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Wednesday, May 5, 1999 Published at 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK


Berlin loses its cultural cool

Baselitz paintings now sell for up to a million marks

By BBC Media Correspondent Nick Higham

In the days before the Iron Curtain disintegrated, Berlin was as famous for its counter-culture, as it was for its precarious position as an outpost of democracy in the communist east.

[ image: Counter-culture even daubed the Berlin wall]
Counter-culture even daubed the Berlin wall
Ten years on, Berlin has become respectable and, though counter-culture has stubbornly refused to die, it is not the radical movement it once was.

"In west Berlin there was a flourishing political and artistic counter-culture," says Michael Sontheimer who, 20 years ago, was a left-wing journalist, now mellowed to a writer on the magazine Der Spiegel.

"This island in a red sea acted as a magnet for the young and radical. Berliners didn't have to do military service, the government paid subsidies to persuade people to live here."

Middle class movement

But then the wall came down and Berlin is once again Germany's capital, and the middle classes are moving in.

Nick Higham: "The city's unique culture is on the point of disappearing"
In the wealthy western suburb of Charlottenburg, the leafy streets are full of swish art galleries with BMWs and Mercedes parked outside.

It's a stark contrast to the Berlin of 1962 when, just after the wall was built, the police in the west seized an exhibition of works by the painter Georg Baselitz. His grotesque, tortured figures with huge phalluses were deemed obscene.

Today, art dealer Michael Fuchs is selling paintings from that exhibition and others by Baselitz for up to a million marks a time. He sees a chance to make money in the new Berlin.

[ image: Tacheles is now a place for artists and performers]
Tacheles is now a place for artists and performers
"In Berlin you once had probably only 10 really serious big collectors and that changed completely. The interesting part for a young gallery, if they show contemporary art, is if they really develop a new feel of collectors, people who arrive here and want to start their companies, or their law firm, are new customers for the galleries," he explains.

Berlin counter-culture has now in fact moved east. Tacheles, once a Jewish department store in east Berlin, is now a place for artists and performers.

But even here the anarchic vision of the founders who moved in soon after the wall came down has changed.

Look to the East

"In the beginning it was a wild thing. I think it was not so good art, now we have good art, but it is not so wild as it was in the beginning, so everything has two sides," says Martin Reyter who has worked for Tacheles for six years.

[ image: Andreas Schiller's art: Designed to provoke doubt]
Andreas Schiller's art: Designed to provoke doubt
And even here they are into making money. Andreas Schiller, born in the east, creates countless near-identical paintings of apples, lemons and bottles, then varnishes them to look like old masters.

Last year he hung almost 2,000 apple paintings in a gallery in the Big Apple itself, New York, and called it an art installation. People buy his individual paintings to hang in their kitchens.

He says they should doubt his art. "Is it contemporary or not? Is he joking or not? It is about the question - what is art? What is kitsch and what is painting?" Mr Schiller suggests potential buyers ask themselves.

In the old worker's suburb of Prenslauer Berg you still see the occasional east German Trabant. But the graffiti-covered old apartment blocks are being gentrified, trees are being planted, cafes opened.

[ image: Political satire is a tradition at the Distel Cabaret Theatre]
Political satire is a tradition at the Distel Cabaret Theatre
Michael Sontheimer of Der Spiegel says Berlin remains two cities, politically, socially, artistically. "You still have this wall of glass through the city and the only ones who don't care about this wall of glass are the young people, and they go to the east now and the younger people mix up with the natives in east Berlin, but the old more established western people they stay in west Berlin."

The Distel Cabaret Theatre in east Berlin has been performing political satire since 1953, only the jokes are now about the plight of east Germans who saw their society dismantled and their identity lost.

Political censorship has gone only to be replaced by the censorship of the market. In the east, as in the west, it seems the city's unique culture is on the point of disappearing.

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