A Tale of Two Cities

Known mainly as a major financial hub with thrusting skyscrapers akin to a mid-size US city, Frankfurt is also a major arts centre. Equally, the mini-metropolis that is the city’s financial district stands in contrast to the beautifully reconstructed Altstadt (Old Town), with its half-timbered buildings and neo-medieval atmosphere.

Uniquely, several of Frankfurt’s leading art museums are arrayed along the Museum Embankment on the south bank of the mighty River Main, where an annual festival in late August draws huge crowds. Year round, a special two-day pass is valid at dozens of museums. There is a further cluster of museums within a short distance of one another in the Altstadt.

Museum Embankment

Housed in the former residence of the textile manufacturer Heinrich Baron von Liebieg (1839–1904), who left the gorgeous 19th century villa to the city of Frankfurt on condition that it be an art museum, the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection features a wide spectrum of styles amid an interior decorated with stucco and wooden ceilings, wainscoting and original furniture. The surrounding garden is dotted with trees and plants from around the world and there is a cafe delightfully set in a cobbled courtyard enclosed by ivy-covered walls.

Exhibition view, Machine Room of the Gods. How Our Future Was Invented, Photo: Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung/Norbert Miguletz

The collection itself consists of some 3,000 sculptures dating from ancient Egypt and classical Greece and Rome through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to Neoclassicism. Many of the ancient works recount the adventures of mythical and historical heroes in a world ruled by gods, such as a life-like alabaster portrait of Alexander the Great and a statue of Athena by the ancient Greek sculptor Myron, with some figures brightly painted to show how they would originally have appeared. Later works are predominantly around Christian themes. Beautiful if perhaps controversial, the Reiner Winkler Collection is one the world’s largest private ivory holdings with over two hundred meticulously carved 17th and 18th century works.

A ‘living sculpture’ (it moves) by Jeff Koons from the exhibition Machine Room of the Gods. How Our Future Was Invented, Photo: Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung/Norbert Miguletz

Occupying an early 1900s neoclassical villa, the Museum Giersch hosts a changing series of exhibitions of painting, photography, sculpture and graphic art from the Rhine-Main area on loan from public and private collections.

Installation view of Ernst Weil: Spontaneously and Constructively at Museum Giersch

In its gleaming white Le Corbusier-style building designed by the American abstract artist and architect Richard Meier (who also designed Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art), the Museum of Applied Arts holds over 60,000 objects of European handicrafts dating from the 12th to the 21st century, including carpets, furniture, tapestries, ceramics, Limoges enamel, figurines, glasswork and bronzes as well as Islamic and East Asian art. The complex incorporates the Villa Metzler from 1804 and the adjacent Museum Park.

The museum has departed from the traditional way of exhibiting items based on genre, material, cultural-historical context or chronology, opting instead to display objects from different eras together. So you might find a 13th century hand-written psalter from Provence with a 1956 radio-phone, an Adidas poster with a medieval crucifix or an iMac with an 18th century Chinese vase.

Founded by banker and merchant Johann Friedrich Städel, the Staedel Museum opened in 1878 as the first museum on what was to become the Museum Embankment. It is Frankfurt’s de facto museum of fine arts.

With 700 years of art under one roof, it provides a virtually complete survey of European art from the early 14th century to the present. It also has one of the most important collections in Germany of prints and drawings, which are shown on a rotational basis to protect them from the light.

The collection may be divided into three sections: Old Masters 1300-1800, including works by Cranach, Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Vermeer, Dürer, Holbein, Tiepolo, Raphael, Rubens and Mantegna; Modern Art 1800-1945, including works by Monet, Degas, Beckmann, Kirchner, Picasso, Liebermann, Courbet, Renoir, Chagall, Matisse and Dubuffet; and Contemporary Art 1945 to the Present, including works by Baselitz, Richter, Giacometti, Warhol, Cragg, Rauch, Klein, Sherman and Bacon. Built beneath the museum’s garden, the latter section is illuminated by almost two hundred oval skylights.

Like the old mill building which used to stand in its place, Portikus rises from a small island on the river next to the Old Bridge. The one-room, red brick tower with a gabled roof hosts free exhibitions of contemporary art by emerging international artists. Its name derives from the surviving portico of the 1825 public library, which was destroyed in WWII.


Altstadt (Old Town)

In the beautifully reconstructed Altstadt there are several museums almost within sight of one another.

Just off the market square, the Schirn Kunsthalle (‘Schirn’ denotes one of the market stalls which used to do business there, while ‘Kunst’ is German for art) is the main venue for temporary art exhibitions in Frankfurt. Entered under a sky-domed rotunda, the long exhibition building was designed to resemble the Uffizi in Florence.

Exhibitions have included retrospectives on Wassily Kandinsky, Niki de Saint Phalle, Alberto Giacometti, Frida Kahlo, Georges Seurat, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Yves Klein, while themed exhibitions have featured work by Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch and others, sometimes in collaboration with museums such as the Pompidou Centre, the Tate Gallery and the Guggenheim Museum.

The Schirn Kunsthalle during a Gilbert & George exhibition

In an angular building near the Old Town, the Museum of Modern Art has thirty galleries, some cavernous, arranged around a central hall with natural light from above. The collection comprises works by German and international artists dating from the 1960s to the present. They include Joseph Beuys, Dan Flavin, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg, Nam June Paik, Gerhard Richter, Bill Viola, Andy Warhol, Rineke Dijkstra, Martin Boyce, Douglas Gordon, Wolfgang Tillmans and Luc Tuymans.

Photographic works are assigned as much importance as painting, sculpture, drawing and video and, rather than being confined to their own space, are integrated with the other media. Bonus: The museum is located on Domstrasse (Cathedral Street), where there are several independent galleries and antique shops worth browsing.

Museum of Modern Art

If you like humour with your art, look no further than the Frankfurt Comic Art Museum, which is unique in Europe. Following the tradition of 1960s and ‘70s satirical magazines such as Frankfurt-based Pardon and Titanic, the collection comprises original drawings by Germany’s leading comic artists, featuring cutting commentary on topics such as politics, religion and the environment. It may be the only museum you ever visit where guffaws of laughter are the norm, debunking the myth that Germans have no sense of humour.

Gerhard Haderer, ‘Messiahs in the Vatican’ (Frankfurt Comic Art Museum)

A leading European centre of photography, the Fotografie Forum Frankfurt, er, focuses on premiering photographers’ work in Germany in solo and group shows. The gallery also coordinates a triennial dedicated to international photographic arts. Bonus: It is located on Braubachstrasse, which is great for browsing independent galleries and antique shops.

Fotografie Forum Frankfurt

Located in the ‘Steinernes Haus’ (Stone House), the Frankfurter Kunstverein (Art Club) specialises in contemporary art by emerging artists in solo and group shows. Founded in 1829, it is one of Germany’s oldest and largest artist-led organisations.

Frankfurter Kunstverein

The Frankfurt Historical Museum, the city’s oldest museum and one of the largest of its kind in Europe, has several permanent exhibitions chronicling the city’s history from medieval times to the 21st century. Housed in a complex comprising the 800 year old Saalhof and a new building fringed with statues, in places its narrow corridors and bare brick walls give the feeling of exploring a castle.

The museum’s art collections comprise paintings, sculptures, photographs and stained glass as well as an extensive graphic art collection. They include works by Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein, a cabinet of over 800 miniatures, large format paintings by primarily German and Dutch artists from the 17th to the 18th century and a collection of stained glass paintings from mostly Frankfurt churches and monasteries. A portrait gallery shows Frankfurters through the ages from all classes and walks of life.

Don’t miss the Historical Museum Frankfurt’s detailed scale model of the Altstadt as it was before WWII bombing.