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Bohemian Life: Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites, Hippies

27 Sep

Bohemian way of life has always been alluring to me and in this post I decided to assemble my love for Romanticists, Pre-Raphaelites and London Underground scene in the 1960s with a bit of fashion, aesthetics, art and music. I’ve also made collages which serve to substantiate the connection between these three art movements/counter cultures and the bohemian way of life. Enjoy 🙂

hippie romantics 1 text a(Click to enlarge)

‘Cult of genius’ emerged during Romanticism – for the first time in history an artist was considered an individual, an imaginative creature rather than a craftsman as it had been understood before. Romantics were the first rebellions, mostly artists and intellectuals led by the ideals of individuality and freedom they opposed the serious rules of the rationalistic world of neoclassicism. In the aspect of individuality, all the art movements that followed and the very perception of the artist himself owe a great deal to Romantic movement.

It’s not unusual that the word ‘bohemian’ appeared in the 19th century, though a bit after the romantics, but its meaning can fully be applied in context of Romanticists and their lifestyles. Term ‘bohemian’ was first used in French language to describe Romani people because it was believed that they came from Bohemia, Czech Republic, but it later came to symbolize any kind of unconventional lifestyle, often in the poorer but culturally richer parts of the city, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits. Bohemians are also seen as wanderers and adventurists. When Pre-Raphaelites arrived on the art scene in the mid-Victorian era, they opposed realism and materialism, and questioned the false values and morals of Victorian society.

A century later numerous young people chose more unconventional ways of living and  opposed the conformist and consumerist Western society – those were the hippies. As you can see, every time period has its bohemians or outsiders. I could write about the large number of artists/bohemians on Montmartre in the late 19th century or the crazy early 20th century bunch on Montparnasse, but in this post I decided to focus on three art movement/countercultures that share similarities in terms of values, ideas, inspirations and aesthetics. How could I not compare the dangerous and dashing Dante Gabriel Rossetti with dark and brooding Lord Byron, and both of them with Syd Barrett for example – art knows no time, art knows ideals, moods and feelings.

hippie romantics 2 a text

Romanticists were rebellions and idealists, and in their works (especially regards literature and music) they put emphasis on subjectivity, love and intimacy, appreciation of nature, and delved into mysticism: they celebrated everything that contrasted neoclassicism and enlightenment. Romantic painters focused on the glorious past, though it often carried characteristics of escapism. The need to escape time or space is a longing which arises from the sense of dissatisfaction in a hopeless reality, and this longing characterised the whole art of Romanticism. Similarly, members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood were fascinated with the past, and in the idealised Medieval world they found the spiritual and creative energy that was (according to them) lost in the industrialised Victorian world. Pre-Raphaelites also found inspiration in their ‘spiritual predecessors’ the Romantics, and their artworks show their interest in mythology, specially Greek and Roman.

A century after the Pre-Raphaelites, in the late 1960s London’s underground came alive. As the Mods and Dollies were on the wane, an alternative scene was thriving in obscurity. Acid heads, pop stars, different eccentrics, artists and outsiders graced the London scene in those years, among that horde was Syd Barrett. ‘Syd was happy being a bohemian, like the romanticised ‘poetes maudits’.* Just like Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites before them, the London hippies drank from the fountain of the past. They drew inspiration from Eastern mysticism (yoga, Hare Krishna, Buddhism, I Ching, Ravi Shankar, Tagore) European mythology, Celts, English folklore, astrology, occult, Ouija boards, tarot cards, meditation and vegetarianism.

hippie romantics 7 text

Music: Ravi Shankar

Parallels between Pre-Raphaelites and London Underground can also be drawn in terms of aesthetics. When artists Michael English and Nigel Waymouth were commissioned to make posters for the UFO, they sought inspiration in the 19th century Orientalism and artists such as William Morris who was a member of the Arts and Crafts Movements, befriended Pre-Raphaelites and shared their ideas and style. In terms of fashion, one can notice similarities. In both cases, a bohemian lifestyle needed a bohemian fashion to match. Pre-Raphaelites came up with the aesthetic dress movement in an effort to loosen and brighten up the rigid and somber Victorian fashion. Likewise, London bohemians found a unique way of expressing themselves by wearing brightly coloured satin, floral prints, wooden bracelets, antique silver jewellery, bizarre and floral prints, velvet trousers, flowing silks… Although they lived a century apart, in terms of aesthetics and style, Jane Morris with her loosely cut dresses in natural fabrics and Marianne Faithfull or Brian Jones with their extravagant psychedelic outfits rightfully belong to the same stylistic universe.

hippie romantics 3 textMusic: Pink Floyd – Chapter 24

Apart from the fact they were inspired by similar things, these three groups of bohemians also shared some ideas despite the fact that they lived in different times and in differently structured society and social norms. Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites and hippies all shared ideas of originality, idealism, emphasis on feelings and love towards nature. Love, intimacy and identification with nature was for Romantics a wellspring of deep, almost mystical rapture. In poetry Nature reflected the way artist felt, but also influenced his feelings. As for Pre-Raphaelites, their paintings speak for themselves, but I won’t fail to mention the patience with which Millais painted the nature surrounding his drowning Ophelia. For London Underground, a part of which was formed by a group of young people from Cambridge, including Syd, nature was part of the growing up; they all enjoyed the Cantabrigian landscape, long walks by the river, in the woods. For Syd nature was imbued with mystical overtones, and he had a spiritual connection with it. I’ll quote the book:

”This profound connection with nature never left him. In his lyrics, the sky was a woman, and love was air.”*

Another thing they shared in common was the ideal of ‘free love’; a social movement which rejects marriage and perceives it as a form of social and financial bondage. It’s not the same as supporting promiscuity. Although the idea of free love is mostly associated with hippies and counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s, ‘free love’ was a much more radical and controversial concept earlier in the past than in the ’60s. Many Romantic poets supported the idea of ‘free love’, William Blake and Shelley among them. For example, Blake believed that ‘humans were ‘fallen’ and that a major impediment to a free love society was corrupt human nature.’ Percy Shelley, along with Mary Shelley who had inherited her mother’s liberal worldviews, also supported free love, along with vegetarianism – another trait common with hippies. As for the Pre-Raphaelites, one doesn’t need to go too far, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a good example because he lived with Elizabeth Siddal c. ten years before they married, an act very scandalous in Victorian times.

hippie romantics 4 textMusic: Syd Barrett – Opel

Caspar David Friedrich, the most famous German Romantic painter, is well-known for his landscapes with figures turning their backs on the viewers, as if they are gazing towards something eternal and infinite. Syd Barrett’s song Opel reminded me of Friedrich’s painting ‘Moonrise over the Sea’ which can be seen in the collage above. The beginning of the song beautifully captures Friedrich’s landscapes of skies in the dusk, evening or moonrises, emptiness painted in soft transitions of purple and yellow colour, tiny figures against the vast backdrop of the sea…

On a distant shore, miles from land
Stands the ebony totem in ebony sand
A dream in a mist of grey…
On a far distant shore…” (Syd Barrett – Opel)

In addition to the ideas shared by all three groups of bohemians, Romantics and hippies also shared the idea of pacifism, specially Percy Bysshe Shelley. However, the mood of Romanticism was a mood of disappointment, melancholy, sadness, loss of hope in society, whilst hippies tended to be a rather cheerful bunch (maybe Romantics would have been merry too, had they used acid), putting emphasis on altruism and their inner peace. Live and let live.

hippie romantics 8 text

And last, but not least, we could see how these bohemians lived their lives in different times and expressed their ideas. Percy Bysshe Shelley for example, lived a short but turbulent and unconventional life (as did many bohemians =). In poetry he cherished a ‘cult of pure beauty’, and supported idealism, nonviolence, social justice and vegetarianism (he supported rights of all living creatures that he saw being treated unjustly!). With his strong principles and interesting ideas he became a hero for the generation that followed, poets beyond Europe, such as Rabindranath Tagore (whom the hippies loved) admired his work. Lord Byron ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know‘ led a completely different life, with more danger than integrity, but his actions are good examples of unconventionality. He had numerous love affairs, you could say that free love was his cup of tea, fought in Greece and died there also very young.

As for Pre-Raphaelites, well William Holman Hunt traveled a bit, Millais ‘stole’ Ruskin’s wife Effie and had eight children, and Rossetti lived with Elizabeth Siddal until she overdosed on laudanum and died, painted a few beautiful red haired models, then retreated himself in a house in Chelsea, London, surrounded by ‘extravagant furnishings and a parade of exotic birds and animals’. Oh, by the way, did I tell you that Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s mother Frances Mary Polidori was John Polidori’s sister? And John Polidori was a friend of both Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. Strange.

hippie romantics 5 text

First and foremost, London bohemians of the late ’60s disapproved the lifestyle their parents led so the natural thing to do was to behave in a totally different way; to begin with they listened to blues records, wore colourful clothes and accepted a laid back attitude to life. They traded the drab and grey post-war reality with a colourful, psychedelic and mystical world of arts, music, flamboyance, love and freedom.

All in all, bohemianism is a personal, cultural and social reaction to the bourgeois life. The choice is yours, ladies and gentleman. Peace.

*Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe – Julian Palacios

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The Stone Roses – Divinity of Madchester

1 Mar

If there’s one band after the 1960s that captured the spirit of optimism and good times to be had, than it’s The Stone Roses whose debut album was treated as a ‘Holy Bible‘ by a generation of British rockers.

the stone rosesCover of their debut album ‘The Stone Roses’ (1989)

Kiss me where the sun don’t shine/The past was yours/But the future’s mine/You’re all out of time‘ (She bangs the drums); even before they gained their widespread fanatical following The Stone Roses were assured in their ‘role of saviors‘. This modest philosophy is evident in many 0f their songs from the debut album, in verses such as ‘I don’t need to sell my soul/He’s already in me/I wanna be adored‘ and ‘My aim is true/My message is clear‘ (Elizabeth my dear). Indeed, The Stone Roses gained a cult of followers despite having released only two albums, and paved the way for a new generation of Indie rock musicians, encouraging them to delve into the 1960s Psychedelia. Still, their success and self confidence brought a mass phenomenon of immense arrogance of some British bands who tend to behave like gods after only a few singles.

British music scene saw a decline in the 1980s. A nation that gave music so many legends (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Kinks, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, The Clash etc.) was in the shadow of American bands. The Smiths were there, providing a glimpse of light and hope in desperate times, but they split in 1987. Embittered and clueless, British music scene was in desperate need of someone who’d come up with a vision of salvation. The desperately awaited Resurrection came in a form of The Stone Roses. The new era of Manchester music was just beginning; Madchester was born.

the stone roses 2

The Stone Roses (Ian Brown – vocals, John Squire – lead guitar, Mani – bass guitar, and Reni – drums) were part of a new wave of Manchester bands who’d give indie music a psychedelic twist. Their early sound captured that west coast psychedelia, a sense of The Byrds. Front man Ian Brown walked on the stage with a Mancunian swagger, and, along with equally cocky and cheeky musicians, he led the way on the Madchester scene. They believed they were born to do it, and that’s what they did. With their debut album of the same name, The Stone Roses gave indie music a completely fresh start.

1989 was the year the white kids woke up‘, said Ian Brown, and this can well and truly be applied to the Manchester scene at the time. Manchester’s bleak and gloomy image, based partly on the cold climate of north England, and over yet on the legacy of post-punk legends of Joy Division, was transformed in 1989. Rave houses such as Hacienda, along with the emerging new psychedelia bands, turned Manchester into Madchester, the mecca for the new generation of hedonists and 24 hour party people. Cheerful and hypnotic melodies from The Stone Roses’ debut album shone like a ray of sunshine over the once gloomy and industrial city of Manchester, now turned into a background for a never ending, optimism fueled Second summer of love.

the stone roses 3

Workaholic materialism of the ’80s faded, at least for a moment, and youth culture blossomed in the dawn of the 1990s. Ian Brown remembers ‘…a feeling of community strength … coming out of a club at the end of the night feeling like you were going to change the world. Then guns come in, and heroin starts being put in ecstasy. It took a lot of the love-vibe out.‘ The Stone Roses themselves detached from the club scene as the time progressed, but it the early days a spirit of psychedelia colourised the city’s drab legacy and turned it into a place to be. Idealism pervaded the air once again. For the young people whose mindsets were tuned with the ones of The Stone Roses, Manchester’s rainy days and gray landscapes turned into psychedelic swirls and paisleys, the sky was coloured with melodies from The Stone Roses’s debut album released in April/May 1989. For a moment, Manchester was a living dream.

The magnificent thing about this album is that it perfectly captures that free spirited atmosphere and could easily stand as a soundtrack to those fleeting times, but it’s unbelievably timeless. The quality of the album itself has never been debated by true artistic minds, and the NME named it the greatest British album ever in 2006. Clever mixture of psychedelic sounds and dance beats proved a lasting influence on rock music, and set the tone for the Indie music in the 1990s. Liam Gallagher bought the album four times, not only because the record wore out, but as a way of showing respect to a band that has influenced him so much.

the stone roses 13

As the time progressed, the album became even more critically acclaimed, gaining adjectives such as ‘godlike‘ (Melody Maker). However, the album’s popularity, which came almost over night, is not a coincidence. The Stone Roses owe credit to their success not only to the situation in UK at the time, but mainly to their artistic skills. Before venturing into their own playing, the band explored the 1960s music, wowing psychedelia of bands such as The Byrds into their own hypnotic guitar sounds.

On a visual level, The Stone Roses were influenced by Jackson Pollock in the same way they were influenced by The Byrds and ’60s psychedelia musically. Jackson Pollock, an American painter and a pioneer of Abstract-Expressionism, discarded the easel painting in favour of letting colour find its own way, spread freely and live a life of its own. He said ‘The modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.‘ The Stone Roses joyfully embraced Pollock’s philosophy in a way that they created a completely new ‘time and space‘, allowing their listeners to fall in a trance through their songs.

the stone roses 11Photo found here.

Album The Stone Roses is a magnificent combination of the ’60s psychedelia and Pollock’s vision of expressing feelings through colours. Most of the songs from their debut album (‘Waterfall’, ‘Made of Stone’, ‘This Is The One’, ‘She Bangs the Drums’) start with a slight drumming and psychedelic lingering over the guitar strings, over which Ian’s hypnotic voice spreads like colour, only to end in an explosive guitar storm.

The album cover is a Pollock-inspired artwork by John Squire titled ‘Bye Bye Badman‘, which makes reference to May 1968 riots in Paris. Lemons gracing the cover are connected to the latter event as well. Squire said ‘Ian Brown had met this French man when he was hitching around Europe, this bloke had been in the riots, and he told Ian how lemons had been used as an antidote to tear gas. Then there was the documentary—-a great shot at the start of a guy throwing stones at the police. I really liked his attitude.‘ Even the covers of their singles are pastiches of Jackson Pollock’s work.

the stone roses 14

The summer of ’89 The Stone Roses began limiting themselves to spectacular gigs. First of these was the legendary concert at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens. Outside of Manchester the band had struggled to fill venues holding just a couple of hundred people. Concert at the Empress Ballroom was a gamble for it held a crowd of over 3000 people. Mani said that the band have always considered doing gigs like walking on tightrope; you could fall at any time but you enjoy the danger. The Stone Roses wanted to see how far they could go. On Saturday August 12th 1989 they held a headline gig at the Empress Ballroom to a crowd of 4000 people. The moment was there. The world was ready for The Stone Roses. ‘We’re anti-trivia above all else,’ Ian Brown said in 1989, and the band’s shimmering guitar sound along Ian’s hypnotic voice have surely colourised many boring trivialities.

Later that year, the band released their legendary single ‘Fools Gold‘; a ten minute epic that gives an impression that it could last ten hours and still wouldn’t become boring. In ten minutes it sums up all important events of rock ‘n’ roll; from blues and soul to acid house. Ian Brown said in December 1989 ‘We’re the most important group in the world, because we’ve got the best songs and we haven’t even begun to show our potential yet.‘ (NME) In May 1990 some 27,000 people attended The Stone Roses outdoor concert at Spike Island in Widnes. Although the sound and organisation were bad, the venues became legendary, often called ‘The second Woodstock’.

What the world is waiting for‘ were The Stone Roses. However, caught in a web of contractual wrangling, their fortunes took a downward turn. Although the Roses would never recapture their early magic, their legacy is still considerable.

For me, listening to The Stone Roses album is like dreaming a really magical, magnificent and purifying dream in which everything is possible. And after the last hypnotic reverberating sounds of the song ‘I am the resurrection‘ ends, and I wake up from that dream, Ian’s haunting voice singing ‘I wanna be adored…‘ resonates throughout my head the entire day, week, month, eternity…

I WANNA BE ADORED

I don’t have to sell my soul
He’s already in me
I don’t need to sell my soul
He’s already in me
I wanna be adored
I wanna be adored…

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – The Berlin Years

11 Nov

A painter paints the appearance of things, not their objective correctness, in fact he creates new appearances of things.

1913. Kirchner - Street, Berlin1913. Street, Berlin

In 1911. Kirchner moved to Berlin and started a new phase in his artistic endeavors; vivid street scenes with prostitutes and elegantly dressed men, chic streetwalkers with angular faces; all presented in brilliant pinks, purples, blues and blacks, with heavy brush strokes accentuating the dynamic, hectic and urban mood of the decadent city. Luxury and anxious energy of Berlin, the Hauptstadt of Decadence, were perfectly captured by Kirchner who said of Berlin ”You’ll be totally surprised when you set foot in Berlin. We’ve become a large family and you can get everything you need – women and shelter.” Kirchner himself arrived there with his then new girlfriend Erna Schilling who helped him in re-creating the atmosphere of his studio in Dresden. Walls of his new studio-apartment in Berlin were soon decorated with primitivist hangings, Ajanta- inspired wall paintings and African sculptors he carved himself.

Berlin in those years was just what Kirchner was looking for; with the crowded cafes, different venues, interesting people, lively circuses and cabarets, the city proved to be very alluring for him, and the initial excitement with the life in Berlin was evident in his early works. Later however, his paintings showed an uneasy balance between the excitement with the city and the alienation he felt living in it. Landscape of his paintings was the one of vibrant colours, intensity, with the emphasis on movement, and the capturing of the intensity and urgency of the city. His artistic sensibilities, caught up in the city’s dynamism led to an increased sensitivity of the form, colour and expression. Daring brush strokes and harmonies, along with angular figures and night street scenes characterised Kirchner’s Berlin years.

1914. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Potsdamer Platz1914. Potsdamer Platz

With the angular figures, intense colours and simplified, yet very atmospheric background, Kirchner succeeded in ‘creating new appearances of things‘; in these paintings, especially ‘Street, Berlin‘ and ‘Potsdamer Platz‘ we see Berlin not how it technically looked like in early 1910s, but rather through these twisted perspectives and vibrancy we see, or feel, a whole mood of the city; a decadent spirit captured for eternity. “It seems as though the goal of my work has always been to dissolve myself completely into the sensations of the surroundings in order to then integrate this into a coherent painterly form.“, Kirchner said, and that’s what he seemed to be doing, taking inspiration from the street scenes he saw through his window, portraying the street scenes in the ‘capital of cabaret’ with raw intensity of colours.

Conflicting interests and fierce rivalries characteristic for Berlin’s art world of the time, along with the competitive ambiance eventually splintered the group in 1913. Although they continued having joint exhibitions in Berlin, the close personal connection among the members loosened as the members struck out in different artistic directions. These artistic differences were aggravated by Kirchner’s chronicle of Die Brücke, in which he imposed himself as a prominent figure. The other artists associated with the group felt that their contributions for the group were understated. Kirchner’s relationship with the Bridge group remained difficult for the rest of his life, and he even rejected any association with them.

1913. Kirchner - Berlin Street Scene1913. Kirchner – Berlin Street Scene

After disassembling with the group, he went on to develop a much more individual style and his Berlin scenes of alienated figures, reflect a sense of creative isolation and city melancholia. Kirchner’s street scenes, painted in sharp brush strokes and vibrant colours, are permeated with sarcasm and the depressive and alienating atmosphere of Berlin. Initial excitement with the city shifted into a metropolitan loneliness and anxiety which resulted in a morbid fascination with the alienation in modern society. His ‘Berlin street scenes‘ portray society as Kirchner saw it; a bleak masses of people walking by each other, lonely and estranged figures with dark holes instead of eyes reflect the darkness that had begun to engulf him. Painted in dark colours, some of the sullen gentleman seem like shadows; a modern life stripped of its false glamour and splendor with nothing but a raw essential left; all the hypocrisy, obduracy,  materialistic obsessions and complete detachment from nature, God and true values of existence are presented without embellishment.

Ladies shown on the painting were mostly prostitutes. Kirchner’s girlfriend Erna Schilling and her sister Gerda, a dancer, whom the painter described as having ‘beautiful, architecturally structured, rigorously formed bodies‘, posed as models for his street scenes. Kirchner glorifies the hidden sensuality beneath the prostitutes’ clothes in these paintings; their bodies are elongated, their posture elegant, their faces angular, with a mask-like appearance, their gaze wanders between pride and doubtfulness. Dressed in their haughty attire, their faces painted with rouge, these ‘ladies of the night‘ mirror the alienating, melancholic, isolating and anxious atmosphere of Berlin at the time, and of the society in general.

1914. Friedrichstrasse - Kirchner1914. Friedrichstrasse – Kirchner

Perhaps the most famous of Kirchner’s street scenes is a painting ‘Friedrichstrasse‘ painted in 1914. In it, the viewer is confronted by three elongated women (most likely prostitutes again) who stand proudly in the foreground like three magnificent peacocks. Behind them stand anonymous suited men with blank expressions, suggesting the dehumanisation of individuals as a result of a modern life. Kirchner’s vivid palette and aggressive brush strokes only intensify the agony and anxiety an individual faces. The street is crowded, noisy and hectic, yet none of the individuals interact with each other. His street scenes portray an individual in isolation. Each of these works has a unique character, but the idea behind it is ‘a sense of living dangerously in a great capital city on the edge of a catastrophe.’

In these years his work became more dramatic; his usual heavy brush strokes now appeared almost violent, energetic composition and elongated figures reflect isolation, while the black brush strokes give a sense of movement and speed. The metropolitan alienation, despair and anxiety Kirchner expressed in his works perhaps show the life as it was in his head; dark and hectic, and serve as a prelude to his final mental and psychical collapse, and the collapse of modern society in general. These street scenes are only a continuation of the ‘Fin de Siecle neurosis.‘ Kirchner later described his subject matter as ‘the nervous faces of people of our time’ reflecting ‘every smallest irritation’.

1912. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Nollendorfplatz1912. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Nollendorfplatz

Kirchner’s work, and that of the other members of ‘The Bridge’, was influential on David Bowie who was fond of the Expressionists in general. He liked the intensity, striking forms and ‘raw power’ of Kirchner’s paintings, but the most appealing to him was the alienation that Kirchner expressed in his Berlin street scenes. In the 1970s Berlin was permeated by the atmosphere of neglect and desolation. Berlin’s world-weary self regard was attractive to foreigners who saw their own alienation mirrored in the city’s outsider status; David Bowie was one of them, fascinated by Berlin’s rich yet lush history of cabaret, expressionist silent movies and urban paintings. Bowie identified himself with the city’s fate; the fate of growing too quickly, both politically and in urban development, and having to suffer eternal growing pains. Architecture critic Heinrich Wefing once talked of Berlin’s partus praecipitatus – ‘always having to be more, always having to wrestle with one’s own role’ — Bowie recognised himself in this fate.

Brian Eno once said ‘Very rough, rough strokes — and they all have a mood of melancholy about them or nostalgia, as if they were painting something that was just disappearing. And all of that — the boldness of attack, the unplanned evolutionary quality of the images, and the over-all mood — remind me of the way David works.’ Works such as ‘Nollendorfplatz’ and ‘Brandenburger Tor‘ reveal Kirchner’s shift in subject matter from female figures to metropolitan scenes. The painting ‘Nollendorfplatz’ is painted in clashing blue and yellow shades, with monstrous ‘strassenbahnen‘ and a crooked perspective as a clear rejection of the previous architecture studies. It brings Max Weber’s concept of rationalisation on a higher level with people appearing as tall dark shadows, so uniformed and monotonous they merge with the landscape of the city. Quick and heavy brush strokes create a feeling of speed, movement and bustle of modern life in a city. Kirchner’s distorted imagery symbolise the destructiveness and desolation of an urban life; he questions the social progress and the dehumanization of people in cities. He expresses his inner emotions and confusion with life in modern society.

1915. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Brandenburger Tor1915. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Brandenburger Tor

Kirchner committed suicide on 15th June 1938. after the Nazis branded his work as ‘degenerate’ and sold or destroyed over six hundred of his paintings. Still, Kirchner ought to be remembered as a leading force behind German Expressionism. He was an artist who painted Berlin and captured both its decadent, dynamic and daring atmosphere, along with the isolated urban individuals completely detached from society. Kirchner’s paintings reflect the mood of the German capital in the years of political tensions and mirror both the extravagances and cultural florescence before the final collapse.

David Bowie, Alienation and Avant Garde in 1970s Berlin

26 Oct

“The greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” – David Bowie

wir kinder vom bahnhof zoo 6

Berlin was a border between west and east; a world of Capitalism and a world of Communism; clashed between two European ideologies for four decades, Berlin had to turn in on itself, reinventing and reinterpreting the rich, yet louche past of Weimar Berlin, blending it with the grey landscape of concrete alienation. Isolated by the Cold War and divided by the wall, Berlin’s culture flourished in the clash of Political and Cultural values. Reveling in the cynical present of spies, dehumanising grey concrete buildings, government subsidies and anarchy, the city had a world-weary self regard. It was this bleak, heavy with despair atmosphere of unified collapse that attracted young bohemians to the city, promoting it as a cult destination because it was an alternative to both Capitalistic west and Communist East. Foreigners saw their own alienation mirrored in the city’s outsider status.

Berlin’s youth felt this alienation more than the other citizens. They absorbed all the boredom, alienation and negligence they felt, not only from their parents but from their surroundings of cruel concrete buildings in Kreuzberg, Schöneberg or the infamous ones in Gropiusstadt, from schools and authorities. Nobody cared for them. Or at least that’s how they felt. In schools, teachers were just doing their jobs and nothing else, nobody cared how were they, what are they thinking. They felt that Political clash more than their hard-working parents in the new west Berlin consumerist society that Capitalism was creating. Coming home with the sunset, their parents had little time for their sensitive teens, affected by the atmosphere in their wall divided city more than one could imagine, and already, at a tender age such as thirteen, drown into the eternal hell of heroin which seemed the only answer.

Gropiusstadt

Christiane F. is the best example of what living in the alienated environment of Gropiusstadt, among thousands of other people and not a single friend, can do to a child, especially when they find acceptance and attention they seek from their parents in places such as ‘Sound‘; an infamous discotheque on Kudamm where, among cherry juices, dance floors and David Bowie’s songs, heroin could also be found. Hippies in the 1960s took drugs because they were ‘doors to perception’; youth in the 1970s Berlin took them because they wanted to numb their senses, not sharpen them; by taking heroin they seemingly eliminated all the problems. The irresistible feeling of emptiness was something they could never get rid of. Where ever you went in Berlin; whether it’s a shabby flat in Gropiusstadt, a dance floor in Sound, Bahnhof Zoo with its smell of urine and male prostitutes leaned against the wall waiting for the customers; the endless feeling of alienation and void was always there.

Living in the clash of political ideologies and cultural experimentation, in a city divided by the wall, and numbed by its concrete buildings, youth oriented towards something that was above the shitty triviality they couldn’t handle; music. To Christiane F. and her friend, David Bowie was an idol, a hero. Christiane had all of his records and listened to him in the dreary and rainy Berlin days, gazing on the cloudy sky from the tenth floor. Bowie wasn’t above that at all, deep in a cocaine hell himself, he sought to find inspiration and new creative sources from that same spring of alienation that suffocated Christiane and her friends so badly. Seeing the life which awaits them; shitty flat and a crappy ten hour job, work around the clock in the shadow of the wall (Berliners thought the Cold war would never end), Berlin youth protested by immersing into a world of music and drugs. Taking heroin was a protest against the petty-bourgeois lives their parents led; there had to be something more. Christiane F, the most famous person from Berlin at the time, which only adds to its Zeitgeist, later came to symbolise the atmosphere of desolation and neglect that permeated Berlin at the time.

christiane f. bahnhof zoo

While the youth suffered and finally succumbed to the heavy and grey atmosphere of their suffocating city, many bohemians, artist and musicians found their inspiration in the very same atmosphere, most notably David Bowie. However, Lou Reed was inspired by this enigmatic city as early as in 1973. and the product was a concept album Berlin which dealt with themes of love and junkies. The album, although harshly criticised at the time it was released, is a grandiose and decadent masterpiece, and though it’s depressive, it is oddly beautiful in its darkness.

David Bowie and Iggy Pop came to Berlin in November 1976. drown to the city’s world-weary self-regard and the inspiration that emerged from the divided areas, the wall and the powerful political clash which only emphasised the culture. Bowie’s ‘Berlin era‘ is a defining postwar musical moment. In Berlin Bowie found what he was looking for in vain all those years; freedom, anonymity and new creative inspiration. He could be seen cycling around the city, especially in Schöneberg where he shared a flat with Iggy Pop. He enjoyed the comfort of privacy; people either haven’t noticed him at all, or if they did, they paid no attention what so ever. Still, Berliners were flattered that he chose to live among them in that wasteland. While other bohemian artists chose the rather more funky Kreuzberg, Bowie settled in Schöneberg on Hauptstrasse 155, an address he still hasn’t forgotten, recording his music in a studio ‘Hansa by the Wall‘, as he called it.

david bowie thin white duke

David Bowie emerged himself into Berlin life, loving the quirkiness of it. There were all sorts of crazy people there in those times; half crazy-half genious artists, ridiculously dressed girls and boys in nightclubs; Bowie was amazed and intrigued by these diversities and cultural flourishment in times of great political instability. The product of his fascination with the city were three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – today known as Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy‘. Iggy Pop’s most notable achievement from the time was album Idiot (1977) which gained a cult status. Prelude to Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’, the album Station to Station (1976) foreshadows the following Euro-centric, electric music phase and marks the transition between Ziggy Stardust era and Berlin era.

Surrounded by Expressionistic art and other artists and musicians, Bowie was just another weirdo in the town and everybody left him alone and that’s what he liked. Freedom and liberal atmosphere suited Bowie and provided him with peace for new blossoming ideas. This free and sometimes amateurish spirit of West Berlin is well described by Wolfgang Muller – ‘There was this open, liberal atmosphere… People really didn’t care. A friend of mine once laid down on Oranienstraße, on the street, and cars just slowly drove around her.‘ In the middle of the Cold war, this ‘outsider status‘ city had a magnetic charisma and attracted artists with its bleak, liberal, magically alienated, decadent and experimental atmosphere; the same atmosphere that pervades David Bowie’s albums from his Berlin trilogy.

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At the time Bowie arrived in Berlin, the smell of cultural blossoming was permeating the air. Still neglected and desolated, Berlin was a place ideal for artistic experimentation and soon many bohemians, visionaries or simply young people protesting against the Capitalist culture that invaded the rest of Germany, found shelter in cheap flats on the west side of the wall. In the 1970s the party never stopped in this ‘cabaret wasteland‘; discotheques, cafes, gigs, numerous art happenings, music scene; all of these things created the atmosphere of endless possibilities and experimentation. ‘You could meet anybody and everybody. That was the change.‘, Muller also said. A change was in the air, and David Bowie acted as a catalyst.

Berlin provided unique opportunities for wanna-be artists and bohemians. It was a place of refuge for the people who disagreed with the pressure to make everything economically viable; a sentiment that was shared all across west Germany. The wall had its advantages, as 0n the western side the alternative way of life was developing. Although Berlin still continues to attract people who want to experiment, that liberal, free, untouched by capitalism or consumerism spirit is long gone. Art has succumbed to money, experimentation and alternative gave place to financial security and complete westernisation. Still, ‘Ars longa, vita brevis.‘; perhaps Bowie’s ‘Berlin trilogy‘, Iggy Pop’s Idiot and the infamous Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo are the last testaments to the old experimental, liberal and Avant-garde Berlin.

CHRISTIANE F

West Berlin allowed Bowie and Iggy Pop to distance themselves from British and American music expectations, to leap into the unknown areas of music, and using experimental techniques, they drew inspiration from city’s world-weary self regard, creating thin, alienated sound that would become almost symbolic for Berlin’s Zeitgeist of the 1970s. Bowie’s song Heroes has since became almost iconic, in adition to being featured in the movie Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, the song crystallized the life in Berlin, telling a tale of two lovers walking by the wall. Also, one song on the same album has a name Neuköln which is the name of another Berlin district, though it’s actually written with two ‘L’.

Out of all three Bowie’s Berlin era albums, ‘Heroes‘ is the one that reflects the Zeitgeist of the Cold war and the divided city the most; it stands as a deeply passionate and positive artistic testament to Bowie’s time spent in Berlin, with its dark and atmospheric instrumentals such as Sense of Doubt and V-2 Schneider. Relative optimism of the album distinguishes it from the previous, melancholic and slightly disturbing ‘Low’.

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David Bowie definitely had an impact on Berlin’s culture and music scene in the late 1970s. In those times Berlin was nowhere; a divided city which Bowie added glamour to, and absorbing its decadent spirit he also directed it into a cultural extravaganza. However, at the time when Bowie’s ‘Berlin era‘ was at its peak, a new musical style was developing, and soon, by the time Nick Cave arrived in West Berlin in 1983, the cultural landscape was totally different. Punk, Post-Punk and Industrial bands sprouted from the fertile ground Bowie had set for them, influencing and encouraging a whole new generation whose music and cultural tastes were shaped by late 70s decadency in the shadow of the wall. Even in the early 1980s Bowie’s influence resonated through the city. Bands such as Müller’s Die Tödliche Doris, Malaria! and most importantly Blixa Bargeld’s Einstürzende Neubauten created a musical language and style that Berlin could call its own.