Bavaria’s capital city shows off its artistic side
Midway along a curved wall in Bar 31, on the ground floor of the Mandarin Oriental, a young model is hugging a punchbag. She isn’t doing it in person; rather as the centrepoint of Wild Child, a provocative work by German photographer Kiki Kausch. But her sheer pink lipstick and red boxing gloves throw dabs of brightness into the knowingly underlit room – and toy, as they are meant to, with my preconceptions. They are not quite what I was expecting of this refined five-star in Neuturmstrasse. Or indeed, of the city around it.
Slotted smartly into a corner seat, Gabriel Fawcett sips his Cucumber Chill cocktail – gin, honey and lime, as well as a slice of the salad stalwart – and warms to his theme. “You don’t know Munich,” he says. “You think you know Munich. But you don’t.”
He pauses in case I protest. I do not. “What you see as Munich,” he continues, “is just the common perception. It’s the BMW factory. It’s day trips, depending on your mood, to the Dachau memorial site, or to Neuschwanstein Castle. It’s Oktoberfest. But this is such a modern view. People forget – or never learned – that this city was the home of the dukes of Bavaria. It has a very different tale – one that is full of wonderful art and architecture.”
Fawcett would certainly know. A British art historian, but a long-term resident of Germany, he comes armed with a knowledge that stretches from Renaissance painting to early 20thcentury Expressionism. A debonair and engaging presence, he works regularly with Munich’s Mandarin Oriental, leading weekend excursions for the culture-focused travel company Art Tours Ltd. These extract guests from their luxury setting and deliver them into a city whose appeal is generally misunderstood. Germany’s third biggest conurbation and a blur of 1.5 million people it may be – but Munich is also an antithesis of the country’s stereotypical image as a slab of bratwurst, bracing winters, and a festival – running this year between September 16 and October 3 – dedicated to the drinking of beer.
“Munich is not like other German cities,” he explains. “It doesn’t peer north, or east. It looks south, over the Alps, to Italy, for its ambience and inspiration. It always has, really.”
His point is supported by the colossal Frauenkirche. This year – the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s flashpoint of Protestant revolution – is a reminder that the Reformation was initially German, set alight in Wittenberg in 1517. But Munich’s cathedral, rearing over Frauenplatz, is a strictly Catholic affair, built between 1468 and 1488, before Luther produced his “Ninety-Five Theses” – and a firm defender of the faith in the earthquake that ensued. It soars and sings, 12 enormous pillars reaching to its vaulted roof. Outside, its twin towers are a crowning glory, their 99-metre stature still protected by an ordinance that insists that they must be the tallest structures in central Munich. They are assisted in their devotion to Rome, a short hop to the west, by the St Michael Kirche – a 16th-century feast of baroque whimsy that ranks as the largest Renaissance church north of the Alps. Both temples were almost destroyed in the Second World War. Both are fully resurrected. Standing on the lintel of St Michael’s, Fawcett practically purrs. “It’s one of the greatest churches in Europe,” he says, gazing up at its lovely facade. “And Munich built it twice.”
Credit for this visual banquet can be pinned to one aristocratic bloodline. The Wittelsbach dynasty ruled Bavaria under various titles – duke, elector, king – between 1180 and 1918, with Munich as its heartbeat. They were princelings of inconsistent ability and wisdom, but they forged a city designed to advertise their power and majesty. Three in particular merit mention – men of learning who sought to advance the family cause through culture and architecture rather than swords and slaughter.
Maximilian III Joseph took charge as elector between 1745 and 1777, and commissioned the Cuvilliés Theatre in his Residenz palace – a rococo marvel that still seduces the eye 264 years after its completion (in 1753). King Maximilian I reigned from 1799 to 1825 (his job description being upgraded from “elector” by Napoleon in 1806), founding Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts in the process. Ludwig I succeeded in 1825, staying on the throne until 1848, and embarking on a construction spree that left an indelibly magical mark. The Glyptothek, a neoclassical museum crammed with Greek and Roman antiquities, dates to his period of control. So does the Feldherrnhalle, a dramatic three-arch monument in Odeonsplatz that underscores Munich’s love for Italy – its blueprint is lifted almost brick for brick from the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. Ludwigstrasse, the grand avenue that flows north from Odeonsplatz with a regal flourish is, as its name proudly shouts, another Ludwig creation.
There would be an unfortunate consequence to this gilded vision. Munich’s urban pomp and circumstance would make it an ideal context for the Nazis’ use of imperialistic stylings. Hitler’s “Beer Hall Putsch” – his failed early bid to seize the reins in Munich – played out on Odeonsplatz on November 9 1923. A decade later, the Feldherrnhalle became a memorial to the 16 fascists killed in the uprising, weighed down by swastikas and red-and-black banners, its grandstanding appearance saluting a perverted martyrdom.
But most echoes of this era are gone. Instead, the Wittelsbach legacy is the galleries that now house the treasures they gathered. A five-minute walk north-west of Odeonsplatz, two of them are a high celebration of their master’s cultural obsession. True, both the Alte and Neue Pinakothek, which stare at each other across Theresienstrasse, had to undergo significant surgery after the war. But both were established by Ludwig – and the wonders within survived the Forties. The former revels in European art of the 14th to 18th centuries, displaying geniuses like Dürer (whose 1500 self-portrait, not short on confidence, depicts the painter as a Christ-like figure) and Da Vinci (whose 1478 Madonna of the Carnation surely deserves wider fame). The latter picks up the baton for the 18th and 19th centuries, and flirts, again, with Italy – View from Villa Malta in Rome, a quartet of pieces conjured by the German painter Johann Reinhart between 1829 and 1835, admires the Eternal City in four compass directions, all of them bathed in loving sunlight. Granted its own room, the series outshines one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888), which waits down the corridor.
All of these splendours are visible to the public – but there is a joy, and an extra layer of discovery, to seeing them with a guide. Fawcett’s grasp of his subject brings out the detail in Francois Boucher’s Madame de
Pompadour (1756), a gloriously colourful rendering of (French monarch) Louis XV’s mistress. “But examine the small things,” Fawcett directs. “See how the candle is extinguished – her relationship with the king is over [it ended in 1751]. Look at the open book in her lap, and the quill pen dipped into the ink on the table next to her. This is a statement that, although she has fallen from Louis’s affection, she is not just a pretty face – she is a woman of substance, and learning. There is a lesson here.”
There are other, darker lessons in Munich, if you seek them. Two blocks behind the Alte Pinakothek, the junction of Arcisstrasse and Brienner Strasse is tethered to the Thirties. What is now the University of Music and Performing Arts was once the Führerbau – the building where Hitler and Neville Chamberlain signed the infamous Munich Treaty (which permitted the annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia) in September 1938. Next to it, on the corner, the NSDokumentationszentrum – a research centre and library that charts the rise of Nazism – occupies the site of the notorious Brown House, the one-time headquarters of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, where Hitler had an office.
But it pays to gaze beyond this well-trawled gloom, into the years that foreshadowed a different world war. The Belle Époque bursts from the canvas at the nearby Galerie im Lenbachhaus – perhaps Munich’s most essential museum due to its raft of works by the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group, the Expressionists who thrived in the city (particularly) between 1911
and 1914. Here were modernists and mould-breakers – the Russian Wassily Kandinsky, the Germans Franz Marc, August Macke and Gabriele Münter. They are all here, on the walls – obtuse and open in equal measure. Kandinsky’s Improvisation 19 (1911) is an abstract cluster of human outlines against a rainbow-hued backdrop; Macke’s Promenade (1913) is a semisimple pleasure – a man and woman on a summer afternoon, contented in conversation, unaware of the next year’s approaching storm.
Nor were the artists, whose scene was pulled apart by conflict’s outbreak. Marc and Macke were killed on the front line; Kandinsky returned to Moscow, on the other side of the military chasm. Münter, his former lover, became the collective’s protector, sheltering many of their paintings through both global
conflagrations, donating them to the Lenbachhaus in 1957.
Back at the core of town, you may detect a nod of approval. The Spatenhaus an der Oper is a retreat into the Bavaria of postcards and popular opinion, serving suckling pig with dumplings, and duck with red cabbage, below thick rafters and the sense of a bucolic German yesteryear. But through the window, on Max-Joseph-Platz, the man in question – King Maximilian I – is absorbed in a separate take on the past. He sits on a throne of bronze, sculpted as a Roman emperor. His raised hand seems to gesture at the city – including the state opera house, another of his achievements, behind – as if to declare that “this, or some of it, was my doing”. The expression on his face is one of pure satisfaction.
The 15th-century Frauenkirche looms over Frauenplatz, above
The Four Apostles, Albrecht Dürer’s diptych on display in the Alte Pinakothek
Munich’s Neue Pinakothek gallery, above; the Spatenhaus an der Oper restaurant, left, is a retreat into the postcard image of Bavaria