With the two-week bacchanal of Oktoberfest and the huge scale of some of its beer palaces, one tends to think of Munich in terms of quaffing frothing steins, rather than soaking up art, but the Bavarian capital also boasts art collections of international significance.
Now its museum and gallery district is poised for the re-opening on Wednesday of the Lenbachhaus municipal gallery, home of a world-renowned collection of works by the early 20th-century Blauer Reiter (Blue Rider) group of artists, and remodelled to a striking design by British architects Foster + Partners.
The Lenbachhaus occupies the former Tuscan-inspired villa and studio of Franz von Lenbach, a popular portraitist who died in 1904. In 1957 it was transformed from a municipal gallery into a world-class one when Wasily Kandinsky’s companion, Gabriele Münter, bequeathed more than 1,000 works by members of the Blauer Reiter expressionist movement, including 90 paintings by Kandinsky, as well as paintings by herself and by other eminent artists such as Franz Marc and Paul Klee.
None of the canvases was back on the walls during my preview visit, as work continued on the new wing, strikingly clad in Foster’s gleaming façade of golden metal rods, reflecting the ochre finish of the original house. However, in the glass atrium connecting new and old, Olafur Eliasson’s Wirbelwerk, a 26ft high vortex of glass and steel, hung imposingly from the ceiling. Once it opens, visitors will see the gallery’s collections in a new light – quite literally, thanks to a groundbreaking LED lighting system developed by Osram and artist Dietmar Tanterl.
Von Lenbach deliberately situated his villa close to Munich’s two great galleries of the Pinakothek and Glyptothek, at a time when the city was an important centre in European art. Today, you can stroll within a few minutes from the transformed Lenbachhaus to the other galleries of the museum district, the Alte Pinakothek, Neue Pinakothek and the 2002 Pinakothek der Moderne.
We headed for the mighty Alte Pinakothek, currently hosting (until 16 June) the Paintings of Jan Brueghel the Elder, featuring works by the Flemish master from the Alte Pinakothek’s own vast collections, and placing them in the context of other artistic Brueghel family members such as Jan the Younger and the two Pieters, Younger and Elder.
Taking in the entire museum district could occupy many days, but it is also worthwhile crossing the River Isar to visit the extraordinary Villa Stuck, one-time home of painter Franz von Stuck, champion of Munich’s own take on Art Nouveau. The villa is currently hosting an exhibition about the radical theatre designer Frederick Kiesler, whose often stark stage and exhibition assemblies are in marked contrast to von Stuck’s original rooms, with their lavish Art Nouveau decoration.
For a good overall sense of the city, try a walk conducted by Munich Walk Tours, whose amiable American guide, Levi, led us from the central Marienplatz, dominated by the gothic spire of the Neues Rathaus with its famous Glockenspiel, and through the outdoor Victualienmarkt, its shops and stalls crammed with vegetables, fish and a thousand ways with pork and sausage.
Then it was on into the great green expanse of the Englischer Garten, the largest park in Germany, with its Chinese pagoda, and, bizarrely, surfers riding the artificial wave of its Eisbach, immediately below the rumble of city traffic and adjacent to the Haus der Kunst – a surviving example of ponderous Third Reich architecture.
And, yes, there remains the shadow of that other Munich, which was the birthplace of Nazism. Sitting amid the rococo elegance of Café Tambosi, looking across the Odeonsplatz, we recalled our guide’s account of early Nazi rallies and why a nearby alley, the Viscardigasse, is “Dodger’s Alley”. Citizens used to cut down it to avoid being forced to give a Nazi salute to the memory of 16 Nazis killed by police there during Hitler’s failed “Beer Hall putsch” of 1923.
Art, culture, and a tumultuous history – but there’s no getting away from beer in Munich. The city runs on the stuff – there’s a 30,000 litre tank of it buried under the food market, while in the Hofbräuhaus, they shift more than 10,000 litres daily (and that’s off season). With space for 1,000 quaffers on its ground floor alone, the crammed Hofbräuhaus can feel like hell on earth with an oompah band. Less frantic are some of the other excellent bierkellers such as the Weißes Bräuhaus and the Altes Hackerhaus.
We particularly took to the warm and friendly old Café am Beethovenplatz – great food, wheat beer and jazz or classical music every night. And nothing quite works up a thirst like looking at art.