Be­yond Ok­to­ber­fest

Bavaria’s cap­i­tal city shows off its artis­tic side

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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

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