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    Berlin Art Diary
by April Lamm
Potsdamer Platz
Sandro Botticelli
Dante and Virgil before the Giant
detail from Inferno XXXI,
ca. 1485-90
at the Kultur Forum, Berlin
Sandro Botticelli
Dante and Beatrice in the Heaven of Mercury
ca. 1490-95
Robert Rauschenberg
The Forgers
Inferno XX
Looking out over the unfinished perimeters of the mess of skyscrapers and a mall called the Potsdamer Platz, my friend Noah responded dryly when I asked him what he thought of my beloved adopted city: "I like Berlin. It's just that it's not done yet." Good point.

Berlin is always about buildings and building. The city has had an architectural face-lift three times in the last century. First was the post-WW II reconstruction, then the Cold War division of the city by the Wall, and finally the win-me-over-with-your-cranes phase of today.

Recently at the airport the man inspecting passports asked me how long I planned to stay in Berlin. I told him cheekily, "When the cranes go, I go." He didn't laugh. He didn't even crack a smile. I batted my eyelashes at him, and he let me through. Whew. He knows just as well as the rest of us that this crane phase is going to last a long, long time. And my visa expires next year!

Abandon hope, all ye...
Across from the Potsdamer Platz is the Kupferstichkabinett (Collection of Prints and Drawings) of the Kultur Forum. This spring (Apr. 15-June 18), Heinz-Th. Schulze Altcappenberg curated a show gathering together some long lost comrades -- Sandro Botticelli's drawings of Dante's Divine Comedy.

The journey these drawings have made is impressive. After being "lost" for a hundred years, seven of the parchment sheets passed from the hands of Queen Christina of Sweden to the Vatican Library. The greater part of the drawings turned up in Paris in 1803, then the Duke of Hamilton in England got hold of them only to sell them to the Royal Museums of Berlin in 1882.

Since then, with the exception of those seven in the Vatican, they have been on German soil, East and West. Ten years after the reunification of Germany, the drawings too are reunited, at last. Their next pilgrimage is to Rome (Scuderie Papali al Quirinale, Sept. 20-Dec. 3, 2000) and London (Royal Academy of Arts, Mar. 17-June 10, 2001).

Dante was suffering the woes of exile from his home, the flourishing city of Florence. His anguish and subsequent resignation to living abroad, "midway through life's journey," is recorded in his architectural vision of Hell as a spiraling downward funnel; Purgatory as a spiraling upward funnel; and an ethereal Heaven in the Divine Comedy (written ca. 1304-1321).

Dante's Florence was experiencing a religious and political crisis stirred up by the radical Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola. This crisis is reflected in the dramatic vicissitudes witnessed in Botticelli's late work. It was almost two centuries later (ca. 1480-95) when Botticelli took up his slate pencil, feather and ink, and occasionally some coloring utensils to illustrate in 92 usually sized drawings (32 by 47 cm) Dante's fictional allegory. Compared to his lush mythological paintings like the Primavera (1478) and Birth of Venus (after 1482), his drawings evoke an earlier, almost hieroglyphic, manner of telling a story.

The exhibition was circular, the three main rooms reflecting each stage of the afterworld: Hell is red, Purgatory green and Paradise blue. The Inferno drawings are incredibly detailed, sometimes featuring over 100 figures of wicked winged devils and the hoards of doomed sufferers running from them.

But as we spiral further south, deeper into the funnel of Hell, the drawings become lighter and more abstract. In Canto XXXI, we meet giants fettered and kept in the earth up to their bellies. At first glance, Dante confuses them with a ring of towers. (Which can only make me wonder what he would have thought of Berlin's new skyscrapers on the Potsdamer Platz.)

I should have been more patient, but Hell is a lot more interesting than the complacency of Purgatory. And so I rushed through Purgatory -- bad sinner that I am -- then settled down lazily on a bench in the much more abstract realm of Paradise. (Scrutinizing 92 drawings takes more than an afternoon, mind you.)

In Paradise, the drawings are contained within rondos, mostly featuring Dante and Beatrice engaged in conversation in an otherworldly, full of squiggly-flourishes surrounding. To the naked eye, a star sure does resemble a squiggly to me. Realism, 15th-century style.

Also on view for good measure was Robert Rauschenberg's interpretation of the Inferno Canto XXX, called The Forgers (1964). Call me a Renaissance nut, but I like Botticelli's take much more.

Haim Steinbach
at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein
Haim Steinbach at the NBK
More East and West hubbub was to be had through the interpretation of New York artist Mr. Shelf himself, Haim Steinbach. For the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, In "North East South West," Steinbach takes the very personal collections of doo-dads of Berliners East and West and replicates the exact arrangement, bringing these private eyes and their personal curatorial touches to the public.

Steinbach interviewed Berliners in their private homes, asking them to describe the various bibelots that they had on display, and why they arranged them like they did. He built some very pretty scaffolding arranged pell-mell in an almost diagonal axis through the gallery. Some of the videotaped interviews are on display, along with the objects of desire themselves arranged on top of pristine glass shelves.

Opening night was a hoot, and all of fashionable Berlin was there, walking around and beneath this lovely scaffolding, making it extremely hard for me to keep my eyes on the shelves themselves. From kitschy wooden Viking figures with rabbit-fur beards to teapots shaped like conch shells, from homemade paper Santa napkin rings to mock-Brancusi candle holders, the objects reflected the eclectic outlook of a united Berlin, to say the least.

Günter Behnisch with Frei Otto
Olympia building
Milestones of 20th-century architecture
The Bauhaus Archiv turned out the lights for its installation of an exhibition of 13 prominent architects of the 20th century. Seeing this show is little like surfing the internet -- dark rooms and computer-looking type screens projected brightly onto the walls. It adds up to a mini-refresher course on the bigwigs of buildings in the last century. Each architect is given his own little square of light: his biography, picture and milestone works displayed with text that appears letter by letter as if we were receiving some sort of communiqué from the great encyclopedia of architecture.

Walter Gropius, one of the founders of the Bauhaus school, is at the center. The obvious influence he had on the other architects in the exhibition is made apparent: Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Kenzo Tange, Richard Meier, Ieoh Ming Pei, Behnisch und Bötwisch, Renzo Piano, Frank O. Gehry, Tadao Ando, Philip Johnson, Mario Botta and Frank Lloyd Wright.

None of those nice models were on display, just video projections. There was also a cool interactive webcam on the Spree River area that surrounds the Reichstag. Fast forward and fast rewind through history, a camera has recorded a panoramic view of this enormous construction site in the heart of Berlin every day for the last four years. Very cool and time-warpy.

Fuck Me
at Raab Galerie
Renzo Piano
culturecenter J.M. Tijibaou, Nouméa, New Caledonia
Winner of last year's Whitney Biennale prize Paul Pfeiffer had a show up at Kunstwerk from May 14 to July 2. The Inferno is never very far from Pfeiffer, who proclaims, "I was 10 years old the first time I was possessed by Satan." Digital video loops taken from the film Risky Business make it look like Tom Cruise flipping out on the couch in his tighty-whitey skivvies once shared the same affliction... A flurry of press people surrounded the she-devil Leni Riefenstahl at Camera Work on May 6, for the opening of a show of her photographs taken from the 1936 Olympics. It was her first exhibition in Berlin since 1945. All the usual questions were asked, all the usual answers were given: "I never had any interest in politics and in my long life, I worked for Hitler for a total of seven months." The 50 prints in editions of 10 and 25 were selling for between 2,000 and 5,000 DM each... Der Neue Wilde Salome made his Berlin comeback as well with a retrospective show of his work (1975 to 1999) at the Raab Galerie Berlin just across the street from the Neue National Galerie, where Renzo Piano's greatest hits are up from June 1 to Aug. 20. Piano's one of the architects of the towering giants now polluting my view of the once circus-tented, no-man's land of the Potsdamer Platz. Hmph.

APRIL LAMM writes on art from Berlin.