‘David Bowie Is’ in Berlin

Without Title, 1978, Linocut David Bowie © The David Bowie Archive

Without Title, 1978, Linocut
David Bowie
© The David Bowie Archive

The acclaimed V&A exhibition ‘David Bowie Is’ temporarily set up home in Berlin at the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

In London, it made its visitors gasp in sheer awe of it. The article ‘Planet Bowie’ captured my impressions and I now had the privilege of seeing it again, especially because of its extended Berlin section. I remember well how puzzled I was by the small space it was given in London considering the significance, which is attributed to this time in the context of Bowie’s overall work. The albums ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’ are a product of the years 1976 to 1978 that he spent in Berlin.

Now, it must be quite a challenge for those involved to adapt this huge exhibition conceived for the Victoria and Albert Museum to a new space, particularly since it can be regarded as a piece of art in itself, which resembles an immense and intrinsic installation. Costumes, costumes, costumes, hand-written lyrics and various bits that inspired Bowie to his art. The rooms are smaller here and it slightly loses its theatricality. Also, there is less music. However, there are new things to discover in the two Berlin rooms towards the end: paintings, oil paintings to be precise in an expressionistic style made by Bowie. Two of them show Iggy Pop, with whom he came to Berlin in 1976 to detox from his drugged life in Los Angeles. Through the audio guide he can be heard saying: “When I came to Europe, I wanted to stop thinking about music and performance. I did something I hadn’t done for a long time, which was to paint, which helped me back into music.” The image ‘Berlin Landscape With J.O.’ (James Osterberg, alias Iggy Pop) is particularly powerful. It shows a pensive man, probably not the way many people see him. Another surprise is the lino cut (see image) made during the filming of ‘Just a Gigolo’ in 1978. It perfectly combines Bowie’s interest in Weimar Berlin, (‘Just a Gigolo’ is set in 1920s Berlin), with his passion for German Expressionism, which prevailed in the previous decades. The Brücke Museum featuring German Expressionism was one of his favourite places. I wonder how many Bowie fans have seen these images before, because it is not the first time they are on display.

But it is not only the city’s past that drew him to Berlin. Its present with music makers such as Tangerine Dream attracted him too. Like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream made electronic music and in a way hinted at the future. Again, it is typical for David Bowie to be at the forefront of musical development.

Berlin Section of 'David Bowie Is' in Berlin © Avantgarde, photo: Thomas Bruns

Berlin Section of ‘David Bowie Is’ in Berlin
© Avantgarde, Photo: Thomas Bruns

Besides being artistically inspired by the past and the future, he engages very much with the present. He hangs out at the clubs SO36, Chez Romy and the Dschungel, which he refers to in the song ‘Where Are We Now’ on his latest album ‘The Next Day’. The song is a love letter to the city, but to those who know the city also to a time gone by. Berlin in 1977 has little to do with the reality of 2014. There’s no Dschungel, no Chez Romy. The SO36 made it through Berlin’s turbulent past. The photo of Chez Romy was provided by Romy Haag, the owner of the club with whom Bowie was very close – much to the dismay Angie Bowie to whom he was still married at the time. She was not alone: Bowie’s promoters weren’t happy either about this liaison, although for slightly different reasons.

There’s a small note from Christopher Isherwood, whom Bowie met in Los Angeles. Bowie had read Isherwood’s classic ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ and Isherwood’s memories were another reason for him to come to Berlin to experience the city himself. Again, taking the time shift between late 1920s and late 1970s into account, there’s another link that bridges these eras: Marlene Dietrich. She lived 1920s Berlin to the full before she emigrated to the US and in 1978 she was part of the film ‘Just a Gigolo’. An exchange of letters between them is on display. These gems were discovered in the Marlene archive, the Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin. David Bowie was keen to meet her, but since she shot her scenes in Paris, where she lived, and he shot his in Berlin, they never met.

'David Bowie Is' at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin Photo: Sabine Schereck

‘David Bowie Is’ at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin
Photo: Sabine Schereck

The exhibition also takes a look at Bowie’s brief visit to the city in 1987 when he performed a concert at the Reichstag alongside other stars such as Eurythmics and Genesis to celebrate the city’s 750th anniversary. Its importance lies in the fact that it was close to the wall and attracted young people from East Berlin to listen from the eastern side of the wall. During the course of the three-day-long concert, they asked for the wall to be torn down with the result that the police violently put an end to their demands.

The Berlin section is a joint effort between the V&A curators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, who created the exhibition in the first place, and Christine Heidemann, the curator of the new Berlin section. The exhibition was made possible thanks to Broakes and Marsh’s access to The Bowie Archive, which was revisited for the extension. 60 items have been added to the retrospective.

These two rooms are like a time capsule and offer a glimpse of Bowie the person, and his life during that time, as opposed to Bowie the artist, which is pre-dominant in the other parts of the exhibition.

It goes beyond the albums ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Lodger’, which are known as the Berlin Trilogy and are always referred to when it comes to Berlin. Yet, it is only Heroes, which was completely recorded at the Hansa Studios in Berlin. Not to forget: Iggy Pop’s albums ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust for Life’, which Bowie produced, were also recorded there during that time. Interestingly, the Hansa Studios are only a short stroll away from the Martin-Gropius-Bau, where the exhibition runs until 10th August 2014.

Afterwards the exhibition tours to Chicago (20 September 2014 to January 2015), Paris (2 March to 31 May 2015) and Groningen in the Netherlands (15 December 2015 to 15 March 2016).

By Sabine Schereck

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One Response to ‘David Bowie Is’ in Berlin

  1. A wonderfully written article and you could not have described the beauty of this exhibition better than you already have. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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