The city on the Rhine has art for all tastes

Cologne is best known for its soaring Gothic cathedral, the tallest twin-spired church in the world and a World Heritage Site. It is Germany’s most popular attraction with 6.5 million visitors a year. Look out for the German artist Gerhard Richter-designed windows in the south transept, which consists of over 11,000 coloured squares of glass.

Gerhard Richter’s stained glass windows in Cologne Cathedral

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. 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 one of the world’s largest collection of Picassos, the Ludwig is one of the world’s most important museums for modern and contemporary art providing an overview of the main art movements of the 20th century.

Ludwig Museum

The list of featured artists reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of modern masters, from Warhol, Kienholz, Rauschenberg, Magritte and Ernst (who began his artistic career as a leading member of the Cologne Dada group) to Lichtenstein, Matisse, Man Ray, Kokoschka, Oldenburg, Léger and Klee. There is also a series of special exhibitions.

A walk through the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne’s oldest museum, takes you through seven centuries of European art history. 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. In an appropriately solemn atmosphere you’ll find more crucifixions, martyrdoms, flagellations and resurrections than you can wave a cross at.

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.

Wallraf-Richartz Museum

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 make up Germany’s largest Impressionist collection, while works by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Bonnard, Ensor and Munch herald the way to Modernism. A bonus: One of the best views of Cologne cathedral from a picture window.

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, so a visit to the Käthe Kollwitz Museum is bound to be a sobering experience. Located above a modern shopping arcade, the museum has Kollwitz’s entire sculptural output, all her posters, over 300 drawings and nearly 600 print graphics.

Käthe Kollwitz, ‘The Survivors’, 1923 © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Cologne

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 a hint of a smile. She repeatedly depicts her own likeness in scenes of suffering. 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 by its German acronym, the MAKK) shows how art and design movements such as Art Deco, Cubism, abstract art and Expressionism have infiltrated virtually every aspect of our lives, particularly in the 20th century, when – under the mantra ‘ugliness doesn’t sell’ – it became the designer’s task to create products which were both attractive and mass marketable.

Design section at the Museum of Applied Art, Photo: © RBA Köln, Marion Mennicken

Modern design achieved its breakthrough in the 1920s with the discovery of the ‘streamline‘ form, which found its way into many consumer products, from kitchenware, lamps and furniture to vacuum cleaners, radios and cameras. The Historical Collection covers a variety of periods and styles, including Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, as seen in tapestries, dining culture, textiles, small sculpture and decorative objects.

The Kölnischer Kunstverein (Cologne Art Association) has been showing contemporary art since 1839, exhibiting many early career artists – Jean Arp and Paul Klee to name but two – who went on to become some of the biggest names in art. The association has consistently presented ground-breaking exhibitions, including artists linked with the Berlin Secession (Max Beckmann, Lovis Corinth), French Impressionism (Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec), Dada (Max Ernst) and the pioneering photographer August Sander. Today it continues to champion some of the best established and emerging contemporary talent.

Work by Emma LaMorte at the Kölnischer Kunstverein (Cologne Art Association)

Spread over a couple of quiet 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 on permanent loan from Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne (Modern Picture Gallery). The works are replaced every two years.

Pedro Wirz, ‘Trilobites’, 2013-17 (Cologne Sculpture Park)