Polish your screens, clean your glasses — if you wear any—get comfortable, and get ready because we are about to start a visual trip to Berlin! We will be seeing the city and its people through the eyes of Britons who have been living and travelling in the German capital from the end of WWI. Let us experience the city through the paintings and pictures by British artists who have been inspired by the city’s modern, chameleonic, and significant moments throughout the decades until present times. How have British visual artists represented Berlin society from the 1950s to the 2010s? In return, in what way has Berlin influenced their art?
The answers to these questions will be provided through the eyes of the following Irish, English and Scottish artists: Stella Steyn, John Davies, Margaret Hunter, and Christopher Winter. Each artist will be introduced along with a biography and selected pieces of work inspired by and/or related to Berlin will be discussed.
Let’s begin with Irish painter and illustrator Stella Steyn. Born on 26 December 1907 in Dublin to a Jewish family of Russian and German origin, Steyn studied at the Reimann School of Art and Design in Berlin and the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now the National College of Art and Design) while she was still a teenager1. Unfortunately, little is known about her time at Albert Reimann’s school, but it appears her supportive mother accompanied Steyn during her stay in Berlin, being her the youngest child the Steyns had. Later in 1926, Steyn and her mother travelled to Paris to further Stella’s art education at the Académie Scandinave and at La Grande Chaumière. There she became acquainted with James Joyce and produced some of the earliest illustrations of the experimental novel Finnegans Wake2. In a short ‘autobiographical memoir’ written towards the end of her life, Steyn admitted to struggling to understand the novel—like many people at the time—and in turn remarked Joyce had “little understanding of the visual arts”3.
In 1931, Steyn returned to Germany. She enrolled at the Bauhaus in Dessau, where she learned from prominent artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee4. She is the only Irish person known to have studied at the Bauhaus. Unfortunately, Steyn studied there for just over a year before increasing Nazi activity in Dessau convinced her to return to Ireland. In later life, Steyn described her art practice as most influenced by her time in Paris5. However, critics suggest some traces of Klee’s teaching can be seen in works such as Standing Nude on a Pink Ground, an oil on canvas painted in 1951, which shows a similar use of naïveté6.
After her departure from the Bauhaus, Steyn settled in England and did not exhibit again until the 1950s. Between 1951 and 1961, she exhibited flower paintings and figural work in prominent English galleries. She died in July 1987 at the age of 79, coinciding with the opening of an exhibition on Irish women artists hosted by three of Dublin’s premiere art institutions, the National Gallery of Ireland, the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art and the Douglas Hyde Gallery. Yet Steyn “received one of the accompanying exhibition catalogue’s briefest entries”. It was not until the early 2000s that this prodigious Irish artist started getting deserved attention again with retrospectives in Dublin and the UK7.
As we look through the decades, we continue to find British artists whose work was influenced by their connections to Germany and in particular, Berlin. Another such figure is photographer John Davies, who visited West Berlin in 1984 when the city was still divided. Davies is originally from Durham, England where he was born in 1949. He became famous for portraying the industrial landscape England in the early 1980s. He studied art photography at the Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham. Since then he has toured several countries documenting the nature-humankind relationship. His work is exhibited in galleries all over the world such as the Arts Council of England, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Deutsche Börse Art Collection in Frankfurt FNAC, the Manchester City Art Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, among many others. In 1984, while he was working for a showcase for architecture and urban design in West Berlin, he was struck by the presence of the Wall. He had not planned to document it, but as he was out there in the streets “there was a horror about it”, he recalled years later8. He felt compelled to take pictures of the “striking and shocking” scene of the city still cut in two halves. The enormous amount of graffiti art seemed to Davies a sign of rebellion, a visual form of protest against the Cold War9. Years later Davies found himself again face to face with the places he had witnessed separated by the huge barbed-wire wall. The final contrast of images is an incredible and deeply moving work of art. The contrast can be seen in these two images kindly provided by Davies himself, which also form part of the book Retraced 81/79. The pictures were taken in 1984 and again in 2019, they depict the corner of Niederkirchnerstrasse & Wilhelmstrasse. When asked about his impressions about the city after 35 years, he declared he now finds Berlin “smoothly integrated”, “healed” and the Wall a “distant memory of an unpleasant dream”10.
Another renowned artist inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was Scottish artist Margaret Hunter who has been living in Berlin since 1985. After attending the Glasgow School of Art she took up postgraduate study at the Hochschüle der Künste, today Universität der Künste Berlin. She holds a strong tie to the city as its history became part of her art and her personal life. We had the pleasure of communicating with the artist herself in order to learn first-hand about her life in Berlin: “I experienced the strong Women’s Lib. movement of the eighties-early nineties, the special student life in the divided city, the Fall of the Wall and all of the turmoil and huge effects that particularly affected people from the GDR.”11 When asked to collaborate for this website, she kindly shared the details of her early years in West Berlin. Having arrived when the city was still divided, with no friends or family and not speaking the language, she felt herself also divided between her life in Scotland and her new life in Berlin. She was present during the Fall of the Wall and a few months later was invited to make a painting on what is known as the East Side Gallery which today attracts millions of tourists annually. She remembers it as a striking moment in 1990 as over one hundred international artists from East and West painted their response to the momentous occasion, while around them the Berlin Wall was being dismantled. Her mural is called Joint Venture. As she explains on her website, as the two Berlins, East and West, were being brought together she initially thought of themes of communication and exchange and while she was adding more to her sketches she devised “stitches” bringing the parts together. She identified with the struggle particularly the East Germans were facing.
She had also experienced similar difficulties when she came to West Berlin; with the language, communication and trying to fit into a new strange reality. In 2009, when she renovated her painting at the ESG, she decided to produce a gallery version of it for an exhibition in Potsdam. After taking some time to ponder on the past 20 years, she painted Re-Statement, which she felt provided a “more personal and positive view”. Hunter also incorporated a few added elements. Over the years young visitors to the ESG have sometimes “participated” in her original work, for instance, a ‘leaping man’, a form of graffiti art that Hunter took as inspiration and repeated within Re-statement. During the opening of the Potsdam exhibition she invited the visitors in the gallery to inscribe their feelings about German reunification onto the painting which highlighted the reciprocal character and the idea of dialogue within the mural12. Being interviewed several times as a privileged actor who contributed through her art and human expression to the reunification of East and West, one of the “Cultural Luminaries”13 that inspires fellow artists to turn their attention to the cause of the Wall and all that it stands for even today, Hunter was a special guest during the celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall in 2019 that consisted of a large open-air exhibition with hundreds of events at the original spots of the ‘Peaceful Revolution’. She features on the accompanying book Mauerfall Friedliche Revolution 1989/90 in Berlin (The Fall of the Wall. The Peaceful Revolution 1989/90) as “one of seven contemporary witnesses” of the event. When asked about her impressions about the celebrations, she exclaimed: “For a long time the wall was very difficult to overcome in people’s minds. That’s what makes the 30th anniversary so interesting. It’s amazing to be part of it. To have experienced the tenth, the 20th and now this is fantastic”.14
Last but not least, we would like to share the work of another British artist who has also fallen under the Berlin spell, that is UK-Germany based artist Christopher Winter. Born in 1968 in Kent, he actually first studied art in the UK at the Hastings College of Art, East Sussex and the Camberwell School of Art in London, and later continued his education at Düsseldorf’s Art Academy in Germany. His works have been exhibited in numerous events across Germany, France, Japan, New Zealand, New York and London. His prolific artistic output includes paintings, drawings, videos and even an edible Gingerbread House from the film Psycho (1960). In an interview from October 2012, he summarizes his view of Berlin as “the perfect place for making art”, as it is “constantly changing and reinventing itself”- he “wouldn’t want to live anywhere else”15. Berlin inspired works include for instance: The Curvature of Time in Berlin, a composition of painting both abstract and realistic that is part of a series Speculative Realism questioning the nature of reality. The installation is made up of three paintings corresponding to the photos: The Curvature of Time in Berlin (and the Leaping Hare), Mountain Man, and One Monitor / Bildschirm Painting, all from 2015. His characters can be found as sculptures in his paintings and as cubist portraits in the corner of paintings. Winter is a subversive artist interested in merging the surreal world with ordinary life and the possibility of living in alternative realities. Berlin has been known as a nest for artists looking for both inspiration and a place to call home where they feel free to release their creative potential, and such is the case of Winter and Hunter for example. This is how British artists have been seeing Berlin through the decades, sometimes with hungry eyes, sometimes shocked, sometimes playful and youthful but always with wide-open eyes for the exciting, ever-stimulating character of the city, which never ceases catching the interests of Britons and of artists from all over the world.
Figure 1. Standing Nude on a Pink Ground, Stella Steyn, 1951 © Mollesworth Gallery
Figure 2. Niederkirchnerstrasse & Wilhelmstrasse, John Davies, 1984 © John Davies
Figure 3. Niederkirchnerstrasse & Wilhelmstrasse, John Davies, 2019 © John Davies
Figure 4. Joint Venture, Margaret Hunter, 1990 © Margaret Hunter
Figure 5. Re-Statement, Margaret Hunter, 2010 © Margaret Hunter
Figure 6. Mountain Man, Christopher Winter, 2015 © Christopher Winter
Figure 7. The Curvature of Time in Berlin (and the Leaping Hare), Christopher Winter, 2015 © Christopher Winter
Figure 8. Studio Installation View of The Curvature of Time in Berlin (and the Leaping Hare) © Eric Tschernow
1 Harrison Lambe, Chiara. Anglophone Women of the Bauhaus: A Study of Stella Steyn. Berlin. 2021.
2 Gormleys Auctions. 471 Lisburn Road, Belfast.
3 O’Byrne, Robert. Fauvist Paintings Stella Steyn. Essay from the catalogue for the exhibition June-July 2008.
4 Goldstone, Katrina. Dictionary of Irish Biography: Steyn, Stella.
5 Ibid Harrison.
6 Foster, Alicia. “Stella Steyn: the Irish artist who went beyond the Bauhaus.” 26 October 2020.
7 Ibid O’Byrne.
8 Davies, John in Chazan, Guy. “Photographing Berlin: before and after the Wall”. Financial Times. 1 November 2019.
9 Ibid Chazan.
10 Ibid Chazan.
11 Hunter, Margaret. Personal interview. Berlin. April 2021.
12 Hunter, Margaret on her own website.
13 Simon Usborne. “ ‘We finished every bottle!’ Berlin’s cultural legends on the night the Wall came down.” The Guardian. 5 November 2019.
14 Bradley, Jane. “Scots artist to feature in Berlin Wall 30th anniversary celebrations.” The Scotman. Monday, 28 October 2019.
15 Winter, Christopher. Personal interview. Dan’s Papers Cover Artist: Christopher Winter.