on tour at the rhine’n’ruhr

Thinking of Germany – or almost any country for that matter – forget about the big cities like Berlin, Hamburg, or Frankfurt (Munich is a big exception because it’s in very conservative Bavaria and known for some of the biggest German clichés like beer and the October fest). The real Germany – and almost every country for that matter – happens in middle sized, middle class towns. And the Rhine-Ruhr area prides itself for having tons of them – all easily accessible within minutes by public transport.

Coming by train to Cologne, the visitor is greeted by the cathedral.

You can get by train from Dortmund (600,390 inhabitants) to Bochum (371,097 inhabitants) in 10 minutes, in ten more minutes the train gets you from there to Essen (589.484 inhabitants). Here you trespass into the Rhineland getting from Essen to Düsseldorf in 25 minutes and from there to Cologne in another 25. Especially Chinese people will probably laugh at what we call ‘cities’. Anyway, for us these are cities, and although none of them is a raving beauty and populated rather by lower middle class to working class folks, they are by far not as dreary as compatible industrial zones in other countries. As a matter of fact, the outlay and proximity bears potential. For instance in 2015, seven cities in the Ruhr area plus Düsseldorf hosted an ambitious art project called “China 8”: At nine venues in these eight cities where exhibited about 500 artworks of 120 Chinese contemporary artists. There was a shuttle bus that shuttled you between Düsseldorf, Duisburg, Essen, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Gelsenkirchen, Recklinghausen, Marl, and Hagen. Since the bus shuttled only every two hours, I had to do many of the passages by public transport and therefore had to skip one. Every city chose a main focus such as painting, sculpture, photography etc. Since at Gelsenkirchen the focus was on ink drawings that interested me least, this was the only city I skipped.
But anyway, I’ve made it to seven cities in two day, and you get the point – and see the potential.

Since the “China 8” I see a single work or a small exhibition of some of the artists who participated in the event every time I’m in the area. It’s nice that the cooperation proved to be so lasting.

One of the most fun works at the “China 8”: “1st class” by Xu Bin, exhibited at the Lehmbruck Museum.
A tiger fur made of 500,000 cigarettes.

I presume if you are not German and did fight neither in WWI nor in WWII, you’ve never heard of Essen. Why I mention the world wars? Because Essen was home to Krupp’s factories that were highly involved in the war machineries manufacturing weapons and heavy military equipment.

But steel industry was not new to this area. There were times when Krupp was Europe’s second largest enterprise. During the European industrialization in the 18th century, mining companies and iron and steel works were in full bloom – making few rich and many sick: the lignite dust turned laundry and their owner’s lungs pitch black.

Former colliery “Zeche Zollverein”, today on the Unesco world heritage list, hosting museums and offering interesting tours into the Ruhr’s past.

Some of the people who got actually rich from ruining environment and health of others was the family of Karl Ernst Osthaus (1874 – 1921). They were bankers and industrialists and benefitted from the industrial boom in this area. Their sophisticated son Karl Ernst was one of Germany’s most important art patrons and collectors of the early 20th century. Although politically rather close to conservative, nationalist movements, in the field of the arts Osthaus was fairly open and progressive, following the reformation initiatives “Hagener Impuls”, “Folkwang Konzept”, and “Deutscher Werkbund”, innovative art transforming movements similar to the “Bauhaus”, probably the most famous among these projects.

At the turn of the century at the behest of Osthaus, a museum was built in Hagen – at that time under the name of “Folkwang Museum”; today it’s called the Osthaus Museum Hagen, and although Hagen is maybe the most charmless city I’ve ever seen, this museum houses first-rate artwork and organizes world-class exhibitions.

Around these treasures of the permanent collection
(in the front a stuatue by Anselm Kiefer, in the back the “The fountain with kneeling youths” by Georg Minne),
the Osthaus Hagen organizes impressive world-class exhibitions…
…like “50 years of hyper realism” in 2016
(Bernardo Torrens “Alli te espero”)

After Osthaus died, the museum association decided to buy his exquisite art collection for the newly installed Folkwang Museum in Essen. Since then this museum is one of the most important museums for classical modernism, contemporary, and modern art in Germany.

And this is where I’ve spent this afternoon after first having visited Duisburg, another dull city in the Ruhr area, but home to the Lehmbruck Museum, a venue dedicated to Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s oeuvre of sculptures. The permanent collection includes objects of many important artists such as Salvador Dalí, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Duane Hanson, Anish Kapoor, Kiki Smith and many more, and they are hosting temporary exhibitions as well. The museum is located in the heart of the Immanuel Kant Park and surrounded by 40 sculptures of artists of international renown such as Henry Moore, Meret Oppenheim, and Hans-Peter Feldmann – and many local drunks and junkies.

Meret Oppenheim: “Der grüne Zuschauer”

I’ve been here before (for the above mentioned “China 8”) and did come back for the exhibition “Life Size” by Czech-Canadian artist Jana Sterbak. Sterbak recently came to fame when Lady Gaga adapted her dress made of raw meat called “Vanitas: Flesh dress for an albino anorectic”.

Literally the way of all flesh: Jana Sterbak makes a new edition of the meat dress for every single of her performances. The props are rotting… 
The vegetarian version of art: “Bread Bed”

Another interesting art venue in Duisburg is the Küppersmühle, a former grain mill in the inland port of Duisburg. No less than famous Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron designed the museum’s interior. The permanent collection, shown on the two upper floors, presents German contemporary artists – many from the area – such as K. O. Götz, A. R. Penck, Markus Lüpertz and many more.

One of many large size works by Anselm Kiefer: “Die goldene Bulle”
Here is a philosophic question: When Günther Uecker hammers a nail in to hang one of his nail canvasses, is this nail just a nail, or is it art, too?

A ten minutes train ride took me then to Essen and the Folkwang Museum – not to be missed: special exhibit of germanübermegastarpainter, the one and only Gerhard Richter.

It was a long process: depicting 48 small size photos on canvas, the next step was to put digital prints of the paintings between acrylic glass and alu-dibond. 
You have to take a very close look to realize that these are carpets woven according to Richter’s paintings.

Sunday was supposed to be Cologne-Day – catholic city with world’s third highest church building. But first – still at Essen – I needed to rush into the protestants’ church Kreuzeskirche to see the colorful, fun windows by James Rizzi (also one of the first artists whose work struck me and lead me into the arts; unforgotten his record covers for the band Tom Tom Club). Although Rizzi’s designs are found on many objects, these are his only church windows in the entire world.

The catholics at Cologne have their own artist’s window at the cathedral, created by Gerhard Richter, but I have an appointment with his artwork at the inevitable Museum Ludwig next door.

Conveniently located next to each other: Father Rhine, Cologne Cathedral, the Romano-Germanic Museum, and the Museum Ludwig.

About thirty years ago it was this museum that hooked me to art. Especially the series of hyper realistic black and white portraits of 48 famous men created for the Venice Biennale in 1972 by the very Richter sucked me in and since then I’ve never found the way out of artsy wonderland.
So therefore it’s always nice and a bit of a sentimental journey – like visiting your old high school – coming back to this museum that was founded in 1976 when Peter and Irene Ludwig donated 350 artworks, mainly Pop Art.

The museum is also home to another one of my favorite paintings, “The Virgin Chastising the Christ Child in Front of Three Witnesses” by Max Ernst. I love this image because it shows the holy family in a refreshing realistic way. I’m absolute sure that Baby Jesus had his terrible moments as a toddler and gave his mom Virgin Mary a hard time and got on her nerves from time to time so she had it and spanked him. I’m a mother, I can relate to her; so this painting brings me closer to the holy family than any Christmas story ever did.

The protest letters against this painting are filling rows of folders.

The main reason for this visit was – again – a temporary exhibition of Gerhard Richter that ended the next day. The primary focus was on 26 of his late, abstract canvasses, and I don’t fancy them as much. But fortunately the Ludwig is in possession of many of his older work (like the sensational 48 portraits – and here were the originals, i. e. the canvasses instead of digital reproductions) that I enjoyed a lot.

Posing in front of a mirror shielded by a dozen staggered glass panes, I created my very own blurry Gerhard Richter image.

However, another special exhibition on Otto Freundlich titled “Cosmic Communism” is interesting and absolutely worth the visit, and it was about time to commemorate the oeuvre of this highly intellectual artist. One of Freundlich’s most famous sculptures is the Großer Kopf (Large Head) – unfortunately this piece remains missing till this day. For their propaganda exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art), in 1938 the Nazis put a picture of this expressive artwork on the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue- and from our point of view involuntarily ennobled Freundlich’s master piece that way.

Mosaic by Otto Freundlich: “Die Geburt des Menschen”/”The Birth of Man”

To round off this tour, a short visit to the Kölnischer Kunstverein (Cologne Art Association) seemed appropriate where New York based artist Avery Singer shows her exhibition “Sailor”, and particularly this digital print seems to me like a tribute to Gerhard Richter.

To trace the (short and simple) route I took, here is a map. More interesting will be, how many cities are found in this relatively small area.