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  • Writer's pictureART HISTORY

Berlin Fieldwork: "The Greatest Cultural Extravaganza".

By Donna West Brett. The Art and the City unit is offered through the Discipline of Art History

“It was a once in a life-time life changing journey.” Student, Berlin Fieldwork 2023 

Brandenburg Tor, Courtesy Visit Berlin.

From Stephen Spender, Marlene Dietrich, and Christopher Isherwood to David Bowie, Ian McEwan, Lady Gaga and Nick Cave, Berlin has captured the imagination of writers, singers, and artists alike. When Bowie commented that Berlin was “The greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine,” he was living in the western district of Schöneberg during the heady 1970s. It was here that he recorded his album Heroes with several songs referencing the infamous city such as Potsdamer Platz or Heroes with its reference to lovers stranded on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall.

Since the fall of the Wall in 1989 the city has embraced this duality with cultural institutions from East and West forming a cultural feast of galleries, museums, opera houses, theatres, groovy bars and restaurants. It is against this backdrop that students travelled to Berlin for the first fieldwork unit since 2019, led by Donna West Brett (Associate Professor and Chair of Art History at the University of Sydney), and Mimi Kelly (Lecturer in Art History and Curating at the University of Melbourne).


View of the Humboldt Forum from the Lustgarten

Art History in Action

Located within a short walk to the famous Museum Insel (Museum Island), the tour began with a comprehensive engagement with the new Humboldt Forum, housing the former ethnographic and Asian collections relocated from the outer district of Dahlem. It formed the perfect point from which to engage with issues of colonisation, de-colonisation, exhibition and display strategies, and current global concerns of restitution. The collections on Museum Island are breathtaking ranging from Islamic and Egyptian art, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman to religious sculpture and classical painting providing students with a plethora of discussion points including the ongoing negotiations around the restitution of the magnificent Nefertiti bust to Egypt. An absolute highlight was the temporary exhibition at the Alte Nationalgalerie of works from the Secession movement in the late nineteenth-century including works by Gustav Klimt, Franz von Stuck, Max Liebermann and their contemporaries. 

The first week was topped off by a visit to the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery) in the former West Berlin that presents a survey of art from 13th century medieval art to that of the 18th century. This museum is extraordinarily large but offers some enticing visual treats from Breugel, Caravaggio and Vermeer to Dürer, Botticelli, Le Brun and Van Eyck all of which drove a hearty appetite for lunch before visiting the newly renovated Neue Nationalgalerie next door. 

Lucy Begg who is a major in art history and law commented on her experience in Berlin,

My time in Berlin was completely transformative. Having a guide to navigate the various and often difficult themes of the works and history we encountered is a privilege that I will remain forever grateful for.


This extraordinary modernist structure designed by Mies van der Rohe has been brought back to is former glory and the new galleries shone with key works from modernist to contemporary art. shying away from Germany’s troubled history, the gallery included a poignant display of materials highlighting the horror of the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) Exhibition held in Munich in 1937, that included now famous artworks deemed unworthy by the National Socialists. Another highlight was an exhibition of German contemporary artist Gerhard Richter featuring some key works of this world-renowned artist. The day concluded in the magnificent setting of the biergarten at the Café am Neuen See in the Tiergarten sitting next to the lake and under cooling trees, soothing our tired minds with beer and conversation. Other highlights included a trip to Potsdam to see the incredible collection of Impressionist art at the famous Museum Barbarini including that of Claude Monet, August Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Paul Signac amongst others, followed by a walk around the Dutch area of the city after partaking of massive schnitzels. 

Throughout the two weeks students worked in groups to provide highly-informative talks about various institutions and their collections or exhibitions, an extraordinary privilege for students and teachers alike. 


As Mac Walker, a recipient of a Terry Travel Scholarship says, Berlin is

a city with a history steeped in adversity, redemption, shame and new beginnings,”… “my journey as an art history student is a poignant narrative, where resilience continued to wield the brush, crafting strokes of transformation that seamlessly merged with the city’s own tale, forming a masterpiece of newfound freedom and self-discovery.

After a restful Sunday we hit the road with a visit to Die Brücke museum of German Expressionist art and Kunsthaus Dahlem, built during the Nazi era as a studio for the sculptor Arno Breker. Other highlights in week two include the Surrealist collections at Scharf Gerstenberg, photography at the Museum of Photography and C/O Berlin, and contemporary art at the Hamburger Bahnhof and KW Institute. Kunst-werke is a leading international contemporary art space established in the wake of the end of the city's division in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. KW was founded by Klaus Biesenbach, Alexandra Binswanger, Clemens Homburger, Philipp von Doering and Alfonso Rutigliano in a derelict former margarine factory in Berlin-Mitte in the early 1990s. Since then, it has contributed significantly to the development of Berlin as an international center for contemporary art.

We concluded the tour with a walk of the former Jewish quarter and dinner at the infamous Clärchens Ballhaus, a glitzy ballroom and biergarten dating from 1913. 

As the students went their separate ways with new friends and memories it was a poignant reminder of how lucky we are to be travelling again to see the history of art in a city that has faced such troubled times. And yet Berlin’s art collections and splendid exhibitions from the ancients to the contemporary speak to the complexity and power of art and architecture to both transgress and offer transcendence. 


Eva Fabregas at the Hamburger Bahhof

Other student feedback was also inspirational and will inform future study tours of this remarkable city. 


This has been the best unit of study I've taken thus far, it has challenged me and was an incredibly rewarding experience.
The best aspect of this unit was being able to critically engage with so many artworks ever day, to discuss them with my peers and academics, to debate knowing there is no definitive answer, to listen to others, to have my opinions solidified or changed.

Dinner at Clärchens Ballhaus, Augustrasse, Berlin

Students and tour leaders from the Berlin Fieldwork 2023. Our farewell photo.

The Berlin Fieldwork 2023 was generously assisted by student travel scholarships from the Terry Travel Fund and the Frank McDonald Memorial Fund, both of which support student access and inclusive educational opportunities.

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