Knowing my affection for well-manicured urban landscapes, my son gave me a bit of advice as he saw me off on a fast train from Zurich to Munich this past summer. “Be sure to check out what’s at the south end of the Englischer Garten,” he said. “You’ll be surprised.”
“What is it?” I asked, imagining a neoclassical temple, a Turkish tent, or maybe an English maze.
Nope, he replied, it wasn’t one of those diverting follies that so often appear amid the rolling lawns and bosky glades of 19th-century European parks.
“A grotto! Is it a grotto?” I asked, imagining a mossy, shell-encrusted cave where rivulets of water puddle around a limestone water-nymph in a shallow fountain.
“Not exactly a grotto. Something like that. Only better,” he said, grinning at my fantasies. So off I went, his mysterious tip slumbering at the back of my mind.
Munich is famous for Oktoberfest, of course, when visitors (5.6 million in 2016) crowd the city’s beer halls or settle under rustling canopies of chestnut leaves as they down huge mugs of local brews served by staff decked out in dirndls or lederhosen. Tradition, tourism and harvest fest collude every autumn to promote the Bavarian capital as a world-class party town. But for culture vultures like me there’s much more to Munich than accordion schmaltz and collegiate hangovers.
During my four-day visit I explored the city’s historic and cultural center, relying on its expansive subway system to connect me with museums, churches, plazas and even the occasional beer garden.
Only my encounter with the ghost of Hitler, not far from the Englischer Garten, unnerved me.
I’d booked a room at a modest hotel near Sendlinger Tor, a metro hub about half a mile from the Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main train station. Although Sendlinger plaza was being renovated, the underground trains ran without interruption and nearby walking streets were thronged with shoppers. After settling in, I set off to see the civic amenities.
With its neo-gothic turrets, towers and statue-filled niches, Munich’s flower-bedecked city hall at nearby Marienplatz is a 24-hour tourist magnet. While it looks convincingly old, the building is actually the “New Town Hall,” a 19th-century confection complete with a campy but popular Glockenspiel that chimes twice daily (three times in summer) as life-size mechanical figures in medieval outfits (trumpeters, jesters, knights on horseback) circle a royal couple.
A few blocks farther on, the open-air stalls of the Viktualienmarkt overflow with souvenirs, fresh flowers and produce, aromatic cheese, savory sausages and myriad mushrooms. At lunchtime the market’s shady picnic tables turn into an informal beer garden.
En route I nipped into the Asamkirche, an eccentric baroque church that is another must-see Munich landmark. Completed in 1746, it is an over-the-top expression of Roman Catholic devotion that dazzles regardless of one’s personal faith — or lack thereof.
Sculptor Egid Quirin Asam and his brother Cosmas, a painter, built it as a private chapel. Living next door, they spared no expense on bling. The church’s narrow, two-story nave is a shimmering jewel box of gilded statuary, twisted columns, flirtatious angels, ghoulish skeletons, emaciated martyrs, woozy ceiling murals and swooning drapery enhanced by theatrical lighting. Apparently convinced that God is in the details, the Asam brothers imagined their deity as a Faberge bijoux.
Art of all sorts
Munich is notorious among art historians as the place where Nazi apparatchiks, on Hitler’s orders, confiscated modernist art from German museums and displayed it with derogatory labels in an exhibition titled “Entartete Kunst” or “Degenerate Art.” More than 2 million people came to see the 1937 show. Much of that art was later burned or sold abroad to raise money for the Reich, while the persecuted artists died, fled the country or disappeared into internal exile.
Still, one of the world’s great collections of that art — including masterpieces by Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej Jawlensky and other expressionists — is at the Lenbachhaus Museum in Munich. Its preservation is due in large part to Gabriele Munter (1877-1962), a fellow painter who hid her friends’ work in her home at Murnau outside Munich throughout World War II. Upon her death Munter bequeathed more than 80 paintings and 330 drawings to Lenbachhaus.
It was the paintings of Munter and her friends in the 1911 Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group that first moved me to think about art seriously many years ago, so I wandered for a day at Lenbachhaus, a tawny gold mansion at the edge of Munich’s cultural district. Recently renovated, with a lovely new garden restaurant, the museum is an elegant setting for the spiritual investigations that the artists essayed between World War I and World War II. Revisiting their lyrical art, and tragic lives, was for me a melancholy moment fraught with sorrow — and improbable hope.
After Lenbachhaus, I was almost relieved to find that the Alte Pinakothek, Munich’s overstuffed repository of Old Masters, was under restoration until 2018. Whew! No need to hike through a Louvre’s worth of masterpieces. The top pictures were all gathered on a single floor. There, in a few hours, I admired again Durer’s great self-portrait of 1500 when, at a mere 28 years, he envisioned himself as a proto-Christ figure, ripe with sensuality and soulful intensity.
Then on to G.B. Tiepolo’s magnificent 1753 “Adoration of the Magi,” Boucher’s stylish 1756 portrait of Louis XV’s official mistress Mme de Pompadour (yep, there really were “official mistresses” in those days), and a couple of Madonnas-with-baby-Jesus by Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. Plus three galleries full of spectacular Rubens paintings and oil sketches including his buoyant 1609 self-portrait with his bride Isabella Brant. Ah, to be young, successful, and in love — as they were that sunny day.
But time was pressing, so I made quick work of the splendid Greco-Roman sculpture collection at the nearby Glyptotek and headed for the Pinakothek der Modern (Modern Art Museum). Besides a big airy rotunda and car collection, the Modern is chock full of paintings by Anselm Kiefer, Picasso, Italian Futurists and other 20th-century talents.
The high point, though, is a gleaming white pod that looks like a sci-fi spaceship on stilts. Standing on the museum’s front lawn, the pod is a 1968 prototype for a “future house” designed by Finnish artist Matti Suuronen, and an odd reminder of what we once imagined the future would bring.
Hitler and the Surfers
Germany’s third largest city, Munich is now a thriving center of business, manufacturing, culture and sport — home to BMW, Siemens and Bayern Munich, the country’s top soccer team. But, like the rest of the country, it has a conflicted history.
A Nazi stronghold before World War II, Munich was a headquarters for Hitler, and the Dachau concentration camp was just 10 miles outside of town. Some 90 percent of the city’s historic center was destroyed during the war.
But a few buildings survived, among them the Haus der Kunst (House of Art), which had been camouflaged by netting.
Located at the southern end of the Englischer Garten, Munich’s expansive central park, the Haus der Kunst is an intimidatingly austere limestone-and-concrete structure. Built on Hitler’s orders, it was to be a showcase of traditional German art — landscapes, genre scenes, patriotic sculpture — hence its original name, Haus der Deutsche Kunst. For several years after it opened in 1937, the Fuhrer himself bought hundreds of paintings and sculptures at its annual exhibitions.
When American troops arrived in April 1945, they commandeered the building as an officers’ club, installing a restaurant, dance hall, shops and even a basketball court. The following year its name was shortened to Haus der Kunst. For the next half-century, it housed everything from fashion shows and book fairs to major exhibits of Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright and other modernists whom the Nazis surely would have condemned as degenerates.
Still, the building can’t seem to shake off its past. Now used for film screenings and temporary art exhibits, the place feels derelict and more than a little creepy. Everything about it seems distorted — steps too shallow, portico oddly compressed, doors excessively tall, ceilings too high, lobby unnecessarily vast, bar strangely dark and gloomy. Maybe it was the ghost of Hitler that scared me to the terrace out back for a quick lunch before venturing into the exhibitions — including an excellent account of the building’s checkered history.
It was raining when I emerged, but I found shelter with a couple of dozen others in the Temple of Diana, a pretty pavilion in the nearby Hofgarten.
As we waited for the drizzle to subside, an itinerant violinist serenaded us with romantic classics.
Then, as the sun returned, I strolled back down Prinzregentenstreet toward the Englischer Garten, where a crowd was snapping pictures from a little stone bridge. Peering over the balustrade I was astonished to see a lithe guy in a wet suit riding a surfboard in turbulent waves worthy of a Malibu beach.
So, this was my son’s surprise: surfers riding waves in the Eisbach (ice brook), a manmade channel of the Isar River that cuts through Munich.
Apparently the Eisbach is one of the world’s most popular river-surfing spots. There, guys (yes, exclusively guys when I was there) queue up day and night year-round to test their skills against the roiling water.
Cheered by the music and their bravado, I shook off Hitler’s ghost and headed for a beer garden.
Mary Abbe is a former Star Tribune arts reporter.