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A recent exhibit at the Deschler Gallery on the Auguststrasse in Berlin sent out a clear message: Forget your dated, cozy German cliches, the Old World universe of polka parties, Hummel figurines, and cuddlesome kitsch.
The exhibit did admittedly feature its own serving of kitsch -- in the form of big stuffed animals. But the theme was "How to Kill Your First Love," and sprawled out on the gallery floor, like a gruesome calling card, was a teddy bear with a slit throat. Adding to the button-eyed body count: a rubber duck squeezing out one last high-pitched squeak after having taken an arrow to the forehead.
The nursery room bloodbath felt not at all out of place in Berlin, Germany's ever-subversive city, the renegade capital that continually snaps the straps of the lederhosen, smashes the Hummels, and always goes its own wayward way. And its reputation for artistic edginess has only increased with the fall of the Wall, which meant that East Berlin's grittiness and West Berlin's decadent life-is-a-cabaret sensuality have finally paired up for good.
The immediate payoff of that pairing has been a renewed art-star status for Berlin. Always one of Europe's modern art capitals, the free -- thinking, free -- wheeling city has consistently attracted Germany's dispossessed pacifists, bohemians, and artists. Among them were vaunted 20th-century German artists Georg Grosz and Emil Nolde, along with leading exponents of both dadaism and expressionism.
Although the art scene declined after World War II, since the collapse of the Berlin Wall the city has drawn a new generation of the determinedly arty. Now Berlin again ranks first among buyers, dealers, and artists as the Continent's most fearless art center -- a place that doesn't just accept the most controversial shows but actively seeks them.
"The new Berlin feels like a fresh country," says Olaf Hajek, a gay Berlin artist whose retro folklike paintings -- more pretty than iconoclastic -- signal the city's indifference to firm artistic boundaries. "Everything since the Wall came down is new and open to change. The energy has drawn artists from all over the world partly because there was still cheap studio space. The art galleries followed, displaying such diversity -- every kind of art, gay and straight. Because in Berlin, who cares? Everything is mixed."
While the recent profusion of galleries has moved into the multiethnic Kreuzberg district and industrial areas by the River Spree, the best place to start the arty marathon part of your Gay Grand Tour is on the gallery-dense Auguststrasse in the Mitte area, which is again Berlin's center after being appropriated by East Berlin in the postwar years. Begin at the street's anchoring Kunst-Werke, which exhibits both emerging artists and powerhouse figures. Tellingly, one of its major shows this year, an homage to gay filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, features a continuously running loop of the bad boy's 15 1/2-hour masterwork, Berlin Alexanderplatz, based on Alfred Doblin's Weimar-era novel -- which should be enough Fassbinder to last anyone. Then waltz down the street past nude mannequins sprouting neon signs at the Galerie Rossella Junck and boutiques stocked with abstract paintings and photos.
If you want a full-blown day-into-night boho blowout, continue on to Shiro I Shiro, where agents treat their pet artists to tapas at a long pearl-inlaid communal dining table, and then head for Panorama Bar, housed inconspicuously in a creaking old factory, or club SO36. Both are famous for their mixed weekend crowds of long-haired hipsters, themselves luminous enough to double as art -- and if you're lucky, as performance pieces.
Save your next day for a tour of Berlin's museums, also emblematic of the city's almost compulsive artistic bent. How compulsive? More than 25 new museums have opened in Berlin since 1996. Among the best: the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum fur Gegenwart, devoted to cutting-edge contemporary art, and the Jewish Museum, where the slanting corridors are purposely unsettling, simulating history's horror show. The constellation of old museums being restored on the Mitte's famous Museum Island reveal the staying power of Berlin's art-world prominence.
The newly reopened Bode-Museum features a peerless collection of Byzantine art, and the neighboring Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) boasts a wealth of 19th-century German romantic and realist paintings that may now look quaint. In their day, they were as fearless and avant-garde as any decapitated teddy.