By William J. Furney
At the National Art Gallery in Berlin, no one knew anything about Francis Bacon. Not the frazzled women on the ticket desk, nor the attendant they had asked me to ask about this apparent painting perplexity. I knew there was at least one work by the tortured Irish-British painter’s tortuous works somewhere in the museum, as I had checked online before making the trip via train and on foot on a freezing November afternoon last year — but no. The sole Bacon, it turned out, was in another building belonging to the Alte Nationalgalerie, which just happened to be way across the other side of the sprawling, dank city of one-time division and now attempting to be something of a capital of cool, but nonetheless failing in its aspirational, trendy efforts.
Berlin, it happens, is the exact opposite.
I seem to be constantly chasing Bacon and never finding satisfaction. A year earlier, I arrived at the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts one Sunday afternoon and asked where their Bacon was. “In storage” and not on display, they said, despite their website advertising a Francis Bacon as among their permanent collection. I suppose, just like shops, art galleries have to rotate their wares. I did, however, have tremendous Bacon success in Malaga a year or so earlier, when an exhibit featuring Bacon, Freud and others (Bacon, Freud and the School of London) was held at the Picasso Museum in the heart of the Andalucian city of astounding culture and high art.
I chose not to travel across the city on a bitter day in equally bitter Berlin, and put up with the exhibits the central gallery had that day: lots of ancient sculptures, French and German impressionists and early religious painters who clearly thought their work was divine. Berlin, I found, is a cold and fairly heartless place, and I wondered why anyone would willingly choose to live there.
I couldn’t find a Bacon in Berlin, so the next best thing, I thought, was to paint something of my own, with a Berlin-based artist.
I found Dina, an artist with a studio and offering people the chance to be a painter for a while with her Experience offering on Airbnb, the accommodating sharing-and-letting site that started out as an air-mattress-sharing experience in San Francisco called AirBed & Breakfast and has entirely disrupted the overpriced hotel industry, and become worth some US$25 billion in the process. Dino has a BA in art history and creates what she calls “Techno Paintings”, which is not all that surprising, given that she’s a DJ at one of Berlin’s top clubs.
We messaged for a few days, but couldn’t find a mutually agreeable time for me to paint at Dina’s studio. Eventually we settled on a mid-week early afternoon, and the techno-artist said she’d like cash, instead of the more usual, and usually mandatory, payment via the Airbnb platform. She was using the service to advertise her service, but unwilling to give them a dime; but anyway, I said I’d give it to her in cash, and might go along that night to the club she’d mentioned, where she’d be working till the early hours, to have a Berlin clubbing experience of my own, and give her the euros there so my painting slot would be secured.
“It’s long Q,” Dina said via the Airbnb messenger — which turned out to be nothing short of a major understatement.
The club was, and is, Berghain, a massive, multi-floor techno-drome in a former power station and you can wait in line for hours only to be turned away by a doorman who doesn’t like the look of you. No, thanks.
I’d arranged for a painting session at Dina’s studio anyway, but she had said she’d be performing until the early hours that day; the next morning she didn’t answer messages I sent seeking confirmation of the appointment, and so, reluctantly, I gave up. Perhaps she’d been painting the town red. She did get back to me, in the afternoon, to say she’d only woke up around lunchtime.
My meetings weren’t going so well anyway. I’d invited a colleague, an American newly moved to Berlin, to lunch at my apartment, but she didn’t turn up; and I also invited a Canadian colleague living in Berlin for the last few years, to dinner, but she had an emergency with her boyfriend and couldn’t make it. I was not, it was fast turning out, all that big in Berlin.
I did meet Frank Sonder, an entrepreneur, public speaker and, like me, a bigtime runner, and we ran the Berlin Wall early one Baltic morning. I had been out running early every day during my week in the city, as I was helping to raise funds for the Movember challenge, and was happy to add another 10K to my total. That was the length of our route, said big-bearded Frank, who was born in then-East Berlin and now lives in what would have been the western part.
We had a fascinating conversation throughout our run — everything from emerging technologies like blockchain to the proposed universal social wage, Berlin’s troubled past and more. Frank — whom I later interviewed for a piece about these topics that appeared in Furney Times — said many Germans still had a sort of collective guilt about the country’s Nazi past, most recently evidenced in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to let in millions of refugees (or economic migrants, if you prefer) from places like Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq as a way to try and assuage this overarching guilt for the crimes of World War II.
But the sentiment may be fading, as he said the younger generations, including his own children, don’t so much have any real feeling towards what happened during the Nazi era. “My daughter doesn’t feel guilty about it, the way I and other people of my generation do,” he said.
I was glad to leave Berlin and its ruinous past, and a couple of days later summoned an Uber to the airport. “You have no idea how much I hate the cold,” the driver, a young man of Turkish origin who was born in the city, told me as we sped along a highway. Actually I do, I told him; it makes me physically ill.
“The people are cold too,” he lamented. He was single and lived with his parents and worked at a gym that was closed for renovations, and so he had taken up taxi driving for a few months. “I’ve got a great body; you just can’t see it under all these clothes,” he said. He seemed desperate to do something meaningful with his life and appeared full of eager promise, but he was conflicted about leaving his parents and moving abroad, where he might have a better life.
Why not live in Turkey? I asked, and told him I had been in Istanbul earlier in the year. He said he goes to see family there but wouldn’t live in the country. What about America? I asked. I told him I has been in Los Angeles several weeks earlier and it was Fitness Central, and actually where the entire fitness industry was born — and can’t turn a corner without seeing another glitzy fitness centre? That was certainly appealing, but he didn’t know if he could make the leap.
As we arrived at the airport I said to this native Berliner who wanted to escape that now was the time to act — whatever the risks, whether he could afford to or not, that fortune really does favour the brave. “At your age I left Europe for Asia, not really knowing what I was doing and how it would all work out,” I said. “I had incredible adventures and the absolute time of my life.”
Don’t leave it till you’re much older and tied down with work and family and unable to go anywhere or do anything much other than what you’re doing now, I said. Don’t have regrets this big.
And as I walked towards the terminal building, I thought how I, a vegan, regretted not having a big, juicy slice of Bacon in Berlin.
- Title image, of Berlin National Art Gallery main entrance, by William J. Furney