English Writers in Berlin Showcased in New Exhibition

7 June 2021

A new exhibition curated by Trinity Fellow Stefano-Maria Evangelista showcases the city of Berlin through the eyes of English writers in the 1920s and 1930s. 

The novelist Christopher Isherwood’s experience of Berlin provided the most prominent and iconic images of Berlin in the roaring or ‘golden’ twenties. The new exhibition – taking place at the start of the centenary of the 1920s – highlights the voices of many other English writers who visited the city during its international art boom in the early twentieth century. Happy in Berlin? Berlin through English Eyes maps the presence of English-speaking writers in the city, providing information on writers who visited Berlin in the early twentieth century, and how they interacted with the spaces and culture of the city. 

Stefano Evangelista explains: ‘As we enter the centenary of the 1920s, it seems timely to look back on this complex and fascinating period. Our linked exhibitions in the Literaturhaus-Berlin, Humboldt-Universität, and the Bodleian Library, invite us to revisit Berlin through the eyes of English writers, focusing on a series of encounters that took place from the turn of the twentieth century to the onset of National Socialism. We retrace the steps of English writers as they discover Berlin’s cosmopolitan cafés, avant-garde cinemas, and seedy cabaret joints, glamorous hotels and working-class districts. From these different vantage points, these passing visitors left us a series of varied and original testimonies of Berlin that complement the work of the famous German chroniclers of this age.  

‘Today, English writers and artists are again making their way to Berlin in great numbers. They too are in search of happiness, in artistic and personal terms, following in the footsteps of their literary predecessors. During the run of the exhibition, a series of events in the Literaturhaus will explore both what the Berlin myth means one hundred years on, and its legacy on contemporary writers with a strong connection to Britain. 

‘This was my first experience of trying to translate my research into an exhibition format and I would certainly be keen to do more of it in the future. It has been a pleasure to work with the Literaturhaus and with the Bodleian Library. The support of the AHRC and of TORCH has been invaluable.’ 

Professor Evangelista and his colleague Gesa Stedman conceived the idea of the exhibition three years ago, and it has evolved to include three exhibition sites and a partnership with the Stephen Spender Trust in order to do outreach work in schools. The exhibition also makes a point of trying to present the impressions of the city left by women writers, which are often more difficult to access because many women preferred to use private forms of writing such as diaries and letters. 

The exhibition Happy in Berlin? is a collaboration between the Literaturhaus-Berlin, Humboldt-Universität, and Oxford University, which also includes an interactive website, an illustrated catalogue and a series of public events in Berlin and Oxford. It opened in Oxford on 15 May, and is scheduled to open in the Literaturhaus Berlin on 15 June, and in the Humboldt Universität on 22 June 2021.

Stefano Evangelista is associate professor of English literature at Oxford University and fellow of Trinity College. He specialises in the literature of the turn of the twentieth century, viewed from comparative and transnational perspectives.