It was 25 years after passing through the Berlin Wall that Alec first came to a full realisation of the wealth and extent of German culture outside what was by then the nation’s capital. In high summer of 2011, he visited the city of Stuttgart in the federal region (Land) of Baden-Württemberg and neighbouring areas of the same region as well as part of Bavaria (Bayern).
Alec arrived just in time to catch up with some British culture. An exhibition of 56 oil paintings and oil sketches and 29 drawings and watercolours by John Constable (1776-1837) was on display at the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. According to publicity for the exhibition, it was the first time Constable’s work had been seen in Germany.
Centrepieces of the exhibition were two of Constable’s most famous works, the recently restored Haywain and Leaping Horse. Alec thought himself fortunate have seen them; he would probably never have gone to their permanent home at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to do so.
The Staatsgalerie,as you’d expect,was not backward in promoting the exhibition. Praise of Constable by other famous painters – Delacroix, Corot, Manet, and the Barbizon School – was drawn upon.
Constable was not the only British name connected with the exhibition; so was its setting. The Neue Staatsgalerie was designed in postmodernist style as an extension to the old gallery (Alte Staatsgalerie) by the British architects James Stirling and Michael Wilford & Associates following a competition in 1977 and completed in 1984.
Partially overlapping with the Constable exhibition was a very different display, darker and grimmer, as one might expect of German art of the 20th century entitled Wartime. The principal artists whose work was on show – Käthe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz – were all born in the late 19th century, and all lived through two world wars. They are all very famous in Germany and Alec came across their names and work time and again in the coming years. Other artists from the same period on display included Ernst Barlach, Ludwig Meidner, Wilhelm Rudolph, and Otto Herrmann.
Yet another British figure prominent on the Stuttgart cultural scene at the time of Alec’s visit was Sir Roger Norrington, who was principal conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1998 to 2011. It says much for the place of high culture in German life that controversy was raging at the time over whether the region of Baden-Württemberg could support two symphony orchestras when some English regions did not have one.
On 28 July 2016, Sir Roger conducted the final concert of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in London as part of The Proms, before its merger with the South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra serving mainly Freiburg and Baden-Baden. Stuttgart also has a chamber orchestra and an orchestra to accompany operatic and ballet performances – so still not too badly off by British standards.
From Stuttgart Alec made the short journey to the small town of Ludwigsburg, where the main focuses of cultural interest are architectural and horticultural.
The Residential Palace claims to be the largest baroque castle in Germany, a claim which Alec did not find it hard to believe, though it blends the baroque with rococo and Neo-classical styles, with later empire-style (Napoleonic) additions. Started by Duke Eberhard Ludwig in 1704, it contains 452 rooms in 18 buildings and offers four museums, including for ceramics and fashion. Not for nothing is it known as the “Swabian Versailles.”
The palace contains one of Europe’s oldest theatres and plays host to events such as a performing arts festival, and a Christmas market. The surrounding parkland was laid out in the 1950s to include formal baroque gardens and a Fairy Tale Garden (Märchengarten) which is popular with children and adults alike, containing figures such as Sleeping Beauty, the Frog Prince and Rapunzel.
As if all that wasn’t enough, between 1717 and 1723 Duke Carl Eugen built a second palace nearby, known as the Favourite Palace (Schoss Favourite) for use as a summer residence and hunting palace. How’s that for extravagance, Alec thought. In the 20th century the palace fell into disrepair until being restored in 1980s.
Palaces apart, Ludwigsburg likes to present itself as an attractive destination: “With its historic building and squares, street cafes, bistros and a large pedestrianised zone, the lively city centre is ideal for an extended shopping trip,” says a publicity brochure from the time of Alec’s visit.
Foreign languages got Alec into a muddle when he arrived by train in the charming medieval town of Schwäbisch Hall not far away in the valley of the Kocher, a tributary of the Neckar. One of the first things he saw was a poster advertising a play at the local outdoor Haller Globe Theatre.
“Der Menschenfeind,” it read. “Ah,” thought Alec. “That’ll be ‘An Enemy of the People’ by Henrik Ibsen. I saw that on television once. I know what it’s about, so I should be able to follow it.”
When he took his seat a couple of evenings later – on 6 July 2011 to be precise (he still has the ticket) – it was only to realise he was in for a performance of Moliere’s “Le Misanthrope.” Though he was able to enjoy one or two farcical scenes, he found the performance overall to be a linguistic struggle. That’s when he decided to do something more to try and improve his German than he had managed in Berlin a year earlier.
Among the many artistic and architectural gems that Schwäbisch Hall has to offer, Alec found the Würth collection to be the outstanding one. The collection totals some 20,000 items including paintings, graphic art, and sculpture from the 20th and 21st centuries as well as late mediaeval works from southern Germany and curiosities from the Renaissance and baroque eras. Among exhibits are works by the well-known Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), a friend of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546).
This wide-ranging collection is on display at various locations around Europe, one of which since 2001 has been the Kunsthalle Würth gallery in Schwäbisch Hall. Among artists represented in the gallery, according to the town’s publicity from the time of Alec’s visit, are Picasso, the Expressionist Emil Nolde (1867-1956) and the Austrian Alfred Hrdlicka (1928-2009).
Looking back, Alec can hardly believe that he was able to attend three top-class theatrical performances in the space of four days in a town the size of Würzburg (population: approx:130,000). On Thursday 7 July he enjoyed Rossini’s opera “Cinderella”, two days later he laughed heartily at Aristophanes’ comedy “The Birds” and the following late afternoon and evening sat through Richard Wagner’s music drama “Parsifal,” a tale of chivalry and romance with its roots in the European Middle Ages, the Arthurian legends, and the search for the Holy Grail.
All of these took place in a single theatre, the Mainfrankentheater, which offers an astonishingly ambitious and varied programme.
Würzburg, which lies in northern Bavaria, is a picturesque town. The River Main tumbles though the centre, which is overlooked by a hilltop castle, the Marienberg Fortress. The scene reminded Alec somewhat of Durham and the River Wear. But looking in another direction, the hills are planted with vineyards: none of those in Durham.
Würzburg has a palace to rival that at Ludwigsburg and built about the same time. In Würzburg’s case the Residence Palace, as it is known, was commissioned by the Prince Bishop and his brother, strengthening the similarity with Durham. Built between 1720 and 1744 in baroque style and decorated with brilliant staircase ceiling paintings by the Venetian artist Giovanni Batista Tiepolo (1696-1770), it is today a world heritage site. The town’s publicity brochure described it as one of the most important castles in Europe.
One can only image the rivalry that may have existed between the duke in Ludwigsburg and the prince-bishop in Würzburg as their respective palaces were undergoing simultaneous construction in the first half of the 18h century. Perhaps relations between the two towns are tranquil now, Alec thought.
Among Würzburg’s art offerings is the world’s largest collection of works by the late gothic sculptor and wood carver of mainly altarpieces and other religious works, Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531), who was active in Würzburg from 1483. So successful was he that Hugh Honour and John Fleming, writing in “A World History of Art” report that in 1520-21 he served as Mayor of Würzburg.
Before leaving the charming town, Alec visited the Shalom Europa Jewish Museum. Würzburg has been home to a Jewish community since 1100. Eight hundred and ninety-five members of the community were murdered during the holocaust. For Alec, it was a sombre end to a wonderful cultural experience.
Join him next time as he revisits Potsdam, travels to Hamburg, and sees a great art exhibition in a great gallery in Berlin.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign Parliamentary petition calling on the government to make it easier for schools to organise European trips.
Missed Part 3 of this series? You can read it here.