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The El Greco and Modernism exhibition during a weekend in Düsseldorf

The El Greco and Modernism exhibition during a weekend in Düsseldorf

Georges Rouzeau - 2012-05-30

If Düsseldorf is one of the planet’s financial hubs, it also has the well-deserved reputation of being a pleasant residential city that’s keen on culture. In addition to the exhibition devoted to the art of El Greco (28 April to 12 August), the birthplace of Heinrich Heine and Wim Wenders holds many little-known gems of art and architecture.

An old city, all the same
And in the middle flows the Rhine. Even if the city owes its name to the little river Düssel and not the majestic Rhine, it certainly owes its topography to the big river. Cuddled in a loop of the waterway, the old town drives every one of its streets, some of them quite picturesque, towards the Rhine’s impetuous meanders. Completely destroyed at the end of WWII, the city is a mix – as is to be expected – of the most varied styles imaginable.
In the traffic-free old town, the usual retailers vie for space with restaurants (plenty of bad international tourist fare) and bars. In fact, the quarter’s nickname – perhaps something of an exaggeration - is ‘The World’s Longest Bar.’
Even rebuilt, the old city has some charming spots worth discovering. The bright pastel facades of the lovely Kurze Strasse, for example, lead to the BurgPlatz and its Schlossturm, the only remaining vestige of Düsseldorf’s erstwhile castle. In this pedestrian street we recommend the Chérie Bar; reminiscent of Berlin, it is furnished with mis-matched old wooden tables and chairs. The old town is also where Heinrich Heine, one of Germany’s greatest poets, was born.
Another facet of Düsseldorf is its architectural modernity: glass towers, an impressive skyline and countless head offices of the world’s biggest companies, notably those based in Asia. Fans of international architecture will want to see the new buildings along the port, and particularly the group of Neuer offices at Zollhof 1-3, oblique towers with slanted walls designed by Frank Gehry in 1999.
Quays, parks and gardens
Like all German cities, or nearly, many parks, gardens and street trees - lindens, locusts, horse chestnuts – grace the neighbourhoods of Düsseldorf. The old town gives onto quays perched like a balcony over the Rhine that seem to be tailor-made for the enjoyment of pedestrians. Down below, at water level, the row of cafés and restaurants takes on a thunderous atmosphere come evening.
Towards the north of the city, the ambience is more bucolic: stones and concrete are replaced by greenery and the quays become banks. Vast lawns shaded by big trees welcome lovers, walkers, cyclists, joggers and footballers. Evenings, it’s easy to understand what German quality of life is all about while relaxing in the river-cooled air. Another feature is the Hofgarten, a magnificent romantic park with statues, lakes and glens that covers nearly half the city from east to west. Most museums and cultural institutions are clustered along its edges.
Düsseldorf and culture: a lasting partnership
By simply contemplating Düsseldorf’s colossal Academy of Fine Arts, an immense neo-renaissance structure that occupies an entire city block at the edge of the Hofgarten, it is clear that the capital of the Rhineland loves culture and the arts.
Many famous artists have taught or studied here, such as Jörg Immendorff, Gerhard Richter and the most famous German artist of the second half of the 20th century, Joseph Beuys, who taught here for approximately ten years. Another sure sign of Düsseldorf’s zeal: Europe’s first Cy Twombly show was held in Düsseldorf in 1960!
One can easily spend a day enjoying art in the city, stopping in at the NRW-Forum Düsseldorf (www.nrw-forum.de), the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen or K20 (www.kunstsammlung.de) and its little sister K21. Less well-known, the KIT (Kunst Im Tunnel) opened in 2007 in an old tunnel. It is dedicated to contemporary art and shows the work of former students of the Fine Arts Academy who have ‘made their mark’. But for the El Greco und die Moderne exhibit, the Kunstpalast Museum is the place.
El Greco and the modernists
The exhibition focuses on the discovery of El Greco by the first generation of German expressionists – Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Egon Schiele and Franz Marc – in the early 20th century. Indeed, the painter from Toledo’s opus did not reach the German public until after 1910 and the publication of The Spanish Journey by art historian Julius Meier-Graefe.
Two El Greco exhibitions followed; they featured paintings belonging to the private collection of Marczell von Nemes of Hungary. The first was in Munich in 1911, the second in Düsseldorf’s Städtische Kunsthalle in 1912. Many young German artists, especially the members of the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) expressionist movement, were truly dazzled by what they saw.
El Greco and Modernism is a masterful exhibition where 40 of El Greco’s pieces share the spotlight with 110 paintings belonging to the first wave of German modernism. The result is an exhilarating dialogue and an explosion of colours and forms.
Here, El Greco’s Laocoön, lent by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; Ludwig Meidner’s Apocalyptic Landscape; Max Beckmann’s Descent from the Cross, from the MoMa in New York; and the artist from Toledo’s El Espolio (The Disrobing of Christ) from Munich’s Alte Pinakothek can all be admired together. It is easy to see why El Greco’s art influenced these young German painters so intensely. His later style, with its elongated forms, ecstatic faces and ‘acid’ colours, leaves a lasting impression on the imagination. This is the first El Greco show of this dimension in Germany since the early 20th century.
A Bohemian bourgeois street: Ackerstrasse in the Flingern quarter
Who knew? The prosperous financial capital has its ‘alternative’ Bobo street: Ackerstrasse in the Flingern quarter. From London to Berlin to Paris, it’s a familiar tune: Flingern, an old working-class neighbourhood situated in the north-east of the city, had fallen on hard times. Then the old factories, ateliers and abandoned warehouses were progressively transformed into concert venues (the Trinkhalle at #144, for example), art galleries, boutiques presenting young designers, hip hair salons, dance studios, alternative day-nurseries, cafés and restaurants.
Neoclassic facades alternate with more recent buildings dating from the 1970s. The whole is peppered with trees, groves and songbirds – as if the very best, very latest thing was neo-rural. And all this in Ackertrasse or the immediate vicinity.
For a bite to eat, try Beethoven (Ackerstrasse, #106) for its fresh salads and shady terrace, or Café Hüftgold (Ackerstrasse, #113), known throughout the city for its pastries. To indulge in some homemade, organic ice cream, head for Nordmanns Eisfabrik at the corner of Hermann-Ecke and Ackerstrasse.
To round out your stay in Düsseldorf, Ackerstrasse also offers plenty of shopping choices, including chic lingerie (Heike Siemes, #203), vintage togs (NewYorkRioTokyo, #73) and designer furniture (61° Möbel Design, #144). The Damenwahl (next door to Beethoven, #106) carries clothing created by young designers from Germany as well as from Slovenia and Greece.
El Greco und Die Moderne, Kunstpalast Museum, 28 April to 12 August 2012.
Getting there
Düsseldorf International Airport is Germany’s third-largest; there are direct flights (Air Berlin, Lufthansa, BA, etc.) from most major airports in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
Train is another option; from Brussels the Thalys takes 2 hours and 20 minutes. There are special offers for those visiting the El Greco exhibit.
Where to stay
Radisson Blu Scandinavia Hotel, Düsseldorf
Karl-Arnold-Platz 5
40474 Düsseldorf
Tel: +49 (0)21 14 55 30
Located in the north-west of the city right by the banks of the Rhine, this hotel was entirely renovated in March. Large, plush spaces; luminous, comfortable rooms; and a superb spa-pool-fitness club open to the outside. Standard rooms from € 100/£ 81.
Prepare your journey
Düsseldorf tourist office
Café Hüftgold
Ackertstrasse, 113
40233 Düsseldorf

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