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Bowie returns to Berlin ― if just for a retrospective

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Published : 2014-05-21 20:01
Updated : 2014-05-21 20:01

Berlin (AFP) ― David Bowie’s richly creative years in gritty 1970s Berlin, where he made his iconic “Heroes” album, are explored in a new exhibition expanding on last year’s hit London show.

Handwritten lyrics with words crossed out for the title track about a couple meeting at the Berlin Wall, a letter he wrote to Marlene Dietrich, and the painting he did that helped him kick a drug habit ― are among some 60 additional items in the Berlin show that reveal the seminal period Bowie spent in the divided German capital.

The multimedia exhibit, officially opened Monday by Germany’s foreign minister, is hosted by the Martin Gropius Bau museum which, appropriately, stood next to the former East-West Berlin border until the Wall fell. 
Costumes worn by British musician David Bowie are on display at the ‘David Bowie’ exhibition in the Martin-Gropius-Bau venue in Berlin, Germany, May 19. (EPA-Yonhap)

It’s also currently hosting the biggest exhibition by China’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

“Bowie without Berlin doesn’t work,” said Martin Roth, director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where the “David Bowie Is” retrospective became its fastest-selling show ahead of the 2013 launch.

Victoria Broackes, who cocurated the V&A show, said Berlin “seemed to correspond” with Bowie’s personality.

She pointed to his interest in history, especially the 1919-1933 Weimar Republic, as well as art and Berlin’s culture and buzzing subcultures in the 1970s, in addition to “his passion for discovery and innovation.”

“It was here that he seemed to escape his demons, to throw off creative burnout and rejuvenate his inspiration,” she told reporters in Berlin.

‘So easy to find oneself’

Among the outlandish costumes from his chameleon turns as Ziggy Stardust and other personae, the Berlin show, which runs until Aug. 10, explores his sources of inspiration, the people he met and places that influenced him.

Wearied by fame, trying to kick a cocaine addiction and drawn by new electronic music, Bowie, born David Robert Jones, arrived in still war-scarred West Berlin in 1976 from Los Angeles.

By 1978, he had created a trilogy of groundbreaking albums, “Low,” “Lodger” and the centerpiece “Heroes” recorded at Hansa Studios ― overlooked by the guard towers of the Berlin Wall ― which broke boundaries between fashion, music and performance art.

“It’s a city that’s so easy to ‘get lost’ in ― and to ‘find’ oneself, too,” Bowie said, of Berlin, in 2001.

Bowie’s fascination with German Expressionism during his Berlin period is well documented.

But the show includes an oil painting and color woodcut by Expressionist artist Erich Heckel which influenced the cover poses for “Heroes” and U.S. rocker Iggy Pop’s album “The Idiot” in 1977, which Bowie produced and photographed.

Letters from 1978 between Bowie and Dietrich, with whom he filmed “Just a Gigolo,” the German actress and singer’s last film, which have never before been shown publicly, provide another highlight.

There are also excerpts from an East German Stasi secret police report voicing expectations that a 1987 televised concert by Bowie and others in front of the Reichstag in West Berlin would draw young East Berliners to try to listen across the Wall.

There’s even a blue velvet bench from the gallery of a former Berlin Bowie haunt, the Dschungel club.

A German version of “Heroes” became the soundtrack for a cult movie about drugs and child prostitution based on the real life story of 13-year-old Christiane F., in which Bowie guest-starred.

Bowie rekindled his love affair with Berlin when he broke a decadelong musical silence last year on his 66th birthday with “Where Are We Now?” in which he namechecks iconic Berlin sites.

And the city returns his affection, seeing Bowie proudly as an artist who let the world know that Berlin, then a capitalist islet behind the Iron Curtain, was cool. “His aura remains perceptible,” Berlin’s TAZ newspaper said recently.

His Berlin era has become the stuff of Bowie legend, with guided tours taking in Bowie’s former flat, the bar where he breakfasted and the Hansa Studios.

Fans lap up even the more mundane details.

“We especially used to like to drive to Wannsee (lake),” Bowie said in a 2002 interview with Tagesspiegel Berlin daily.

“There was a restaurant there where we always ate chicken liver and such things.”

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