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City Tales: Berlin
“My weekly walk in these gardens is a luxury”

Bianca Schaalburg
Bianca Schaalburg | ©Susanne Schleyer

At weekends, illustrator Bianca Schaalburg finds inspiration in Berlin’s magnificent Charlottenburg Palace Gardens.

By Tanja Dückers

Schloss Charlottenburg (built 1695–99), the pre-eminent Berlin palace of the Prussian kings and German emperors in Berlin and a favourite of the Hohenzollerns, is a beguiling and calming sight amid the chaotic jumble of the present-day capital. But we’re not going inside the castle today. Bianca Schaalburg, a born (1968) and bred Berliner, is particularly partial to the Baroque palace gardens and adjacent English landscape park. You can tell from her getup that the illustrator loves colours and the finer things in life: from toe to top – she has a marked penchant for caps – she puts together a marvellous new outfit every day, replete with stockings to match her barrettes. At the weekend she often comes here to mull the events of the previous week and draw inspiration for new ideas from these serene surroundings. Since 1998 she has lived almost opposite the palace near Klausenerplatz.

Even before arriving, I noticed how well Bianca Schaalburg knows the palace gardens and their environs: “Here, where this car park is now, I was still playing with my sons in the playground only fifteen years ago.” A great deal has changed in general: “There are a lot more regulations now. You can’t just lie down on any of the lawns. We used to hold sprawling picnics here almost every weekend. Out back by the water, you’re not allowed to lie on the grass anymore either.”

But Bianca Schaalburg still loves it here all the same. As we leave a shady path lined with tall trees behind us and suddenly come upon the expansive Carp Pond, she stops and says, “Whenever I turn the corner here, everything melts away from me: the whole work week, everything. These high skies, the vastness, the light.... It’s so beautiful here!” You can see all the way to a little red bridge over the water in one direction, to the palace in the other. There are eight puti, representing the four seasons and four elements, and four ornamental vases on the steps leading down to the Carp Pond. A canal was built to reach the Spree from the palace by boat early on its history. There are various trick fountains between the Carp Pond and the palace, one of which shoots a jet of water 30 metres up into the air in the warmer months of the year.


Schaalburg walks a few steps further: “The flowers are even more magnificent in summer, of course. It may sound kitschy, but I’m enchanted by these flowers – by this floral pageant, as we ought to call it. These ebullient hippie colours – Flower Power in a Prussian setting, extravagance and rigour... I find these contrasts fascinating!” Behind the flowers, we can make out at least a score of fresh molehills: “And I think that’s terrific,” the artist adds. “Despite all the order and prohibitions, there’s nothing to be done about moles!” She grins and evinces the droll sense of humour that characterizes much of her work: “Talk about real Berlin underground!” Which gets us onto the subject of moles as comic book characters and as heroes for kids.

Schaalburg trained in Berlin at the Lette-Verein (an educational centre for applied arts) and the Hochschule der Künste (HdK) with Jürgen Spohn, Květa Pacovská, the grande dame of Czech illustration, and Polish poster artist Jan Lenica, among others. She has been a member of Atelier petit 4, an illustration agency that’s highly regarded in the scene, since 2006. Schaalburg is a highly versatile artist who has illustrated crime novels as well as children’s books and textbooks, designed logos and postcards, and written for women’s magazines, Berlin dailies, and political and financial magazines. She has authored and illustrated her own books and designed various objects. “One thing’s missing though,” she frowns. “I haven’t designed a stamp yet.” And then with a wink: “But it’s only a matter of time.” Jan Lenica, she adds, one of her HdK professors, designed two stamps for the German Post.

You have the feeling there’s nothing Bianca Schaalburg can’t do: she’s equally adept at drawing animals and people, landscapes and logos, funny cartoons and topical book covers. Her portraits of politicians and celebrities {I’ve added this because Brecht may have been obsessively political, he wasn’t exactly a politician!} are impressive: Berlin’s ex-mayor Klaus Wowereit in a carnevalesque outfit; Brecht as a coquettish charmer and heartbreaker; the English queen as the Iron Lady, who, despite the steaming cup of tea in her hand, is thinking about British interests in the eternal ice. Under the acronym BiSch, Bianca Schaalburg has published over four hundred edgy cartoons, mostly in Berlin’s zitty magazine, but also in the national daily Frankfurter Rundschau and elsewhere.

We continue on towards the little red bridge. In the background we see the mausoleum, the beautiful Belvedere (a “little tea palace”, as she calls it) and an island called Luiseninsel. Schaalburg comes to a stop on the bridge and peers at the yellow autumn leaves spinning and rocking slowly in the water. “That looks so beautiful… These are the sort of images I come away with from here again and again. And the water lilies back there: as if painted by Monet.” Schaalburg has never lost something many people only possess in childhood: the ability to look closely and marvel at things time and again with ever-fresh eyes, to find what’s special about the apparently ordinary little things of everyday life.

Absurdity and playfulness have a permanent place in her work alongside her “big” topics of interest: last year, for instance, for list lovers, she came out with Mein supertolles Listenbuch. Mit 100 Top Ten Listen zum Ausfüllen (“My Superduper Book of Lists, with 100 Top Ten Lists to Fill in”). After you’ve filled in all the lists, you’ll realize you’ve just completed a course in self-knowledge.

Besides developing her own book projects from scratch, from the idea to the design, Schaalburg particularly enjoys having a go at new products, shifting illustration from the printed page to consumer goods: designing the graphics for everything from lens-cleaning cloths, chewing gum packets (namely “Charity Gums”, part of the proceeds from which go to social projects in Berlin) and wooden platters to mobile phone pockets, bookmarks and postcard-size street maps, to name just a few.

Despite this wide-ranging output, there is something “Schaalburgesque” about her sundry creations: the minute observation, the love of fine gradations of colour, the ornamentation (no wonder Schaalburg adores these Baroque gardens) and the enigmatic humour (e.g. a Santa Claus lying on an analyst’s couch spinning yarns about egg-laying). The cats that figure in so many of Schaalburg’s works are another conspicuous common feature. Needless to say, Schaalburg has a cat herself. Its name is Zizou: “Like Zinédine Zidane’s nickname. My sons were dead set on naming our cat after a famous footballer at the time. Oliver Kahn was also in the running. I’m very glad they went for Zizou! Zizou sounds a lot more feline!”

We could continue our stroll here for a long time. The autumn sunshine lights up the colourful foliage all over. Here in the palace gardens you can experience sensations that might well have been virtually the same three or four centuries ago.

Schaalburg stops and spins once all the way round as if to drink in the magnificent view forever: “My weekly walk in this great park is a luxury. I don’t have a garden of my own, but this one here is always available to me… Then again,” it now occurs to her, “the Stiftung Preußische Schlösser (Prussian Palaces & Gardens foundation), which officially owns Schloss Charlottenburg, took a stab at trying to charge admission here a few years ago. Fortunately, that immediately sparked heated opposition from Berlin residents – many people have to go through the park because it’s on their daily route. I’m glad because otherwise, even though I’m a local, I’d have to pay every time I take a little walk here.”

Bianca Schaalburg wants to stay in this part of the city “forever”, she feels so rooted here. So we can look forward to seeing what new ideas and creative approaches the artist comes up with in Prussia’s most famous gardens.