Cologne is best known for its soaring Gothic cathedral, a World Heritage Site and Germany’s most popular attraction with 6.5 million visitors a year. Look out for the Gerhard Richter-designed window in the south transept, which consists of over 11,000 coloured squares of glass.
Starting in the 1960s, Cologne became the art capital of Germany and arguably the world’s leading art centre after New York by the 1980s. That all changed after the reunification of Germany in 1990, when many Cologne-based galleries relocated to the new capital, Berlin, although several have since returned.
While less active than in its artistic heyday, Cologne still boasts a number of major institutional galleries – most of them clustered in a two kilometre square area in the city centre – and over 130 independent galleries and art spaces showcasing some of the best German and international contemporary art.
In the late 1960s Irene and Peter Ludwig assembled the biggest collection of Pop Art outside the USA and donated a large part of it to the city of Cologne. This formed the basis of the Ludwig Museum in its modern complex directly behind the cathedral.
Also housing a comprehensive collection of Russian avant-garde works, an important collection of German Expressionism and the third largest collection of Picassos in existence (after dedicated museums in Paris and Barcelona), the Ludwig is one of the world’s most important museums for modern and contemporary art, with some 70,000 works providing an overview of the main art movements and media of the 20th century.
The list of featured artists reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of modern masters, from Warhol, Kienholz, Rauschenberg, Ernst (who began his artistic career as a leading member of the Cologne Dada group) and Magritte (‘I endeavour to turn familiar things into the unfamiliar’) to Lichtenstein, Matisse, Man Ray, Kokoschka, Oldenburg, Léger and Klee. The permanent collection is augmented by a series of special exhibitions.
A walk through the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne’s oldest established museum, takes you through seven centuries of European art history from the 13th to the early 20th century.
The museum is named after its founder, university vice-chancellor and collector Ferdinand Franz Wallraf (1748-1824), who bequeathed his collection to the city of Cologne, and the merchant Johann Heinrich Richartz, who donated the museum’s first building. It relocated to its modern home in 2001.
Taking up the first floor, the collection of medieval painting is one of the world’s largest. Mostly by anonymous painters, these works date from a period before art was even a concept, hence the section’s title, The Invention of Art. They were conceived not as artworks, but as depictions of everyday life, with an emphasis on religion. Some were carried in religious processions. Here you’ll find more crucifixions, martyrdoms, flagellations and resurrections than you can wave a cross at. The atmosphere is appropriately solemn.
The mood lifts somewhat on the second floor, which celebrates Baroque art of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly Dutch and Flemish landscapes, still lifes and biblical fables by the likes of Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Rubens, Hals and Jordaens. There is also a print room on this floor.
Things brighten up considerably on the third floor, where the palettes of the German Romantics, such as Carl David Friedrich and Max Liebermann, and French Impressionists and Realists light up the rooms. Works by the likes of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, Signac and Seurat compose Germany’s largest Impressionist collection, while Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Bonnard, Ensor and Munch herald the way to Modernism. Here you’ll also find one of the best views of Cologne cathedral from a picture window. www.wallraf.museum
The best known works by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) focus on the effects of poverty, hunger and war on the working class in cycles such as The Weavers and The Peasant War. A visit to the Käthe Kollwitz Museum, then, is bound to be a sobering experience.
Located on the fourth floor above a modern shopping arcade, the museum has Kollwitz’s entire sculptural output, all her posters, over 300 drawings and nearly 600 print graphics. While titles are also in English, the information boards are in German only.
Recent research suggests that Kollwitz may have suffered from a childhood neurological disorder associated with migraines and sensory hallucinations. This may begin to explain why among the many self-portraits and photographs of her you will look in vain for even a hint of a smile.
She repeatedly depicts her own likeness in scenes of suffering, with the pursed lips and the middle distance stare not meeting the viewer’s gaze. Even the men have her broad mouth and slightly upturned nose.
The final gallery is devoted to her last major cycle of lithographs entitled – wait for it – Death, with titles such as ‘Death in the water’, ‘Death with girl in lap’ and ‘Death as a friend.’
Focusing on North American and Western European products, the Museum of Applied Art (known locally as ‘MAKK’) shows how the development of design and the influence of art movements such as Art Deco, Cubism, abstract art and Expressionism have infiltrated virtually every aspect of our lives. Particularly fascinating is how in the 20th century, under one designer’s mantra that ‘ugliness doesn’t sell’, it became the designer’s task to create both attractive and mass marketable products.
Modern design achieved its breakthrough in the 1920s with the discovery of the ‘streamline‘ form. Initially developed for better aerodynamics in transport design, it became a symbol of American progress and found its way into the design of many household objects and consumer products, from kitchenware, lamps and furniture to vacuum cleaners, radios and cameras.
When the Historical Collection in the upper floors is reopened after refurbishment, its decorated rooms will take in various periods and styles, including Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, as seen in tapestries, dining culture, textiles, small sculpture and decorative objects.
Spread over a couple of acres next to the Rhine a mile or so north of the city centre, the Cologne Sculpture Park features works by German and international artists. The works are replaced every two years. Admission is free and there is a pleasant lounge offering drinks and snacks.
DC Open, Joint Düsseldorf and Cologne gallery weekend
WHERE TO STAY
Part of the 25Hours Hotels chain (motto: ‘Come as you are’), The Circle occupies a former 1960s insurance building which underwent a six-year construction and refurbishment programme, including the addition of an eighth floor for the restaurant and one of the few rooftop bars in Cologne due to a building code which prohibits buildings to be higher than the cathedral.
The hotel’s theme reflects the pioneering space age spirit of the ‘60s. You’ll be greeted by a spacesuited mannequin in the foyer, sitting beneath a ceiling which looks like the underside of a giant rocket and sharing his ‘control room’ with a pink flying saucer and an army of robot toys. The original black and white marble floors and features add to the futuristic nostalgia.
Efficient yet informal, 25Hours hotels are all about fun, with little reminders on fixtures and fitting – ‘Time for another adventure,’ ‘Almost home,’ ‘Let’s spend the night together’ – to encourage a stress-free stay. Where else can you step onto a bathmat declaring you ‘Famous and naked’?