With around twenty museums and a hundred independent galleries, the city on the Rhine is a great cultural destination
The glamour days of the Düsseldorf art scene were in the 1970s and ’80s, when artist Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter lived and worked there and taught at the prestigious Art Academy. The city lost many artists and galleries to the ‘brain drain’ which sucked them east after 1989 to the reanointed capital, Berlin. Sometime in the late 2000s the winds of change began to turn, as new curators flexed their muscles and the Art Academy evolved beyond its painting tradition to embrace photography and video art. The twice yearly exhibitions of student work attract thousands of art-lovers and gallery-owners looking for tomorrow’s stars.
The city currently has 20 or so municipal museums and around a hundred independent galleries. Flingern, a former workers’ quarter, is becoming a hotbed of galleries in former industrial buildings, while a spectacularly rehabilitated old port is now home to media companies.
Part of the Ehrenhof cultural centre, an ensemble of 1920s buildings set around a plaza and ornamental fountain, the Kunstpalast (Art Palace) is Düsseldorf’s municipal art museum. 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. At one point you may find yourself lying on a comfy couch to view Nam June Paik’s 1975 video installation Fish Flies on Sky, dubbed “Düsseldorf’s Sistine Chapel”. The adjacent Hentrich Glass Museum has one of the world’s biggest collections. There is also a series of special exhibitions, which over the years have included Miro, Dali, Warhol, Caravaggio, El Greco and Cranach.
Thanks to the acquisition of the renowned Kicken Collection of over 3,000 photographs dating from the mid-19th century onwards, a permanent exhibition in the recently established Deutsches Fotoinstitut tells virtually the entire history of the medium since its pioneering days, including works by greats such as Man Ray, Nan Goldin, August Sander, Robert Capa and Helmut Newton.
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 programme also includes symposia, workshops and film screenings. Past exhibitions have included the world’s first major retrospective of the Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong and an examination of the role of AI in art.
The Kunsthalle (Art Hall) is housed in an immense concrete block of raw, brutalist architecture sometimes referred to as the ‘Kunstbunker’. An early 2000s makeover covered the interior with a smooth, gleaming sheath, with an open foyer area reaching Cubist-style up to the second floor. With no collection of its own, the Kunsthalle presents changing exhibitions of modern and contemporary art by new talents and established names. A number of internationally known artists first entered the European art market by exhibiting there.
Located across the Grabbeplatz from the Kunsthalle, K20 (20 for 20th century) is clad in an undulating, black granite facade. One of two museums housing the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen’s 20th century art collection (see also K21), it presents modernist and post-war American art. Initiated by the purchase of over 80 drawings and paintings by Paul Klee (the collection now has over 200 works by him), the permanent collection includes many artists who represent 20th century avant-garde movements such as German Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abtract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism.
The European modernists include – deep breath – Picasso (with works encompassing nearly all the major creative phases of his career), Beuys, Richter, Kandinsky, Dix, Chagall, Beckmann, Miro, Mondrian, Ernst, Magritte, di Chirico, Braque, Matisse, Kirchner, Modigliani and Leger. The US artists include Pollock (the monumental Number 32 from 1950 is one of his few mural-sized drip paintings), Stella, Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol, Calder and Rothko. Outside an underpass leads to Paul Klee Platz, where American artist Sarah Morris’s multi-coloured, 27-metre long mosaic mural Hornet is a popular photo opp.
A free shuttle bus takes visitors to K20’s sister gallery, K21, a magnificent 19th century building overlooking the Kaiserteich (Imperial Pond) which formerly served as the state Parliament. Rebuilt after WWII, the exterior of the Renaissance Revival palazzo 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 piazza are four wings linked by continuous arcade passageways past rooms dedicated to individual artists.
A striking glass dome roof mimics the silhouette of the original building and floods the building with natural light. Stretched under it is Tomas Saraceno’s In orbit, a walkable steel net installation 25 metres above the museum floor on which visitors can clamber, ‘sensing’ each other’s presence by vibrations as in a spider’s web.
When industrialist Laurenz Heinrich Hetjens died in 1906, he bequeathed his extensive ceramic collection to the city of Düsseldorf. Augmented over the years through acquisitions and donations, it eventually found its home in the Hetjens Museum in the beautiful Palais Nesselrode, which after extensive war damage was reconstructed according to the original 1775 plans.
The 20,000-piece 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, Europe and Islam. Stellar names like Wedgwood, Delft and Meissen are all represented and 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 (Art in the Tunnel) is entered through a glass pavilion which houses the KIT Cafe, a popular spot with its river-facing terrace. The subterranean exhibition space follows an elliptical arc for some 140 metres. The works, by emerging contemporary artists including Art Academy students, are displayed on the bare concrete walls.
For another underground art experience take the Wehrhahn Line of the subway system, which has six stations designed by artists in collaboration with engineers. Each station has a distinctive character, with no advertising allowed to spoil the effect. The ‘snakeskin’ walls suggest how the subway ‘slithers’ under the city.
Düsseldorf’s built environment also embodies the city’s spirit of renewal, with a number of “starchitects” leaving their mark on the cityscape. These include Frank Gehry’s three “dancing buildings”, David Chipperfield’s Kaistrasse Studios, Renzo Piano’s Float office building and Daniel Libeskind’s apartment and retail complex the Kö-Bogen, or King’s Bow, an award-winner in urban renewal. The most recent addition is the KII ( Kö-Bogen II), a city centre business and office complex with the biggest greened façade in Europe.
As you move around Düsseldorf you are sure to spot some of local sculptor Christoph Pöggeler’s life-size ‘Pillar Saints’ standing atop advertising pillars. Made of polyester and acrylic paint and so realistic you expect them to glance down, the ten figures represent everyday Düsseldorfers – a kissing couple, a man taking photographs, a woman holding a child, a businessman, a bride – inspired by the column saints of antiquity.