Historically, Leipzig’s standing was as a medieval trading centre at the crossroads of major trade routes in the middle of Europe. That history continues to be written today, as the city continues to host major fairs and has become a distribution hub for both Amazon and DHL.
Politically, the city wears the leading role it played in the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 like a badge of honour. After prayers for peace at St. Nicholas Church, the “Monday demonstrations” became the most prominent mass protests against the East German government.
Culturally, Leipzig is probably best known as a city of music, with stellar names in classical music rolling off the tongue: Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur, J.S. Bach, Richard Wagner, Felix Mendelssohn. Walking around the compact city centre you may spot brass ribbons embedded in paving stones depicting Robert Schumann’s ‘Spring like a river moves through the air.’
Artistically, Leipzig is often spoken of in terms of ‘schools’, even if the artists themselves do not always accept the description. The current wave, the ‘New Leipzig School’, is the movement’s third generation after its founders followed by their students.
After the destruction of its original, Italian Renaissance-style building in a British air raid in 1943, the Museum of Fine Arts went on a 60-year odyssey through temporary several homes. The collection is now settled in the city centre in its cavernous, 36-metre high glass cube, with exposed concrete, shell limestone and oak dominating the interior. Its courtyards and terraces echo the famous ‘Passagen’ (passages), arcade-like connections which still link many Leipzig buildings.
The museum’s collection today includes approximately 3,500 paintings, 1,000 sculptures and 60,000 graphic works spanning European art movements from the late Middle Ages to the present day.
German artists and movements are particularly well represented. They include the Renaissance (Lucas Cranach, Hans Holbein), the Romantics (Caspar David Friedrich), Impressionism (Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth), Symbolism (Max Klinger), Expressionism (Leipzig-born Max Beckmann, who has a room of his own), Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity, as in the work of Otto Dick) and, of course, generations of the Leipzig School.
The highlight of the sculpture collection is the massive Beethoven sculpture by Max Klinger, dominating the room which also houses his huge painting, ‘Christ in Olympus’.
On the third floor of a former data centre built in the late 1980s (and resembling a giant accordeon), the entrepreneur Steffen Hildebrand shows selections from his private collection in G2 Kunsthalle.
Opened in 2015, it is Leipzig’s newest art gallery.
The focus of the collection, contemporary painting in Leipzig, is presented in annually changing exhibitions by established and emerging guest artists. Some of the more popular works remain on permanent display.
Setting out to promote young, emerging artists, G2 specialises in post-reunification art, notably New Leipzig School artists. The 1,000-plus square metre space is ideal for presenting contemporary art, with the works popping out from dazzling white walls and reflecting off the smooth, bare floors.
Visits are by appointment for a guided tour. The exception is Wednesdays, when the gallery is open to all. There is a relaxing lounge overlooking the St Thomas Church.
Named after a Leipzig businessman of Italian descent who bequeathed funds to the city to build art venues, the Grassi Museum is one of around 20 so-called “Cultural Lighthouses” in the German government’s Blue Book of culturally significant sites in the former East Germany.
One of three museums in the complex (the others devoted to Ethnology and Musical Instruments), the Applied Arts Museum traces 3,000 years of European and world culture through over 90,000 objects spanning antiquity to the present day. Eras and movements include Roman, Baroque, Asian, Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Gothic, Rococo, French Classicism and Biedermeier.
The immense range of objects includes stained glass, textiles, gold and silverware, decorative and utilitarian pewter, common metals, wrought iron, wood carvings (particularly beautifully carved and gilted late Gothic altars), furniture, Chinese tapestry and Meissen china.
The “Wow!” factor comes when entering the stunning Art Deco column hall, named after its twelve floor to ceiling triangular columns. All radiant red and shining gold, it is surely one of Europe’s finest gallery spaces.
Based in the former villa of a newspaper owner, the Gallery for Contemporary Art was the first contemporary art museum in the former East Germany to be established after the wall came down. The permanent collection of some 1,500 objects by over 300 artists is presented in a series of changing exhibitions.
Within a short distance of one another in the Plagwitz area west of the city, three venues born out of former industrial sites have driven the emergence of a lively creative quarter.
Once the site of the largest cotton-spinning mill in continental Europe, the Spinnerei covers an area equivalent to about two dozen football fields. Obsolete by the early 1990s, by which time the cotton industry had shifted to Asia, the complex underwent several changes of use before emerging as the art and craft hub it is today with the slogan ‘From cotton to culture’.
Where once stood a 19th century factory town complete with workers’ homes, allotment gardens and a kindergarten (all of which have survived intact), there is now an artists’ village of over 100 studios (including those of “New Leipzig School” members Neo Rauch and David Schnell), galleries (such as the influential Eigen+Art in the former steam engine hall) and exhibition spaces.
Other residents include architects, printers, fashion designers, a goldsmith, a pottery, a porcelain manufacturer and an enormous arts supply store. Artists and makers open their studios to the public three times a year.
Built in 1863 as a gasworks, taken over by a tram company, then turned into a power station, the Kunstkraftwerk (Art Power Station) has retained many of its original features and fittings such as boilers, a coal funnel, a dust filter, steam distributor and conveyor belts. Softly illuminated, these exposed mechanical innards now resemble metal sculptures.
No effort has been made to sanitise the imposing building, and the bare brick walls and floors seem permeated by the smell of machinery and fuel, making for an intoxicating mix of bygone industry and contemporary art. The walls of one huge space act as projection screens for immense, immersive sight and sound installations which echo through the building.
The trio of industrial sites-cum-art sites in the Plagwitz area is completed by the Tapetenwerk, formerly home to the second largest wallpaper factory in Germany. In the 1990s it produced place mats for Lufthansa
The former manufacturing hall, workshop areas and office buildings are now home to nearly 20 artists, makers, designers and architects who exhibit their work in the on-site galleries and stage a “Tapetenwerkfest” twice a year to give visitors a close-up look at their work spaces and methods.
New Leipzig School
The term “New Leipzig School” came into use in the early 2000s, the third phase of three linked phases. The original Leipzig School related to artists who were established by the late 1970s in communist East Germany. The students of those artists, such as Arno Rink, can be seen as the second generation of the Leipzig School.
The third generation, the New Leipzig School, relates to the post-reunification art, its works characterised chiefly by a combination of figurative and abstract elements. Prominent painters in this group are Neo Rauch and David Schnell. Parallels can be seen between their successes and those of the Young British Artists (YBAs).
While used as a label and marketing tool in the world of art dealership, “Leipzig School” is a tag most of the artists reject because of its its vagueness and imprecision.
WHERE TO STAY
Opened in July 2018, the Vienna House Easy Leipzig virtually faces Leipzig’s main railway station, where the airport link arrives. The 205 brightly decorated, cosily furnished rooms include 11 suites and six family rooms. Several nice touches include: ‘adopt a plant’, whereby you take a plant to your room for the duration of your stay on condition that you take care of it; free rental bikes (Leipzig is a bike-friendly city to rival the Netherlands); and a leave a book/take a book scheme for your library on the move. Be sure to have breakfast on the patio terrace by the goldfish pond.