Two months ago, Berlin’s galleries and museums were preparing to open their spring shows. Some managed to get their doors open before the world shut down for Covid-19, but many saw their opening dates drift by unmarked, along with everybody else’s scrapped plans. Since the Kanzlerin announced an easing of Germany’s lockdown, however, doors are being flung open once more, albeit with strict adherence to new hygiene rules: be prepared to book online in advance for limited-timed entry, bring your own mask and only travel in pairs. Some shows have been moved to next year, such as Gropius Bau’s The Cool and the Cold. Painting from the USA and the USSR 1960–1990, but the good news is many have been extended to make up for lockdown. Doubtless, Berlin’s ever-zealous museum invigilators will ensure you keep to the 1.5m-distance rule, but at least that means you won’t need to elbow your way through crowds in packed galleries.
So if you’ve had your fill of the art world’s online offerings over the past few weeks and want to see an exhibition in the flesh, we’ve rounded what should be top of your list.
Umbo. Photographer. Works 1926-1956
21 Feb – 20 July
Briefly opened in February and then swiftly shuttered again was Umbo. Photographer at the Berlinische Galerie. Reopened and extended to 20 July, the show is German photographer Otto Umbehr’s (1902-1980) first major retrospective in 20 years and includes 200 of his unconventional black and white photographs from 1926-56. The Bauhaus graduate, best known as Umbo, led a colourful life, part of the leading charge of the avant-garde in Berlin in the 1920s as an artist and photo journalist.
Among photos of Bauhaus theatre productions, screwball self-portraits, portraits of artists including André Derain at work and numerous bobbed “New Women” are more sombre prints of everyday Berlin life such as “Ohne Titel (Kindergarten),” showing children playing in a Hinterhof, and striking photojournalism documenting everything from the transformation of the “Clown Grock” into character for a photo story for the Picture Post in 1951 titled “The Lost Child”. Like many others, Umbo lost his momentum as the Nazis came to power and sadly never fully regained his professional standing. It’s a shame so much of his work was destroyed during WW2, but this show successfully pieces together what survived to give a fulsome picture of his talent.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Projects 1963-2020
6 May – 17 August
An artist couple whose cultural currency hasn’t wavered is Christo and Jeanne Claude. Best known to Berliners for their wrapping of the Reichstag building in 1995, Paris’s Arc de Triomphe was due to be wrapped this year according to the couple’s plans, now slated for 2021. PalaisPopulaire, however, is going ahead with their show Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Projects 1963-2020 (until 17 August). The exhibition focuses on their larger projects such as “Wrapped Reichstag” and “Surrounded Islands” (11 islands off the Miami coast skirted in pink fabric like giant floating water lilies in the 1980s) which are represented by plans, models, photos, collages and drawings. Alongside these are much more rarely seen earlier objects from the 1960s, when Christo was making his name in New York.
20 Feb – 19 July
Art history’s most famous renderer of the waterlily has to be Claude Monet (1840-1926). You can see a vast retrospective of over 100 of his paintings at the Museum Barberini until 19 July in Monet: Places. The French impressionist was known for preferring to paint en plein air and the exhibition explores many of his rural landscapes. It also brings to light his love of cities: Paris, London and Venice among them. Don’t worry though, the dreamy sunsets, haystacks and waterlilies are there alongside Venetian canals and Parisian parks.
Ultra by Richard Mosse
14 March – 30 May
The natural world is also the subject of Irish photographer and 2014 Deutsche Börse Prize winner Richard Mosse’s exhibition Ultra at Mitte gallery carlier | gebauer (until 30 May). His solo show takes as its subject rainforest flora and fauna and employs his signature experimental approach to photography. Using a technique usually reserved for scientists, he has captured his subjects, such as orchids, in ultraviolet fluorescence. The resulting large-format photographs are hyper detailed and in a restricted palette of purple, blue, red, black and green create an ominous Day of the Triffids aura. Nature launching an attack on mankind – a prescient theme for 2020.
Unboxing the Future by Anna Witt
22 Feb – 30 May
In the spirit of prescience, another Mitte gallery has an artist on show exploring future ways of working, not directly the “home office” so many are currently experiencing but nonetheless raises some pertinent philosophical questions. German artist Anna Witt is presenting (until 30 May) a single work at Tanja Wagner Galerie. Unboxing the Future is a 29-minute, three-channel video installation made in Toyota, Japan. Toyota cars is the eponymous city’s main employer, which also has its largest factory here. Fifty percent of its work-force are robots. Witt’s video consists of blue and white collar workers from the city discussing how automation has changed their lives, and may do even more so in the future. A performative element of the film sees factory workers teaching their mimed production line movements in choreographed synchronicity and the whole group experimenting with musical instruments as part of a discussion around increased leisure time due to automation. Witt’s lightness of touch and collaborative approach with those actually experiencing automation deftly unpeels a topic usually only discussed in academia, finding not only pessimism but also hope for the future.
plongée en apnée by Franco Mazzucchelli
14 March – 30 May
Kreuzberg gallery Chert Lüdde’s show plongée en apnée (until 30 May) by Italian artist Franco Mazzucchelli (b. 1939) also unwittingly resonates anew in the corona era. Alongside one newer inflatable work from 2014 and a selection of films and photographs that document his 1970s “Abbandono” series, a giant pulmonary system of “pneumatic sculptures” currently fills their gallery space. Large orange and white PVC inflatables in the form of enormous bunches of bananas, or commas, hang from the ceiling, inflating and deflating on automated timers. It’s a “reactivation” of a show the artist presented in Venice in 1969, at the time alluding simply to the movement of air and water in the human body. The context of its presentation now, a haunting reminder the susceptibility of our lungs to disease and the ventilators keeping so many alive around the world.
“ZEITREISE” – Photographs 1966 – 1986
6 March – 30 May
And if you need some light relief from Covid-laden art, head to Max Hetzler for a plethora of photos, some never seen before, by German artist Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) in “ZEITREISE” – Photographs 1966 – 1986 (until 30 May). Perhaps best known as a painter whose works now sell for millions and his early association with Gerhard Richter, Polke was also a master experimenter in the darkroom and not shy about including his unique sense of humour in his works. See the inexplicably funny photo of a dog taking a shit in Untitled (Dog) 1970-80. But it’s not all cheap laughs: there are some exquisite examples of his use of double exposures, superimposing negatives and many other unconventional manipulations he employed.