There are currently two excellent exhibitions worth catching at the Ephraim-Palais until 17th August. For the princely sum of five euros you can feast your eyes on the classic sculptures of Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764-1850) and gaze at the surreal sky-filled canvasses of Matthias Koeppel (born 1937). They are on display on separate floors of a stunning Rococco city palace, built for the Jewish court jeweller, Veitel Heine Ephraim, in 1762. The palace had to be knocked down in 1935 to make way for the construction of the Mühlendamm bridge but the façade was kept and stored in Wedding, West Berlin for several decades. Reconstruction eventually took place only a few metres from its orignal site in the Nikolaiviertel and it opened in 1987 as part of East Berlin’s celebrations for the 750th Anniversary of Berlin. Now the elegant Ephraim-Palais forms part of the Berlin Stadtmuseum (City Museum) and mounts temporary exhibitions.
Schadow is most famous for designing the Quadriga on top of the Brandenburg Gate and he is 250 years old this year. The Stadtmuseum is celebrating his birthday with their exhibition, ‘Unser Schadow’ (Our Schadow – pronounce ‘Shar-do’ ) and claiming this great Berlin sculptor as their own – with good reason. Since the first Berlin Stadtmuseum (Märkisches Museum) opened back in 1874, Schadow’s works have been a feature of their permanent collections, and include a large copper horse’s head, the only original part of the Quadriga to survive the bombs.
The surviving horse’s head – on display at the exhibition
Schadow was the son of a Berlin tailor who rose in Berlin society to become a Director of the Berlin Academy of Arts. This exhibition brings togethers over 300 sculptures, paintings, drawings, prints and documents, mostly from private collections, to tell the story of Schadow’s life as artist and man. It is divided into themed sections, each with a large poster summary in English. Among the exhibits are some exquisite smaller sculptures. The bust of Goethe, the pair of royal princesses, the woman from Weinsberg carrying her husband on her back and Bacchus comforting Ariadne all have special appeal.
Bacchus and Ariadne
Larger Schadow works, such as the portrait statue of Crown Princess Luise and her sister Frederica and the moving tombstone for the nine-year old Count Alexander von der Mark, are in the Alte Nationalgalerie and there are many grand Schadow statues gracing the streets of Berlin. But this exhibition celebrates the real-life Berliner as well the artistic genius. Schadow may have been court sculptor, great artist and expert in physiognomy but he was also a man of the people and a popular fellow. He shared his talents by becoming a respected teacher, he was an amiable host, a member of many societies, a committed Freemason, a keen chess-player, a music-lover and an amateur dramatist. He was proud of his two sons who followed in his footsteps as artists and this exhibition portrays a man with a good sense of humour. ‘Our Schadow’ is a title he would surely appreciate. I certainly enjoyed getting to know him better.
Buchhorn’s portrait of Schadow (1821)
And now for something completely different… ‘Himmel, Berlin!’ (which can be interpreted as a call for help, or an expression of surprise or admiration) features the amazing paintings of Matthias Koeppel, a (West) Berlin artist born in 1937. His subjects are set against the huge Berlin sky (‘Himmel’ can mean sky or heaven in English) and deal with contemporary history, politics or society. This is definitely art with a message and Koeppel uses surrealism and irony to get his point across. The Berlin sky is a central feature of each painting and it usually features light clouds. I couldn’t help being reminded of Wim Wender’s 1987 film ‘Himmel über Berlin’ (Wings of Desire) where invisible, immortal angels populate a divided Berlin and listen to the thoughts of the human inhabitants, comforting those who are in distress. And there is plenty to be distressed about in the scenes in Koeppel’s Berlin world. Many of them depict destruction and desolation and there are cruel parodies and harsh warnings. These grandiose canvasses demand attention and I found them fascinating. There are some interesting links with Schadow too, for example Koeppel’s repeated use of the Quadriga on the Brandenburg Gate either wonderfully silhouetted against the Berlin sky or in some way under attack.
The most obvious connection with Schadow is Koeppel’s painting of two German rock sisters standing in exactly the same pose as Schadow’s royal princesses, with the mausoleum in the Charlottenburg Palace park in the background. The contrast with Schadow’s original vision gives this painting special impact.
Detail from Requiem für Luise (1984)
References to art and politics abound in Koeppel’s work and a background knowledge of post-Wall Berlin history is vital for a detailed understanding of the subject matter of some of the paintings. But even a basic tour of the main tourist sights of Berlin would give some context and Koeppel’s sharp social comment always hits home. There is humour too, especially in the scenes which are parodies of well-known paintings.
Yet although Koeppel repeatedly forces us to take look on the dark or surreal side of life, the Berlin sky is always there to draw us upwards and away. It seems to have magical qualities.
Hotel Adlon (2000)
After all, what is it made of other than the famous ‘Berliner Luft’ (Berlin air)? If you want some to take home, it’s sold in cans at most souvenir stalls.