A Visit to Berlin

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In March 2016, nine second-year students and two tutors from the BA (hons) History of Art and Design programme visited Berlin for five days to study the city’s museums, material heritage and art collections in relation to the city’s distinctive history and cultures. Here are some of the students’ highlights from the trip:

Rachel Blyth: The Berlin Jewish Holocaust memorial was designed by architect Peter Eisenman and completed in 2004. Walking into the memorial the sun was shining; however, walking deeper into the labyrinth of concrete it became very cold and isolated. The modern architecture encapsulated the notion that Berlin is a modern city yet still holds the past close to its design.

East Side Gallery, Berlin

East Side Gallery, Berlin

Charlotte Brown: On review of our trip to Berlin, my favourite part would have to be our visit to the East Side Gallery, a surviving 1.3km stretch of the Berlin wall. Famously graffitied in the ’90s after the fall of the Wall in 1989, the works of various artists can be seen along the whole length. Due to tagging over the past years, the wall is now protected by a metal fence which did however inhibit our view and photographs, but the overall experience and art work has influenced me to base my further studies on the remainder of the wall.

Ruby Helms: Visiting the Jewish Museum – A Different Kind of Museum Space. Without visiting, it was difficult to understand the full impact of architect Daniel Libeskind’s ‘Between the Lines’ structure. The museum showed me that it is possible to present history in such a way that it emotionally involves the visitor, through the curation of objects and construction of the museum space.

Elina Ivanov: Out of the places we visited there were two that I felt made the history of Berlin most tangible; Clärchen’s Ballhaus gave a taste of Berlin nightlife of yesteryear, while the Jewish Museum was a powerful reminder of the great extent of the history of Jewish émigrés, as the discourse typically seems to be centred strictly around the Holocaust years.

Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) in the Memory Void, one of the empty spaces of the Jewish Museum

Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) in the Memory Void, one of the empty spaces of the Jewish Museum

Emilie Kristiansen: Berlin offered copious sights worthy of recollection, but the installation Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman at the Jewish Museum stands out as especially significant. The monumental view of thousands of distraught faces cut out of iron plates is a poignant reminder of the countless innocent Jews whose lives were taken, and the void they left behind.

Sarah Mason: I had never been to Berlin before this trip and I have to say Berlin lived up to all my expectations and more. My highlight and what I chose for my presentation and essay subject was a place called Clärchens Ballhaus. Clärchens Ballhaus is a dance hall built in 1895. This Ballhaus was one of many, 900 in Berlin alone in the early 1900s. Berliners loved to dance and the Tango was already more popular in Berlin than in Paris or London at this time. What is unique about the Ballhaus is it is still used today and is as popular now as it was 100 years ago with the local community. In décor, fixtures and fittings it has changed little apart from some slight bomb damage to the grand mirror hall upstairs. If you get a chance to sneak upstairs and take a peek, it’s a must: you really feel you have been transported back in time. Every aspect of Clärchens Ballhaus is steeped in social history for example the original cloakrooms with over 800 iron coat and hat hooks (the Ballhaus would have between 600-800 guests per night in its heyday). The bar and even the majority of tables and chairs are all today as they were  when Clärchens’ famous owners Fritz and Clara Buhler took on the premises in 1913. I fell in love with this place so much I went back and visited it eight weeks later, so definitely the highlight of my trip and definitely a place I recommend to visit.

The Clothes on Their Backs: exploring fashion and dress history through literature

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In advance of author Linda Grant’s visit to the University of Brighton on 30 November 2015, final year student Sarah-Mary Geissler reflects on the novel she will be discussing –  The Clothes on Their Backs* – and its relevance for anyone interested in fashion and dress history.

Every year the University of Brighton participates in The Big Read, a national project to encourage first year students to read a novel that has been nominated for the Booker Prize. This year’s choice is The Clothes on Their Backs (2008) by Linda Grant, an author noted for using dress as a key theme within novels.

As part of my Fashion and Dress History BA, last year I took a module, ‘Reading Dress: 1875-1965’ where literature was examined and considered as a source to research historical dress. During the summer break, our module tutor sent an email regarding The Big Read. She explained that Grant’s novel engaged with the significance of clothing and asked whether we’d like to read the novel over the holidays then meet up for a little book club when we returned to Uni.

I was initially reluctant to take up the request: after spending a whole semester poring over novels intently I wasn’t sure if I could do it again. However, after looking at a review of the novel I was intrigued and had to read it!

The Clothes on Their Backs is an intense novel that delves into the complicated relationships of characters, all of whose clothing defines who they are or think they are. The story accelerates you through the bittersweet moments of life, with elation and tragedy fleeting by and only the ennui of life remaining constant.

Cover of Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs, (Virago, London: 2008)

Cover of Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs, (Virago, London: 2008)

The protagonist, Vivien Kovaks, is the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. Her life is spent in and around a small flat in Benson Court. Her parents withhold information about their lives before London and leave Vivien feeling deprived of a family history and heritage. As she later learns, her Uncle Sándor also emigrated to London only to become an infamous slum landlord, heralded as ‘the face of evil’.

Vivien as a person allows herself to be dressed – and therefore defined – by those around her, from her neighbour who leaves her glamourous vintage clothes, to her fiancé who sees her as an upper-class beatnik, to her lover who likes her dressing up in his punk leathers. The clothing of others is embedded in Vivien’s opinions of them, which leads to her fascination with her uncle, a pimp dripping with luxury and ostentation. A theme of what is worn not quite matching up to what is inside the characters runs throughout.

The novel is astoundingly researched, with accurate accounts of 1970s London as well as 1930s Budapest. Even the public reaction to style movements such as the popularity of second-hand clothing to uneasy fears of skinheads and youth gangs were described. Grant captures the incredible spectrum of emotions invested in appearance: Eunice the Jamaican immigrant studies fashion meticulously and goes without food in order to retain an immaculate appearance, while Vivien’s own mother accessorises with homemade waistcoats and a walking stick, not through choice but affliction.

The Clothes on Their Backs is a truly affecting book. Grant creates incredibly three-dimensional characters who are complex, flawed and vulnerable, and contribute to a story that stayed with me long after I’d put the book down.

* First year students at the University of Brighton can collect a free copy of the novel from university libraries, their course leader or the Students’ Union.