Not unlike Cologne some 40-odd kilometres up the Rhine, the glamour days of the Düsseldorf art scene were in the 1970s and ’80s. Like its near neighbour, Düsseldorf lost many artists and galleries to the ‘brain drain’ which sucked them east after 1989 to the reanointed capital, Berlin, drawn by cheap rents and new possibilities.
Sometime in the late 2000s, however, breezes (if not winds) of change began to blow, as new curators flexed their muscles and the venerable Art Academy (where Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter trained and taught) evolved beyond its painting tradition to embrace photography and video art.
There is a general agreement among the 100 or so independent galleries that something is going on, if not what exactly. As Thomas Rieger, associate director at the Konrad Fischer Galerie, puts it: “Something is cooking, but what precisely will be on the menu is hard to tell. But that is what makes it so exciting. It could be anything.”
Part of the Ehrenhof cultural centre, an ensemble of 1920s buildings set around a plaza and ornamental fountain, Museum Kunstpalast (‘Kunst’ is German for art) is the art museum of the city of Düsseldorf. Modelled on the Petit Palais in Paris (with a longer facade at 132 metres), it is the city’s oldest exhibition building. More than 100,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, graphic art, photographs, applied arts objects and glass, span the 11th to 17th centuries.
The permanent collection is accompanied by a series special exhibitions showcasing some of the top names in art. Over the years these have included Miro, Dali, Warhol, Caravaggio, El Greco and Cranach.
Also part of the Ehrenhof complex, the NRW-Forum (the letters stand for the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, of which Düsseldorf is the capital) features photography, architecture, fashion, design and digital culture with an emphasis on social issues. Something of an ‘ideas factory’, its inter-disciplinary programme also includes symposia, workshops and film screenings designed to stimulate dialogue. Past exhibitions have included the world’s first major retrospective of the Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong (in association with the Kunsthalle) and an examination of the role of AI in art.
The art collection (‘Kunstsammlung’) of 20th century art belonging to the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen is the only regional collection in Germany specialising in modern art. Displayed in two very different but equally impressive buildings, it has been referred to as a ‘secret National Gallery’.
Clad in an undulating, black granite facade, K20 presents modernism and post-war American art. The downstairs spaces host special exhibitions, while selections from the permanent collection are shown upsairs. The larger galleries boast soaring ceilings free of supporting pillars.
Initiated by the purchase of over 100 drawings and paintings by Paul Klee, the permanent collection is a real joy. The US artists include Jackson Pollock (the monumental ‘Number 32’ from 1950 is one of his few mural-sized drip paintings), Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder and Mark Rothko.
The host of European modernists includes Pablo Picasso (with works encompassing nearly all the major creative phases of his career), Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Wassily Kandinsky, Otto Dix, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Giorgio di Chirico and Georges Braque.
An underpass leads to the recently created Paul Klee Platz, where American artist Sarah Morris’s multi-coloured, 27-metre long mosaic mural ‘Hornet’ is a popular landmark.
Overlooking the Kaiserteich (Imperial Pond), K20’s sister gallery, K21, occupies a magnificent 19th century building which formerly served as the parliament of the regional government. The neo-Renaissance style edifice belies the spectacularly modernised interior.
While the outer facade and historic staircase have been preserved, nearly all the original features were removed. Surrounding the building’s central public square are four wings linked by continuous arcade passageways. A striking glazed dome roof composed of over 1,900 sheets of glass floods the entire building with natural light. Ideal for large scale installations, K21 also shows fine art, film and video.
Located across the Grabbeplatz from K20, the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf has no collection of its own, but instead presents changing exhibitions of modern and contemporary art by both new talents and established names. The programme is largely experimental and exploratory in nature, tracking both international movements and local trends. A number of international artists entered the European art market through the Kunsthalle.
As well as artistically, the Kunsthalle is also externally different from all the other Düsseldorf museums. Dating from 1967, the building is an immense concrete block of raw, brutalist architecture. An early 2000s makeover covered the interior with a smooth, gleaming sheath, with an open foyer area stretching cubist-style up to the second floor. The building is also home to the Düsseldorf Kunstverein (Art Association) with its own exhibition programme of contemporary art
When industrialist Laurenz Heinrich Hetjens died in 1906, he bequeathed his extensive ceramic collection to the city of Düsseldorf. After being housed in the Kunstpalast for much of the 20th century, in 1969 the collection, augmented over the years through acquisitions and donations, was moved to its permanent home in the beautiful Palais Nesselrode, which was reconstructed, due to extensive war damage, according to the original 1775 plans. A 1990s extension doubled the exhibition space.
Comprising an inventory of over 20,000 pieces, the Hetjens Museum collection tells the world history of ceramics, earthenware and stoneware from antiquity to the present day. All the major eras, movements and styles are represented, from ancient Egypt, Greece and the Roman empire to Africa, East Asia, pre-Columbian Central and South America, Islam (including the largest object, a magnificent cupola which once crowned the reception hall of a holy cemetery in Pakistan) and Europe, represented by stellar names like Wedgwood, Delft and Meissen. Items range from utilitarian objects to unique pieces of accomplished craftsmanship with extravagant decorations. Changing exhibitions on different themes complement the permanent exhibition.
You will need to go underground to visit Düsseldorf’s most unusual art gallery. Located directly beneath the Rhine Promenade, Kunst im Tunnel is entered through a glass pavilion which houses the KIT Cafe, a popular spot with its river-facing terrace. A flight of stairs and a lift lead down to the subterranean exhibition space, which follows an elliptical arc for some 140 metres. The works, by emerging contemporary artists, are displayed on the bare concrete walls. Up to six exhibitions are staged each year covering sculpture, painting, photography, video art and installation.
There is also a spirit of renewal in Düsseldorf’s built environment, with a number of ‘starchitects’ leaving their mark on the cityscape. These include Frank Gehry’s three “dancing buildings”, David Chipperfield’s Kaistrasse Studios and Daniel Libeskind’s Kö–Bogen, or King’s Bow, an apartment and retail complex which won the 2014 MIPIM Award for the world’s best building in the Urban Renewal category. Even the public transport network has benefited from an artistic touch. Opened in 2016, the Wehrhahn Line of the subway system comprises six stations, each designed by a different artist.
Art Düsseldorf, modern and contemporary art (1945-present)
DC Open, Joint Düsseldorf and Cologne gallery weekend
WHERE TO STAY
Part of the 25Hours Hotel group, the 198-room Das Tour (The Tower) is where ‘German engineering meets French art.’ Part of a new urban development on the north side of the city, the hotel takes its theme from the area, known as Le Quartier Central or “little Paris.” (Apparently, Napoleon slept there during one of his conquests.)
The tricolour-designed floor in the foyer stretches past green, Paris-like park benches and a French-style florist popular with locals over to a staircase cradled in the lower arches of a replica Eiffel Tower. The Gallic touches continue in l’Atelier conference room, which is set up like an artist’s studio complete with paintings and easels.
By night the 18th floor breakfast room is transformed into The Paris Club for dinner with French flair, while on the 17th floor you can sip a cocktail at the 21-metre bar, the longest in Düsseldorf. South-facing bedrooms have bathtubs on the balconies, where you can soak while enjoying a panoramic view of the city. Ooh la la!