The center of Berlin's old pre-war Jewish quarter has been taken over by contemporary art galleries and a colony of artists working in spacious, high-ceilinged studios.
Berlin has become a center of artisitic activity
Increasing numbers of art buyers and foreign tourists from Asia, the United States and Europe are pouring into the capital's "Gallery Mile" along the fashionable Auguststrasse. The street in the Mitte district of what used to be East Berlin is typical of the transformation that the capital has been undergoing since the fall of the Berlin Wall 18 years ago.
Wedged between a cluster of galleries is Clarechen's Ballhaus, an old dance-hall originally commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm's butler in 1913. Today, it still draws young and old alike, eager to swing a leg and dance cheek-to-cheek.
On the lower part of a huge, soulful-looking, red-brick building random religious messages plead for people to love one another. "Jesus Loves You" reads a slogan.
A green square squeezed between gallery buildings offers a refuge and space for people to rest weary feet, as well as catch a glimpse of the nearby television tower that soars above the rooftops.
A colorful mix
"A lot has changed," said Peter Dittmar, an art historian who operates Galerie Dittmar. "Auguststrasse has become a center of art gallery interest and I wanted to become part of it."
Berlin's most impressive synagogue is just around the corner
"I show a mix of artists," he said. "This year, it's been mostly the work of photographic artists, some of it black and white. Last year, it was Italian artists."
Occasionally, elderly Jewish visitors from the US who were born in Berlin before the Nazis seized power, drop in at his gallery, curious to learn about the revival of cultural life in the area.
Nearby, on Oranienburgerstrasse, the restored synagogue dome gleams in the sunshine. Unlike hundreds of synagogues and other buildings owned or used by Jews that Nazis mobs attacked and set ablaze during Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938, it mercifully escaped serious damage.
Three years ago, Tanja Gerken opened the Galerie Gerken on the east end of Auguststrasse, after she had spent seven years working and studying in Paris and London.
At Galeria Gerken, Renata Toumarova, a St.Petersburg-born artist studying at Berlin's University of the Arts is exhibiting her latest work, entitled "On The Way."
"Renata is a natural talent, who has wonderful movement in her work," said Tanja Gerken. "It's her second show at my gallery, and she's only 20. Her style is bold, very much her own, and indicates her talent, independence and power of expression."
Asked about the Berlin art scene, Tanja Gerken said: "I think many people underestimate the strength of Berlin. It's a city that responds to artists and to new ideas. In 10 years' time it will be the art city in Germany."
At Deschler Gallery further down Auguststrasse, American artist Jay Mark Johnson's "Tai Chi Motion Studies" were admired by visitors. With a modified camera, Johnson took action shots illustrating the progressive patterns and movements of actors, dancers and martial arts performers.
The Deschler Gallery is the brainchild of Markus Deschler, from Ulm in southern Germany.
"He opened the gallery in 1995 when Berlin was in flux after reunification and many artists were arriving to rent studios," said Simone Weicher, who runs the gallery in Deschler's absence.
Fetting's sculpture of Brandt got Bono's attention
"We specialize in new trends in art, with some of our artists also being sculptors, like Rainer Fetting, who is famous internationally," she said.
One of Fetting's works, a sculpture of the late chancellor Willy Brandt, now stands on permanent display at the headquarters of his Social Democratic Party in Berlin.
"There are 400 art galleries in Berlin," noted Frau Weicher. "They attract the attention of buyers and collectors from home and abroad, and of course we profit from that."
Celebrity art dealer
Few contemporary art dealers these days receive as much attention as their artists. One who does in Berlin is 47-year-old Gerd Harry Lybke, who runs two art galleries -- one in the capital and the other in Leipzig where he sparked an explosion of young German painting in the late 1980s and '90s.
Lybke's Leipzig Eigen+Art gallery
Lybke has come a long way since the days when he posed as a model at the Leipzig Academy in the early 1980s after spurning a seven-year stint studying atomic science in Russia. Now a wealthy man, he relishes his art-world power.
His stable of artists includes painters David Schnell, Tim Eitel and Mathias Weischer, as well as Dresden-trained Martin Eder and Neo Rauch, whose romantically-tinged paintings of people in heroic, social-realist poses are internationally prized and fetch up to $240,000 (175,000 euros) apiece.
New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and noted German collector Friedrich Christian Flick have all acquired works by Rauch in recent years. In Miami, the wealthy Rubell family owns three Schnells, four Weischers and five of Tim Eitel's works of desolate landscapes and galleries populated with alienated figures.
Lybke likes artists whose careers he can nurture from early on, even providing some with studio space. In return he expects total loyalty, with no other dealers involved unless he has absolute control.
On both sides of the Atlantic, Lybke is highly successful, with works by his team of artists snapped up at art fair booths in New York, Miami, Basel, Tokyo and London.
Few people spoke of an avenue of galleries in Berlin Mitte in the early 1990s. But Lybke, an expansive, energetic dealer was confident an offshoot on Auguststrasse would pay off. And it did.
"For me Berlin is the only place for young art," he said. "The work evolves because the artists evolve."