Germany’s third largest after Berlin and Hamburg, Munich has been voted the one most Germans would prefer to live in.
An extensive, Italian-influenced building programme led by King Ludwig I of Bavaria in the 19th century earned it the moniker of the “northernmost Italian city”. Post-was reconstruction has been aesthetically more successful than in many other damaged European cities and much of that Baroque atmosphere remains.
Munich has a small town feel belying its 1.5 million population and, thanks to an extensively pedestrianised city centre, is relatively unclogged by traffic. A nice touch: Walking through one of the rebuilt city gates gives a real sense of “entering” the city.
The majority of Munich’s top art museums are clustered together in the ‘Kunstareal’ (Art Area), a two square kilometre district around the Königsplatz (King’s Square) – a concentration perhaps unique in the world. Under the custodianship of the Bavarian State Paintings Collection, between them they cover more or less the entire history of art to the present day.
The Alte Pinakothek (Old Picture Gallery, from the Greek ‘pinakothiki’, a painted board or tablet) traces the development of art from the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and Baroque to the end of the Rococo period around the mid-19th century.
Housed in a massive, neo-Classical building (the ground and first floors are connected by what may be the longest staircases in Europe), the collection comprises over 700 works from the stellar eras of German, Flemish, Dutch, French, Italian and Spanish painting.
Featured artists include (deep breath) Dürer, Rembrandt, da Vinci, Rubens, Bosch, Cranach, van Dyck, Raphael, Poussin, Murillo, Guardi, Titian, Bruegel, Canaletto, Guardi and many more, while subjects range from still lifes, religious tableaux and battle scenes to fantastical landscapes and portraits of the great and good. There is also a series of special exhibitions.
“Rediscover the 19th Century” is the mantra at the Neue Pinakothek (New Picture Gallery), which holds masterpieces by major pioneers of modern art such as Max Liebermann, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne.
The original gallery was founded by King Ludwig I as Europe’s first public museum dedicated to contemporary art. Destroyed in WWII, it was replaced by the current building in 1981. There are regular themed exhibitions. Please note: The museum is currently closed for renovation. Meanwhile a selection of its 19th century works is on display in the Alte Pinakothek and the Schack Collection (see below).
Sometimes referred to by locals as “die dritte” (the third), the Pinakothek der Moderne (Modern Picture Gallery) was opened in 2002 to consolidate into one collection works from municipal galleries throughout the city, effectively making it four museums under one roof.
The four corners of the Le Corbusier-like building are connected by a central, domed rotunda, with each corner dedicated to a special collection: art, architecture, design and works on paper. Along with a permanent exhibition of works by over a hundred goldsmiths on loan from the Danner Jewellery Collection, it is one of the world’s largest museums for modern and contemporary art and craft.
Many major 20th century painters, sculptors, photographers, installation artist and film- and video-makers are represented, while the works on paper include those by Dürer, Rembrandt, Michaelangelo and da Vinci. Architecture is represented by drawings, blueprints, photographs, models and computer animations.
Celebrating its tenth year in 2019, the Museum Brandhorst is Munich’s newest art museum (not counting the Lehnbachhaus extension – see below). It is also the most spectacular, with its striking, multi-coloured facade composed of 36,000 vertical ceramic louvres in 23 different coloured glazes.
At any one time around 200 works from a collection of 700 are on display. These include about 100 by Andy Warhol and 60 by Cy Twombly (the largest collection outside the US). One of the rooms, an irregular octagon, was built especially to house Twombly’s ‘Lepanto cycle’, a painting in twelve parts.
Other modern artists include Joseph Beuys, Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter, Bruce Nauman, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst. There are also works on paper by Kasimir Malevich, Kurt Schwitters, Joan Miro and others. The annual acquisition budget of €2 million is more than any other collection in Munich.
Elsewhere in the Kunstareal:
Funded by the leading German portraitist Franz von Lehnbach (1836-1904), the City Gallery in the Lenbachhaus (or simply the Lenbachhaus) reopened in 2013 after four years of construction to reveal a striking, new extension to the beautiful, Tuscan-style villa Lenbach built for himself and his collection. The new facade gleams gold and the spacious entrance hall is topped by a huge glass sculpture hanging down like a rainbow-hued stalactite.
The centrepece of the Lenbachhaus collection is the world’s largest Blue Rider collection, donated to the museum on her 80th birthday by Gabriele Münter, one of the founders of the movement along with her partner Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and others. The acquisition of the collection in 1957 turned the Lenbachhaus into a world class museum virtually overnight. (See The Blue Rider below.)
Other highlights include 19th and 20th century Munich paintings, sculptures by Josef Beuys, Romantic German landscape painting, nature studies by the French Barbizon school and the 800,000-piece photographic collection of the Munch City Museum.
Further acquisitions have expanded the museum’s holdings of art after 1945, such as Andy Warhol’s ‘Lenin’ and ‘Neuschwanstein’, the latter bathed in surreal colours reflecting the eccentricity of that castle’s founder, King Ludwig II, and Warhol’s obsession with celebrity. These are included in the Pop art display, I’m A Believer, in a gallery designed by Gerhard Richter.
Another permanent display is Picture Perfect: Views from the 19th Century. Reflecting an era when visual art reached larger audiences than ever before, it includes nature scenes, depictions of rural life and portraits of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy.
Entered by the stairs down to the Königsplatz U-Bahn (Underground) station (and just as long and wide as one), the Kunstbau (Art Building) is an annex of the Lenbachhaus and presents special exhibitions of contemporary art.
Completing a trio of museums on the same busy intersection is the Glyptothek (Sculpture Gallery, from the Greek word for to carve), which houses the State Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities. Also commissioned by the art-loving King Ludwig I (after whom the Königsplatz is named), it was part of his vision for Munich as a “German Athens”. Symbolically, he had the museum placed in front of one of the city gates.
Munich’s oldest public museum, the Glypothek was originally built completely of marble and was decorated with colourful frescoes and stuccos. Bombed during WWII, it was reconstructed using red brick painted with a light plaster.
The many busts include the Emperors Augustus, Nero and Caligula, while statues include an enormous Apollo from a Roman villa in Tuscany. Other works include Roman sarcophagus reliefs, mosaic floors and a bronze head of a youth forged around the time of the birth of Christ. Please note: The Glyptothek is closed for restoration until autumn 2010.
The Blue Rider
The artist couple Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter chose the market town of Murnau, with its picturesque setting at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, as a suitable place to paint in the countryside.
They told their fellow painters, Alexej Javlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, about their find and the time they and others spent living and working together in 1908 became a watershed in German art, leading to an intensely colourful painting style and, in Kandinsky’s case, to abstraction.
The origin of the group’s name, The Blue Rider, is uncertain. While Kandinsky’s painting of the same name is the group’d most iconic work, Kandinsky wrote later that the name derived from Franz Marc’s enthusiasm for horses and his own for riders, combined with a mutual love of the colour blue.
The outbreak of WWI put an abrupt end to the avant-garde, including The Blue Rider. The group’s Russian members, Kandinsky, Javlensky and von Werefkin, were declared enemy aliens and forced to leave the country, while others, including Marc and August Macke, were killed in action.
Years later Gabriele Münter returned to Murnau, where she lived until her death in 1962. On her 80th birthday she donated her treasure trove of pictures from her time with Kandinsky to the Lenbachhaus, which virtually overnight became a world class museum offering an unparalleled overview of The Blue Rider movement.
Today Münter’s and Kandinsky’s house in Murnau, now restored, is open to the public. It contains the artists’ own paintings, graphic art and reverse glass paintings as well as their painted furniture and collection of folk art. Visitors can also take a bike tour of locations where some Blue Rider paintings were made.
Across the city in a neat row along the Prinzregentenstrasse are three more museums to make up Munich’s top ten for art, craft and design.
No art museum is more symbolic of post-war change in Germany than the Haus der Kunst (House of Art). A colonnaded slab of Third Reich architecture, it was built by the National Socialists to show the best of “German art”, as opposed to the modernist art which they termed “degenerate” and banned for being un-German, Jewish or Communist, Originally called the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), the entire Nazi leadership attended its opening in 1937.
While the city was extensively damaged by WWII air raids, the well camouflaged building was left virtually unscathed. After undergoing a number of post-war uses, including as an American officers’ club, exhibitions resumed with The Blue Rider, featuring formerly ostracised works. Thus the museum was effectively denazified.
Major exhibitions followed dedicated to artists and designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Le Corbusier, Oskar Kokoschka, Vincent van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. A milestone was a Picasso restrospective in 1955, when the iconic, anti-fascist ‘Guernica’ was shown in Germany for the first time.
Under the banner Renovate/Innovate, in 2020 the Haus der Kunst will embark on a major renovation under David Chipperfield Architects (London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Berlin’s Neues Museum et al).
With some 100,000 objects, the Bavarian National Museum has one of Europe’s largest collections of applied and decorative arts. Housed in a magnificent, Italianate building are two main collections, art historical and folklore, the bulk of which was once owned by the Wittelsbach family, a Bavarian royal dynasty.
Produced by some of Europe’s finest craftsmen, the artefacts date from late antiquity to Art Nouveau and are displayed in over forty rooms, all stylistically attuned to the periods represented by the objects in them.
The range of items is dazzling and includes (another deep breath) sculpture, painting, ivory, precious metals, folk art, arms and armour, furniture, tapestries, textiles, clocks, musical instruments, stoneware, majolica and stained glass.
Noteworthy among the many highlights are a magnificent, 600-piece silver dinner service (set ready to receive thirty guests), Tiffany jewellery, Lalique glass and probably the world’s finest collection of Nymphenburg porcelain figures.
A short distance further along the Prinzregentenstrasse, the Schack Collection specialises in 19th century German painting. There are around 180 works, primarily historical scenes and landscapes, the latter notably of Mediterranean countries known to the collection’s founder, Count Adolf Friedrich von Schack (1815-1954) through his extensive travels. The collection has remained unchanged since his death.
In addition to works by German artists, many depicting legends and fairytales familiar to most people growing up in Germany, the Count collected copies of 16th and 17th century masterpieces, mainly by Venetian artists such as Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.
Further info: Simply Munich