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 cities like Berlin and Munich boast world-class collections. The chronology below paints the major trends and artists with a brief, broad brushstroke.
Carolingian & Ottonian (9th–10th c.) -- During the Carolingian period mosaics based on earlier Roman and Byzantine models were used to decorate Charlemagne’s Palatinate or Octagon chapel and palace in Aachen, and carved ivory book covers were notable. The first outstanding examples of German painting (illuminated manuscripts) and sculpture were created during the Ottonian dynasty (ca. 960–1060). 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.
Romanesque (11th–12th c.) -- Romanesque art flourished in Germany, exemplified more in church building with incised decorative stonework. Little remains of Romanesque fresco painting, although there is an example from about 1000 at the Kloster St. Mang in Füssen.
Gothic (13th–14th c.) -- With the diffusion of the French Gothic style throughout Europe, notable contributions were made by the Germans, particularly in the field of sculpture, which was used to adorn the portals of Cologne cathedral , and the doors of Augsburg’s Dom St. Maria . In Cologne, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum has galleries devoted to the Cologne school of painting from this period, and the 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 with the powerfully expressive works of Peter Vischer (1460–1529), Viet Stoss (1439–1533), Adam Kraft (1460–1508), and Tilman Riemenschneider (1460–1531). Manuscript illumination and fresco painting declined as stained-glass technique and panel painting became more highly developed. Flemish influence is seen in the paintings of Stephan Lochner (1400–51), whose Adoration of the Magi altarpiece graces Cologne cathedral . Hans Holbein the Elder (1465–1524) is another major 15th-century figure, but the artistic genius of the century was Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), who visited Venice and brought elements of the Italian Renaissance style to Germany. Dürer’s paintings, woodcuts, and engravings influenced all European art of the time; his work’s on view in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek , Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie , and Nuremberg’s Germanisches Nationalmuseum .
Painting was at its height in the 16th century. The great masters of the age—all of whose work can be seen in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek —were Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543); Mathias Grünewald (d. 1528); Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538), who brought pure landscape painting into vogue; Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553); and Hans Baldung (1484–1545).
Baroque & Rococo (17th–18th c.) -- Ceiling paintings and swirling, often gilded stuccowork is part and parcel of the decoration in the exuberant Baroque and Rococo churches and palaces that are found throughout southern Germany. Two notable examples are the Wieskirche and the Asamkirche in Munich. At this time, too, small Dresden china figures and groups became popular, with the workshops at Meissen producing exquisite miniature statuettes of genre subjects.
Romanticism (19th c.) -- In the early part of the century, a school of German historical painting emerged and the period brought to the fore genre painters such as Moritz von Schwind (1804–71) and Carl Spitzweg (1808–85). The greatest artist of the Romantic period was Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), whose famous “Cross in the Mountains” (1808) hangs in Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister .
Expressionism (early 20th c.) -- In the early years of the 20th century, the sentimental and derivative genre and landscape scenes of the previous century were replaced by a fresh, dynamic and highly personalized sensibility. The wave of 20th-century artists who emerged created an art known as Expressionism for its purposeful distortion of natural forms and attempt to express emotion. The expressionist movement came in three waves. The first, Die Brücke (the Bridge) founded in Dresden in 1905 included Ernst Kirchner 1880–1938), Emil Nolde (1867–1956), and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976); you can see their work in Dresden’s Albertinum . It was followed in 1911 by the Munich-based Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group, which included Franz Marc (1880–1916), Gabriele Münter (1877–1962), and several foreign artists, including Swiss-born Paul Klee (1879–1940) and Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944); their work can be seen in the In Munich’s Lenbachhaus . Die Neue Sachlichkeit (the New Objectivity), a movement founded in the aftermath of World War I by Otto Dix (1891–1969) and George Grosz (1893–1959), 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. Artists working in related styles included Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980) and Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945), whose haunting sculptures, drawings and prints can be seen at the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne .
Several of these same artists taught at the Bauhaus, which espoused functionalism and encouraged experimentation and abstraction with the ideal of combining artistic beauty with usefulness.
Nazi era (1933–45) -- The Nazi regime, which regarded all abstract and expressionist works as degenerate, discouraged and destroyed any but heroic, propagandistic art, and the Germany of the 1930s and early 1940s produced nothing of artistic significance. As a recent discovery in Munich revealed, the Nazis may have condemned abstract art but they also stole it from collectors and museums and sold the canvases for hard currency outside of Germany.
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 (1921–86), the painter Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), and the painter-sculptor Georg Baselitz (b. 1938), and the painter and visual artist Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). All four of these artists are represented in Stuttgart’s Staatsgalerie , and stained-glass windows created by Richter can be seen in Cologne cathedral . Anyone interested in contemporary German art should also visit Cologne’s Museum Ludwig . 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.