Monday, January 14, 2008

Visit Lenbachhaus!

All week, notes from my vacation.

Munich is a first rate museum city. The Alte Pinakothek (Old Painting Museum) in particular is filled with shockingly great things – the Dürers, the Altdorfers, the Rubens. But every visitor goes there, so I won’t say any more about it.

I want to single out a place that is more likely to be neglected. Lenbachhaus is the villa of a successful 19th century Munich portrait painter (he painted Bismarck I don’t remember how many times) who was also a great patron of Munich artists. The villa has kept a few of Lenbach’s own rooms intact, but has otherwise been turned into a gallery for modern Munich artists. The highlights are Lovis Corinth and the whole “Blue Rider” group - Wassily Kandinsky, Gabrielle Münter, Franz Marc, Alexei Jawlensky, August Macke, and others, who in a few years in the early 20th century produced a shocking amount of marvellous, original work. The quality of the paintings is extremely high. There’s also a contemporary wing, presumably not at all full of piles of junk that would make a person despair of the state of today’s art. On this visit, I didn’t check.

Each artist gets a room or two. The photos here are of the Jawlensky room, from two angles. Nothing wrong with the camera - this is what it actually looks like. I don't want every museum to look like this, but the Lenbachhaus galleries look great.

Art history - any history - is an act of story telling, and some stories are more powerful than others. There has been a sort of unidirectional narrative in art history that slights these painters. They're lumped into German Expressionism, Kandinsky is given extra credit for inventing abstract painting, and then the story moves on. The older Corinth is completely ignored. The old arrangement of the Museum of Modern Art is an example of what I’m talking about – a powerful, progressive story of how we got from post-Impressionism to the present day. Walking through the galleries was like an art history course. It was a great story, clear and dramatic. But it was sort of the trunk of the tree, with all the branches lopped off.

I think this is changing. Art historians are casting their nets wider. MOMAs new gallery arrangement is more complicated, less coherent. The paintings are as good as ever. Now there's more room for Franz Marc, Gabrielle Münter, and their colleagues.

Anyway, if you’re in Munich and you have any interest in painting, go to Lenbachhaus. Your guidebook that lumps it in with other miscellaneous attractions is wrong.
It also has a nice coffee shop.


  1. The Prairie QuilterJanuary 14, 2008 at 2:53 PM

    Glad to have you back. I look forward to seeing more about your trip.

  2. That is a cool gallery room! I love the paint on the floor and wall and how it incorporates a farmed "picture" and so makes it look like the art can't be contained and has spilled out of the frame.


  3. The other galleries are not quite so, um, dramatic. But they're all nicely done.