seen behind the glorious displays of colour and form.
It was romantic, a place you see in dreams, where the disheveled artist, slightly ostracised from general society, finds his brethren among broken walls in a foreign city. All the scene further needed was a cat, sitting on a table, snoozing.
I went to the next floor up and found another smaller gallery. There I met an elderly man, probably in his early 70s. He sat happily on a radiator, greeting my entry with a pleasant smile and a “hallo.” I paused to take in the scene. There were no less than 200 paintings on the walls, tables, and easels — all of them his. Again what struck me was the rich colour in so many of the works.
What was it about a lot of modern Berlin art that made it so wondrously full of life with colour and texture? Perhaps it had been the long drab winter months that had left the air of greyness everywhere else.
The old man then stood up and flicked through his sketchbook lying on a table in front of me. Pencil sketches filled every page, some remarkable, others not so. He was excited; he obviously wanted the world to see his work and I obliged. I asked him about a painting near the door that looked in the style of the Swiss artist, Paul Klee. In my rather broken German, he thought I was saying it was an actual Paul Klee painting and consequently began vigorously denying any knowledge of the artist. Of course it was his work and I managed to clear the matter with some well-placed admiring comments on his colour coordination. He was a genial chap.
I bidded farewell to him on the way out and left the building very happy with what I had discovered.
If you’re visiting Berlin, I highly recommend a visit to Kunst Haus Tacheles.