In Berlin, I mainly did two things: I walked to museums, and then I walked around inside of museums. Travelling alone made me realize how many of my prior travels had been based around themes like "let's find a good place to eat lunch" or "let's sit around and talk to each other about what we see and then maybe have a beer". Without those fallback positions, I discovered pretty quickly that I had no idea what to do with myself, which is when I started hitting the museums.
I went to seven museums in three days, which would have been tiring even if I hadn't been walking probably seven to ten miles of urban sidewalk each day on top of that. I learned about the fishing boats of Pacific Islanders and saw photographs of Depeche Mode, looked at still lives of garden gnomes and wondered at partially destroyed Greek friezes, all beauty and decay and silent stylized struggle. I went to a contemporary art gallery housed in a revamped train station decked out with neon lights, and I went to the Zuckermuseum, which I thought would be a candy museum but instead turned out to literally be about sugar; ironically, it was staffed by the sourest people I met on my entire trip. I saw a lot of stuff, but I would say that I had exactly two truly moving experiences in those three days, moments that were divorced from the intellectual coldness that can accompany a museum visit or seven. These two things have been tumbling around in my head ever since. This is the first one.
Usually when I see famous pieces of artwork I end up feeling a little let down. They look exactly and unexcitingly like their reproductions or there are too many people around--hey, Mona Lisa, I'm looking at you here--or I end up psyching myself out, thinking "Is this neat because it's famous, or is it famous because it's neat? What am I enjoying here, art or fame?" When something bypasses all of that, it's incredibly shocking.
I saw the bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum (New Museum) on my first day, almost as an afterthought. I wasn’t excited about it; it wasn’t something I’d ever felt a desire to see, and I assumed it would be underwhelming. Instead, when I rounded the corner into the room where the bust sits alone, the shock I felt took me completely by surprise. The sheer presence, the vitality of this piece of painted limestone was like nothing I’ve ever felt before, like what I imagine people mean when they speak about seeing something supernatural. It wasn’t a reaction to the beauty of the work—although it is beautiful, much more beautiful than you’d guess—but, I think, to the intent of both artist and model. I think that for a piece of art to cause a skeptical visitor to shake 3,300 years after its creation, the force put into it must have been incredible. It felt huge and almost menacing; I stood trembling, riveted, trying to decide whether I felt like crying or running away or throwing up.
I ran away. After maybe three minutes, I turned and fled. After I had recovered--maybe twenty minutes, during which time I saw very little although I passed by many things—I went back. The impact was gone, except for an echo of the awe and fear. I left the museum soon afterwards, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the Tiergarten, trying to recover.