Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Famously, after reading The Old Curiosity Shop Oscar Wilde commented: ‘One would have to have a heart of stone to read of the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.’ This famous if rather unfriendly piece of literary criticsm plus numerous other unfavourable comments about the characters of The Adventures of Oliver Twist, Bleak House and Little Dorrit could not challenge the fact that Charles Dickens´writing surpassed his own by far. Wilde was there to amuse the world, Dickens was about to change it.
He showed people in England and elsewhere, especially the well-to-do people (as only such could afford buying the books or reading at all) what this world outside their windows was really like: outside the cosy drawing rooms, brightly lit ball rooms, outside the country mansions and the tea rooms. He presented the invisible: the poor, the sick, the ugly and the dying. Also the cruel and the evil that cloaked themselves as charitable and deserving respect. All of that existed somewhere but most of those who could change the status quo were not even aware of its existence. Until Dickens painted it with words so well that rich ladies wept and loosened their purse strings to set up a small charity or support an already existing one. Wealthy gentlemen were patting poor little boys on their dirty heads and sticking little coins in their grubby hands. The society did not become perfect but it gained something amazing: an insight and awareness.
What Charles Dickens did for English literature and the social awareness of the Brits, Heinrich Zille did for the Germans and for Berlin. Unlike Dickens, though, he used pencils, ink and coal to portrait the Lumpenproletariat – the wretched of the Earth. The human under-class. Interestingly, just like Dickens Zille also came from a poverty-stricken family. His father, just like Dickens´, spent long months in a debtors´prison (and that several times), leaving the family without means and forced to fight for survival. This traumatic childhood experience and the social sensitivity developed as its result made Berlin´s lowest of the low Zille´s main subject.
His drawings are like a cricket bat landing at the back of one´s head in the middle of a joke. They are hillarious and horrid at the same time. And the reality they show is one we, the lucky residents of the IPod-IPad-IWant world no longer have to face. Women who at the age of 25 looked 60 or died after yet another child-birth. Children who slept in damp cellars, played in gutters and never in their whole life saw a garden or, come to that, enough food either. Worn-out men working like shire horses, drinking themselves to sleep. Families of seven living in one dirty little room and still putting up Schlafburschen (men who rented a place to sleep in a room with others) for the night to earn a penny. The extent of the suffering he drew was enormous and even today hard to take in. And yet Zille managed to make people not look away again. He did what Wilde was doing for his upper-class friends to keep their attention from dwindling: he made it funny.
One of the best examples of his very powerful style is the drawing of a group of little girls in winter. They are all standing in the snow in a half circle, wearing unusually proper clothing for the season (most of Zille´s subjects were wearing nothing but rags or last-but-one step to it), while the oldest girl, looking not 10 or 12 but 70 years old and very clearly a TB-sufferer, says playfully in order to impress: “I can spit blood into the snow when I want to!” Not even Oscar Wilde would have laughed. Still, thanks to this tar-black humour, this verbal dance macabre, a tiny little bit of the pain you feel looking at the picture is eased.
Zille also made it simple and true: families at the lake beach in Berlin, kids and grown-ups enjoying an outing to the park, funny little conversations between big-bosomed neighbours looking out of their windows, little sister wiping her even smaller brother´s nose with a hem of her skirt and saying: “Hav´to blow!” Zille´s works are touching and real.
If you want to get to know them, here is your chance to see them well displayed, in peace and for free: in the Marheineke Markthalle in Kreuzberg until the 22nd of October. The exhibition is part of the Ich Bin Kreuzberg (I am Kreuzberg) Project run by the Community Impulse Initiative e.V., Bezirksmuseum Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum Berlin (Käthe Kollwitz, a famous German sculptor, was one of Zille´s closest friends). You might feel confused when inside the Markthalle, looking for the exhibition among the greengrocers´stalls and French delicacies stands, for the road to the event has not been marked well. But it pays to look for it. Upstairs and to the right. With the crowds downstairs shopping for Gruyer, dorade and pate and you standing there with your paper coffee cup in the hand and staring in awe at the pictures of laughing little kids, whores, beggars and desperate pregnant mothers pulling their small children along into the rainy river, it might feel surreal at the least. But is should be done. A bat against the skull as a reminder of how good we have it today. Despite all.