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:






Which One? Paintings by Serban Savu.

I’d like to buy another painting by Serban Savu. He’s a Romanian painter who lives in Cluj Napoca in central Transylvania, one of several young painters and sculptors who work together at the Paintbrush Factory, an industrial building that was converted several years ago into a collection of studios, exhibition and performance spaces. It’s well worth a visit. Cluj Napoca is home to one of the most prestigious art schools in the country, indeed in Europe, and many of the best-known painters of Eastern Europe, some of them known globally, began their studies there – Adrian Ghenie, Marius Bercea, Mircea Suciu, and Serban Savu.

I first saw Serban Savu’s work at an exhibition in Prague (2013) called Nightfall, curated by Jane Neal  and I’ve loved his paintings ever since. I visited Cluj two years ago, met Serban and bought a painting – Landscape with Clerk – which now hangs in my apartment in Prague.

I’d like to buy another to hang in LLP Group’s offices. Which of these should I buy (I can’t afford all of them, and in any case there isn’t enough space)?



Live and work in former Communist Eastern Europe and you’ll be familiar with brutal apartment blocks such as this one, crudely built from cheap concrete, and planted without fanfare on a featureless expanse of dirt, a landscape cleared of natural vegetation. For me, perhaps, it has the special appeal of a souvenir. I’ve seen these blocks in Budapest, in Chisinau, in Bucharest, in Kosice and Moscow. I’ve shivered in them in winter, and sweated in them during the summer.

The painting is called Meeting, though it’s actually a number of meetings, some in progress, and some about to happen. Alternatively, it’s one group brought together by the painter, or the dog. It’s a frozen moment, full of possibility, full of character, and beautifully composed. It’s always a test for me to wonder if I can go on looking at a painting for days, weeks, months or years and still be drawn into it. This passes the test.

The Guardian

6 the guardian

This one contains just two elements, a painting by Filippo Lippi (Madonna of Humility) which Serban Savu saw in Milan, and a man who may be its guard, each, for different and obvious reasons, quite unconscious of the other. But as in Meeting what’s important lies in the relationship between the two, the guard dozing in quiet sympathy with the painting, or is he dreaming the painting. And who guards whom?

The Allegory of Painting

11 the allegory of painting

This and The Guardian were shown at Serban Savu’s solo exhibition at the Plan B Gallery in Berlin – Pictures at an Exhibition. I think this shows the main hall of the railway station at Cluj, but I might be mistaken (I spent a hour there attempting to buy a ticket to Budapest before discovering that the line was being repaired and no trains were running). Again, the appeal may be sentimental – I know those halls, those wet tiles, those kiosks selling bright fizzy drinks and biscuits made of powder, and those adverts.

Which one?