An Entire City Devoted to Art

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot

The story begins with an elector

Jan Frans van Douven, Reiterbildnis Jan Wellems, 1703

And his extravagance. And a unique stroke of luck. We have to go back pretty far to understand how Düsseldorf came to be a city of art. So let’s return to the 17th century. Johann Wilhelm II, Elector Palatinate-Neuburg, is actually supposed to reside in Heidelberg, but because that city has been destroyed in the War of the Palatine Succession, he moves into Düsseldorf Palace – of which only the tower still stands today. Jan Wellem, as he is popularly known, loves not only Anna Maria Luisa, from the Medici dynasty, but also the arts. He is a patron of painters and sculptors, commissions the building of the opera house, founds a drawing school, and indulges in his passion for collecting. He is particularly enamoured of Italian, Flemish and Dutch Renaissance and Baroque painting. Including several works by Peter Paul Rubens. When Jan Wellem dies in 1716, he leaves his royal residence city not only a legacy of immense debt, but also the “Düsseldorf Paintings Gallery”, a world-famous collection that turns Düsseldorf into one of the art centres of the European Baroque period. The collection includes more than 1,000 exhibits, 40 of which are still owned by the city today. And it is no secret that it rankles many a cultural authority in Düsseldorf to know that many of the important works by Rubens that Jan Wellem so avidly amassed are today among the core holdings of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. But the story of the city of art nevertheless goes on …

One of 4,000 who set off

Andreas Achenbach, Akademie, M 4146

… and it continues with a figure who is not quite as well-known as Jan Wellem. The Scot James McDougal Hart makes his way to Düsseldorf in 1851. Just like a number of other artists in those days. They set off from Scandinavia, Russia and even Iran, Chile and New Zealand to study at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. Hart has heard that the painting technique taught at the Rhineland school has been seminal in shaping contemporary style, in particular in genre and landscape painting. And the arts scene there seems so much richer and more vibrant than in his homeland. He knows that the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen (Rhineland and Westphalian Art Association) was founded in Düsseldorf in 1829, but he will have to wait until he gets there to form an impression of what the Rhineland’s first street of art galleries, Ratinger Strasse, really looks like. Important to him as an artist is also the lively art market – paintings by the Düsseldorf School are in great demand. He therefore resolves to hone his talents in the landscape class taught by Johann Wilhelm Schirmer. Hart studies on the Rhine for three years, and then finds himself drawn to New York, where a selection of his works – including the painting “Godesberg” – hangs today in the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Between 1819 and 1918, some 4,000 painters can be counted as part of the Düsseldorf School. Many of them take what they have learnt here back home with them, in several cases as the impetus for establishing new art schools. Within Germany as well, painting students who move on to other institutions spread ideas, viewpoints and stylistic trends. Düsseldorf thus acts as a wellspring for important currents driving the development of painting in the 19th century – and the groundwork is laid for the major role the art centre will play in the 20th century.

Many who think differently

Paul Klee: Kamel in rhythmischer Baumlandschaft, 1920, Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf

After the First World War, the avant-garde of the 1920s sparks a flourishing arts scene in Düsseldorf as elsewhere in Germany – but it doesn’t last for long. With the dismissal of Academy professors such as Paul Klee and Ewald Mataré, the Nazis put an end to the heyday of libertine energy. Artistic mediocrity and ideological ingratiation are the order of the day for twelve long years.

Perhaps the enforced regression is one reason why the artists at the Academy strike out to liberate themselves from all strictures after the Second World War? Just to name a few examples of all that happens in Düsseldorf in the post-war era: In the early 1960s, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke conceive a style known as “Capitalist Realism” and organise exhibitions and performances in furniture stores and shops in the city. With his “Young Penis Symphony” Nam June Paik calls on men to poke their members through holes in a large banner stretched across the stage (they opt for fingers instead) – bringing Fluxus into the Academy auditorium in 1963. During this decade, Düsseldorf becomes the city of artistically promulgated utopias. The ZERO movement, for example, takes its cue from technology, displaying faith in progress and the desire to overcome matter; Gerry Schum’s Television Gallery is likewise motivated by a belief in the future. But it is above all Joseph Beuys who spurs the development of social utopias – with his concept of “social sculpture” and his ideas on teaching. His demand, in 1972, that anyone interested should be given free access to the Academy meets with utter incomprehension on the part of Johannes Rau, Science Minister at the time, and leads to his dismissal as professor.

Intoxicated by art

Schmelahaus, Foto: Achim Kukulies, © Kunstsammlung NRW

The gallery and museum scene is likewise swept up in the energy field of the Düsseldorf artists. The newly founded Gallery 22 plays host to the world premiere of “Music Walk” by improvisational musician John Cage; gallery owner Alfred Schmela commissions in Mutter Ey Strasse the first building in Germany to be used exclusively as an art gallery; the painter and gallery owner Konrad Fischer presents in the late 1960s Minimal and Conceptual artworks long before those currents have even been heard of in Europe.

The city’s art institutions keep pace with these developments, luring the avant-garde to the Rhine. The Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen organises a one-of-a-kind DADA exhibition in 1958 together with Hannah Höch, Max Ernst and Man Ray, setting an influential trend; the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, completed in 1967, launches “Prospect”, an art fair that presents works featured in avant-garde galleries; and Werner Schmalenbach, founding director of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, establishes during his tenure from 1962 to 1990 the only state collection in Germany specialising in modern art.

It’s all a question of energy

Steiner & Lenzlinger-Foyer, Foto: Julia Reschucha Medienzentrum Rheinland

The dynamism continues unabated during the 1980s and 90s. In 1984 art professor Kasper König curates the exhibition “From Here – Two Months of New German Art in Düsseldorf”. Works by 64 contemporary artists are exhibited – not at a museum, but in Hall 13 of the Düsseldorf Trade Fair. König sets up the show like a city, with buildings and architectural ensembles of varying heights, interspersed with oblique lanes, with niches and passageways, little temples and relaxation rooms. Jürgen Harten, later the founding director of Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast, shows Jörg Immendorff’s famous “Café Deutschland. Adlerhälfte” (Café Germany: Eagle Half) at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1982, along with further exhibitions that attract international notice, featuring the work of artists such as Gerhard Richter (1986), Donald Judd (1987), Ulay and Marina Abramović (1990), and Nancy and Edward Kienholz (1996). And the artist couple Bernd and Hilla Becher establish with their sober documentary photography the renowned Düsseldorf Photo School, still today regarded as synonymous with German photography. Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky were all students of the Bechers.

With newly opened and established institutions, such as Museum Kunstpalast and NRW-Forum Düsseldorf (1998), Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen – K21 im Ständehaus (2002), and KIT – Kunst im Tunnel (2007), the museum and exhibition landscape has expanded by leaps and bounds over the last fifteen years. Düsseldorf offers today in the realm of fine arts a wide variety of top-notch museums and exhibition spaces, a broad-based fringe scene, numerous foundations and research projects, as well as some 100 galleries. And the city still attracts the special energy of artists, experts and art lovers to the Rhine. For instance Julia Stoschek. Her collection in the Düsseldorf district of Oberkassel is one of the premier international private collections of contemporary media works and installations using video, film and sound. And the Art Academy isn’t content to merely rest on its laurels – it continues to reaffirm its reputation as one of the most liberal art schools worldwide by attracting professors whose international outlook and renown are unrivalled anywhere. Currently teaching here under the direction of the US sculptor Rita McBride are Richard Deacon, Peter Doig, Katharina Fritsch, Andreas Gursky, Rosemarie Trockel and others.

One idea … many participants

Grabbeplatz Düsseldorf zur Quadriennale 2015. Foto: Katja Illner

Is it possible to lend this incredible variety even more lustre? To display the many strengths of the museums and art spaces and their collections even more impressively? To bundle the wealth of art in this city? This is exactly what happened for the first time in 2006: with a festival that calls itself Quadriennale Düsseldorf. Every four years, from 2006 to 2014, the city’s foremost museums and exhibition spaces as well as the Art Academy demonstrated four months long what drives them and what inspires them – all under a single guiding theme agreed on by their directors. Each institution engaged with the respective theme according to its own specific programme, offering visitors a unique opportunity to experience the many facets of a topic in different settings in the city.

The first Quadriennale Düsseldorf, in 2006, revolved around the idea of “The Body in Art”. Solo shows and installations featured works by artists including Bruce Nauman, Francis Bacon and Caravaggio. The second festival followed in 2010 under the motto “Presence in Art – Memories of the Present”. Here, the exhibitions and actions looked at the pervasive influence of Düsseldorf artists on the international art scene. In 2014, visions of the future in art, science and technology were explored under the central theme “Beyond Tomorrow”.

The third edition of the festival was also the last one. A new chapter in the history of the art city of Düsseldorf has begun. In the future, the focus will be more on the independent scene and the contemporary art discourse.

The art city of Düsseldorf is embarking on a new voyage of discovery!


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