Sometimes a city means more to you when you know it less well, especially when it’s a city whose history and monuments you’re acutely aware of in other ways, from a distance. Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, but it certainly diminishes the power that a city possesses to gobsmack you in virtue of its history, and its most emblematic monuments. Over time, and when you get to know the street-level detail of a city, the awe that you might have felt on first arrival becomes a distant memory. Showing visitors around can help to revive a sense of excitement, but only partially.

Nowadays, it’s not often that I go to a large European city whose streets I hardly know, but which in another sense I know well. Yesterday I travelled to Berlin from Prague. The city is just four and half hours away by train, but in twenty-three and a half years of living in the Czech Republic I’ve visited it only once, briefly, for a business conference in a far-flung suburb, and just once before that, in early 1989 when I was helping an East German to escape to the West by pretending a relationship that didn’t in fact exist (an exit visa to the West was finally issued two days before the Wall came down).

Yesterday, arriving at the main railway station in Berlin I suddenly felt that feeling of awe that I probably last felt more than twenty years ago, when. for example, I found myself hardly believing that I was standing in front of the actual Roman Forum, and in the actual Vatican – a sense of unbelievable privilege that I could actually get to see these things.

It was a glimpse of Norman Foster’s dome on the Reichstag that did it for me yesterday, and then, as a taxi took me to the Plan B Gallery (to look at the Serban Savu paintings I wrote about some days ago), the Brandenburg Gate and the double-brick line in the streets that marks where the Wall once stood. I was no longer, for a moment, the jaded business ‘road warrior’ who’s seen it all. It was almost like being young again, capable, once again, of awe and excitement. And it all looked so different from 1989.

What is Berlin to me?

  • The 1930s city of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels and stories and Liza Minelli’s Cabaret.
  • The 1920s and 1930s city of Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya and Bertolt Brecht.
  • The city of the Reichstag fire of 1933, set by the Nazis but blamed on the Communist Georgi Dimitrov, who went on to rule Bulgaria.
  • The city of Hitler’s rise to power and the enabling act passed with apparent legality in the Reichstag, but in reality under duress, that let Hitler rule by decree
  • The city that was reduced to rubble in 1944
  • The city of Hitler’s bunker and, finally, his suicide
  • The city of Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and the airlift of emergency supplies when the Soviets cut off the city
  • The city of architect Albert Speer’s monstrous plans for the capital of a post-war Germania
  • The city of the Pergamon Museum containing, amongst other artefacts, the head of Queen Nephertiti
  • The city of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
  • The city of John le Carre’s spy novels and of Checkpoint Charlie
  • The city of the superb historical thrillers of David Downing which are set in the 1920s and 1930s and which I read a year or so ago
  • The libertarian and cosmopolitan city or artists and (before the fall of the Wall) young German draft dodgers
  • The city of the fall of the Wall in 1989 and of Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth near the Brandenburg Gate on New Year’s Day 1990

Sad, then, that yesterday I had just three hours in the city before catching a flight to Warsaw.

Serban Savu’s paintings were as wonderful as I expected and I’m going to buy The Allegory of Painting rather than The Guardian,  and after a tiny bit of haggling, this one ‘thrown in’ for good measure (it’s smaller than it looks):


The Allegory of Painting

11 the allegory of painting

Now I’m in Warsaw on the way to look at this one:






The Art Gallery of Ontario

You’re lucky if you can find the way to your plane at most of today’s airports. They’re no longer merely the arrival and departure points for aircraft, but also shopping malls, restaurants, clubs for the privileged, and places of entertainment too. Heathrow Terminal 5, for example, is an obstacle course of retail and gastronomic distractions. So much so that sometimes the airport is the most fun you’ll have on holiday. Why board the plane?

Art galleries, too, have caught on to this, albeit for loftier motives. Ticket sales aren’t enough to keep the paintings on the walls. Without substantial subsidies galleries can’t afford merely to provide space for their paintings to hang, and cabinets for their curiosities. They must explore every possible avenue of cash generation.

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, which I visited on Saturday, is a fine example of this approach. Since its reworking in 2008 by Frank Gehry (a native of the city) it houses an upmarket restaurant, a shop that’s as large as any of the exhibition rooms, a café, a ‘function room’ for hire (where better to get married than in the company of a Francis Bacon and a Bernini Pope), and a cluster of education and research centres.

Once you’ve passed through the arrivals hall, avoiding the VIP check-in desk (a kind of art gallery version of business class), you’re left wondering where to go if you’re to see any actual paintings.

If you’re interested in architecture, though, the building is probably your destination (just as, if you’re a fan of Norman Foster, then Heathrow Terminal 5 is probably as much fun as wherever you’re off to). Gehry’s adaptation of the neoclassical central courtyard, and a hotch-potch of 1970s extensions, is an imaginative balance of the classical, the modern and the extravagant (a wooden spiral staircase twists and slithers its way from the first floor to the roof and beyond).

Gehry slither

The tall tower building at the rear of the gallery is clad in cool blue, reflective titanium.

gehry blue

But somewhere inside, if you can find it, there’s the collection itself (a selection from 80,000 paintings and other kinds of bric-a-brac) – a very manageable display of paintings by the French Impressionists (a beautiful Renoir, a Degas, a Monet (usually just one of everything)), the Renaissance and Flemish masters, all generously arranged and well lit. There’s an unexpectedly huge roomful of Henry Moore’s vast and dignified reclining and standing figures, in quiet but far from lonely communion, perhaps more of them together in one place here than you could ever see together elsewhere.

There’s a whole floor devoted to the work of Canada’s native artists. And you mustn’t overlook the African and photographic collections either, or a special temporary exhibition of disturbing images related to nuclear power, explosive and utilitarian.

Get a slice of this…

Atomic Cake-lo

The AGO is also a monument to generosity, and its fabric is as labelled as its contents. Indeed the labels are larger. You’re passing from one room to another through the ‘Rosy Tannenbaum walkway’, the roof is supported by the ‘Wasabi Family supporting girder’, the ‘Helen Battersby’ door sits snugly in ‘the Mary Minder door frame’, and the paintings are kept in good condition by ‘the David Clark and family humidifier,’ and so on. I presume the lavatories too are named, but I didn’t feel the need to check.