Park life ain’t what it used to be. Bench-sitting, picnics, yoga – all verboten. Walking is still permitted though and so is lingering in one place for a few minutes, hopefully. I’ve been lingering a lot, looking for things to look at other than plants or masked people. Berlin’s parks are full of man-made things we usually walk past without a thought. Graffiti-slathered sculptures, obscure monuments, plaques to forgotten soldiers and statesmen. During lockdown, I’ll be lingering around these objets d’art – and writing about a new one every week.
I’ll begin at my local park, Arminplatz, a relatively prim, ordered square in the Scandinavian quarter of northern Prenzlauer Berg. In the centre of the park, not far from where, before the Corona era, a group of daytime beer drinkers would congregate, is a peculiar work of sculpture that has baffled me for months. A giantess and a giant emerge out of a single lump of bronze. The woman is a voluptuous vamp wearing a strapless, slitted dress and heels. She looks like she’s ready for a night of tango. The man is an Elvis-wannabe, a rockabilly with a turned-up jacket collar, tight jeans and motorcycle boots. She leans into him. His arm envelops her plump waist.
For weeks, I asked myself who these people were. The text etched into the bronze base that could have offered a clue was covered in tags. To me, this piece looked like the work of a slightly rebellious GDR sculptor expressing his or her yearning for western Rebel Without a Cause individualism. Two proud mavericks standing strong together in the refuge of hetero coupledom, as oppressive Real Existing Socialism sucked the life out of everything around them.
Not quite. The duo are, it turns out, Bettina and Achim von Arnim, one of Romanticism’s power couples – the square’s namesakes. Duh. The bronze was finished in the mid-1990s by East Berlin artist Michael Klein. Interestingly, it was already commissioned in 1979, back in the GDR.
When Goethe ghosted the von Arnims in a Bohemian spa town, he wrote to his wife, ‘I’m very glad that I’m rid of those crazies.’
The von Arnims – who came of age around the turn of the 19th century – were rebels, for sure. Bettina, the daughter of a Frankfurt merchant with Italian heritage, nicknamed “goblin”, was known for her mischief from early on. A writer, poet, and composer with socialist leanings, she’s probably best known for her obsession with the literary celebrity of the era, Goethe, whom she met and began to exchange letters with in her early twenties. She appears to have been quite smitten, but it wasn’t mutual. In 1811, Bettina married the young noble Achim von Arnim, a rich kid from Brandenburg with literary aspirations of his own. On occasion, they would visit Goethe in Weimar. But after a spat between Bettina and Goethe’s wife Christiane, the two couples stopped seeing each other. They are said to have met at an exhibition of the artist Johann Heinrich Meyer, one of Goethe’s pals. Bettina made disparaging remarks about the artwork, leading Christiane to rip Bettina’s glasses from her face. Bettina called Christiane a “crazy blood sausage”. A year later, when Goethe ghosted the von Arnims in a Bohemian spa town, he wrote to his wife, “I’m very glad that I’m rid of those crazies.” Even so, Bettina’s fascination with Goethe never subsided. After his death in 1832, she published Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child, a lengthy collection of her letters to the author and his mother, much of it embellished. The book has overshadowed her other work – which includes epistolary autofiction, songs, poems and political writings – to this day. A segment of Milan Kundera’s 1988 novel Immortality is devoted to her efforts to shape Goethe’s legacy.
On Arnimplatz, Bettina and Achim are unified in bronze but they’re looking off in very separate directions. The couple had seven children, yet didn’t see much of each other. Bettina stayed in Berlin most of time, writing, composing and mingling with the who’s who of the cultural and political scene. It’s speculated she had an affair with Beethoven.
He was quite the loner, publishing in his youth a Newspaper for Hermits, the kind of thing moody rich kids did back then.
While Bettina was living the Berlin life, Achim spent a lot time brooding at his childhood home, Schloss Wiepersdorf, south of Berlin. (Today, there’s a museum devoted to the couple there.) He was quite the loner, publishing in his youth a Newspaper for Hermits, the kind of thing moody rich kids did back then. As a student he dabbled in physics, even putting forth a theory on electricity. Nonetheless, he will be remembered as one of Germany’s literary heavyweights of the period – writing novels, plays, stories and poems – works of violent, tragic love and sometimes almost surrealist fantasy. Like most German Romantics, Achim was a bit of a nationalist. He collected hundreds of German folk songs in the three-volume Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a project comparable to the Brothers Grimm collection of folk tales – he was friends with them, too, of course.
Achim once wrote to his friend (and Bettina’s brother), the writer Clemens Bretano, that “Everything in the world happens because of poetry, history is the most common expression of the fact that fate has staged great theatre.” The Napoleonic Wars, the explosion of culture, the seeds of revolution sprouting around Europe – the world of the early 1800s must have felt like as if poetry and history were part of a single process.
The bronze giants on Arminplatz don’t look anything like the portraits painted of Bettina and Achim. But their body language and the look in their eyes suggests a pride and a fury.
If these Romantics could see the strange sight of people wearing face masks scurrying along with their bags full of groceries from the giant Rewe across the street, they might struggle to see poetry in the world of 2020. Or they might follow the path of hundreds of Sternburg bottle caps pressed into the soil (presumably by one of the daytime drinkers) that leads to the eastern edge of the park to another work by Michael Klein, Poesie der Dinge (Poetry of Things), a deconstructed still life with a mysterious beauty of its own.