Germany abounds in art museums. You can’t escape them, nor should you try. The country’s rich artistic heritage is on display in even the smallest cities, while metropolises like Berlin and Munich boast world-class collections. The brief chronology below paints the major trends and artists with a broad brushstroke.
Carolingian & Ottonian (9th–10th c.) -- During the Carolingian period mosaics based on earlier Roman and Byzantine models were used to decorate such buildings as Charlemagne’s octagonal Palatine Chapel in Aachen. Another important art form was elaborately carved ivory book covers. The first outstanding examples of German painting (illuminated manuscripts) and sculpture were created during the Ottonian dynasty. Carved in Cologne in the late 10th century, the Gero cross in Cologne cathedral is believed to be the oldest existing large-scale crucifix in the Western world. Fine craftsmanship is apparent in the metalwork of this period as well, with a rare surviving example being the bronze doors at the cathedral of Augsburg.
Romanesque (11th–12th c.) -- Romanesque art in Germany was mostly expressed in church building; little remains of fresco painting from this period. A few exceptions are at the St. Mangkirche abbey in Füssen and in the Church of St. Georg on Reichenau Island in Lake Constance.
Gothic (13th–15th c.) -- As the French Gothic style spread throughout Europe, Germans embraced it with fervor. This was especially true in the field of sculpture, as exemplified by the portals of Cologne cathedral, and the doors of Augsburg’s Dom St. Maria. The Gothic art collection at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne is considered one of the best in the world, while the nearby Schnütgen Museum has superb examples of medieval stained-glass and sculpture.
Renaissance (15th–16th c.) -- German sculpture, particularly carved wooden altarpieces, reached an artistic highpoint in the late 15th century, especially in the expressive works of Peter Vischer, Veit Stoss, and Tilman Riemenschneider. Flemish influence is seen in the paintings of Stephan Lochner, whose “Adoration of the Magi” altarpiece graces Cologne cathedral. The key artistic figure, however, was Albrecht Dürer, who introduced elements of the Italian Renaissance into his paintings, woodcuts, and engravings; his work’s on view in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and Nuremberg’s Germanisches Nationalmuseum. In the 16th century, painting was at its height, with such masters as Hans Holbein the Younger, Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Altdorfer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Hans Baldung, all of whose work can be seen in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, as well as in other museums around the country.
Baroque & Rococo (17th–18th c.) -- Ceiling frescos and swirling, often gilded stuccowork is typical of the exuberant Baroque and Rococo styles, which decorated churches and palaces all over southern Germany. Two notable examples are the Wieskirche in Steingaden and the Asamkirche in Munich. In Meissen, production of the first European hard-paste porcelain kicked off in 1708.
Romanticism (19th c.) -- The period brought to the fore genre painters such as Moritz von Schwind and Carl Spitzweg. The greatest Romantic artist, though, was Caspar David Friedrich, whose famous “Cross in the Mountains” (1808) hangs in Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.
Expressionism (early 20th c.) -- The early 20th century saw the rejection of the traditional styles taught at the art academies and a proliferation of fresh, dynamic and personalized sensibilities. In Germany, Expressionism—with its deliberate distortion of natural forms and emotional intensity—emerged as a key art form. Two artist groups in particular shaped the genre. Founded in Dresden in 1905, Die Brücke (The Bridge) included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff; Dresden’s Albertinum has an especially fine collection of their works. The second group was the Munich-based Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider, 1911–1914), which included Franz Marc, Gabriele Münter, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky; their work can be seen in Munich’s Lenbachhaus. After World War I, Die Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) emerged, with key players being Otto Dix and George Grosz. It was characterized by a more realistic style combined with a cynical, socially critical philosophical stance that was vehemently anti-war. The brilliant, bitter canvases of Dix and Grosz hang in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
Nazi Era (1933–45) -- The Nazi regime, which declared all abstract and expressionist works to be “degenerate,” supported only heroic, propagandistic art and led to nothing of artistic significance.
Post–World War II (1945–present) -- Germany hasn’t had one predominant school or movement to define its art since World War II, but it has produced internationally recognized artists such as the iconoclastic sculptor Josef Beuys, painter Anselm Kiefer, painter-sculptor Georg Baselitz, and the painter and visual artist Gerhard Richter. All four are represented in Stuttgart’s Staatsgalerie and Cologne’s Museum Ludwig, among others. Richter also created a stunning stained-glass window for the Cologne cathedral. Anyone interested in contemporary German art should also visit Düsseldorf’s K20 and K21 museums. In the 25 years since the Wall fell, Berlin has seen an explosion of artistic expression—some 10,000 artists are now living in Berlin. In the 1990s, the nearby city of Leipzig also made a splash in the art scene with the emergence of the New Leipzig School, which is characterized by a return to figurative painting. A leading artist is Neo Rauch, who has his studio in Leipzig’s Spinnerei art colony; his works can be seen in Leipzig’s Museum der Bildenden Künste.
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