An Open Letter

1 Dec

Dear People of the U.K.,

I congratulate you.  For ten years your major public museums have been free to enter, and by most standards it’s been a roaring success.  Attendance figures have risen dramatically, and the free museums have become a beloved part of British culture.  So please, do us all a huge favor.  Don’t screw it up.

You know those donation containers as you walk in kindly asking for £3 or so?  Please put some money in them.  Put more if you can.  Put less if you must.  Just donate something.  I know you live in a very expensive country and everyone is hurting, but please do what you can.  You’re paying for the privilege of being able to just stop in and see the Rosetta Stone whenever you want.

As an American, I’m extremely jealous of the system you have.  It’s my sincere hope that one day more museums in the U.S. will implement such a policy, but for right now the only ones who do are the museums of the Smithsonian, which are unfortunately limited to Washington, D.C..  And if you think London is an expensive city to live in, try being a tourist.  Hotels aren’t cheap, and most of our currencies can’t hold a candle to yours.  All that just for the sake of being able to enjoy your wonderful cultural institutions.  Your food may have improved in the last few years, but it’s not that good.

It’s not that the free admission policies of the museums are currently under direct attack, but with a government budget that’s coming up short in several key places the idea is starting to creep into some people’s’ minds.  Don’t let it happen, I’m begging you.  Do what you can to prevent it.  I’m not suggesting you start giving £20 whenever you go in, but do give something when you can.  Let’s make it even simpler.  If you haven’t been in a while, start by going to one of the museums.

I’m always amazed when I’m in London.  Most museums are a bit, for lack of a better word, serious.  You show up to a museum in London on an average Saturday and there are families taking part in the children’s activities, couples on dates, groups of friends just out to be social.  Some might find it distracting, I think it’s a miracle.  It makes the museums living, breathing spaces where you can interact with the objects on display as much as you can the other visitors.

So please, support your museums in any way possible.  I know you like being superior to us Yanks, and in this case you really are.  I admire you for it, and hope that you will do what you can to continue this great tradition.  I know some of the ways museums have developed to raise money, like asking £1 for a map, seem annoying, but they serve a good purpose.   They serve a higher purpose, if you will.  Your museums are some of the best and showcase the accomplishments of humanity like no other.  They should be open to everyone.  The rest of the world thanks you.

Yours Sincerely,
Kathleen Burnett


The Alte Pinakothek

28 Nov

If I’m honest the Alte Pinakothek is my favorite of the three galleries in Munich.  It’s not that I particularly like the artwork, which of course I do; it’s that the Alte Pinakothek just feels the way an art museum should, all high ceilings, parquet floors, and rich colors on the wall.  Leo von Klenze, the architect responsible for the Alte Pinakothek and indeed much of Munich’s city center, created something truly outstanding when he was commissioned by the King in 1826 to build a building for the royal family’s art collection.  Even despite the fact that the building was severely damaged in World War II and redone without some of its more ornate features, it’s still an architectural gem.

At this point I should be encouraging you to see all the great masterpieces in the galleries.  You should, yes, but the Alte Pinakothek is also filled with a number of hidden treasures.  When visiting for the first time you’re likely to spend more time with the big names, but look around a bit.  The museum is rarely crowded to the point that you can’t simply peruse at your own pace, and given its size you can still accomplish a thorough tour in three hours.  Some of the easily-overlooked highlights include the 18th Century Italian paintings in room XIIb upstairs (just be aware you’ll probably want to book a trip to Venice afterwards) and the portraits in room IIb upstairs.

Despite the grandeur of the main rooms, some of the most interesting works can be found in the smaller Cabinets along the length of the building.  There are smaller, more intimate works from many of the acclaimed artists found in the galleries as well as earlier pieces from artists such as Giotto di Bondone and Fra Angelico.  There’s also a collection of tavern scenes by Adriaen Brouwer among others in room 11 that’s quite entertaining.

There are some other interesting stories in the Alte Pinakothek.  The self-portrait of Albrech Dürer on display was essentially stolen from the city of Nuremberg some time ago.  The artist the city hired to make a reproduction took the original to Munich and sold it for a handsome sum while the reproduction was put on display in Nuremberg.  It adds an interesting twist to what is already a fascinating painting.  Also, when you’re in the middle of the main galleries take a look to your right and left.  One one side you can see Dürer’s Four Apostles on the wall, all religious fervor and serious contemplation.  On the other is Francois Boucher’s portrait of the Maquise de Pompadour, perhaps the most famous royal mistress in history.  They are both fine works of art to be sure, but the juxtaposition of the two with such varying subject matters on either side of the gallery always makes me giggle.

All of this together gives the Alte Pinakothek its unique character and makes it one of the best museums in Europe to spend an afternoon in.  The works on display are of the highest quality, but the small space and lack of crowds allow the visitor the unique chance to spend time with the art, develop their own opinions, and find a surprise or two.  Slow down and take a look.

Suggested Plan:  The gallery’s layout makes for a pretty self-explanatory route, but you still need to be somewhat aware of where you’re going.  Be sure not to miss the galleries on the ground floor, which feature great examples German and Flemish painting.  The biggest challenge, however, is seeing the cabinets upstairs.  I find the best way to do is to see a few at a time, 1-12 for example, and then go back and wander through the main galleries.  This keeps the historical and geographic layout of the museum somewhat together.

Don’t Miss:  For once I won’t immediately say Dürer.  It’s kind of hard to miss, but room VII, featuring the work of Peter Paul Rubens, showcases some of the artist’s best works.  The most impressive is without a doubt his Last Judgement.  The sheer size of it is enough to give anyone pause, but the color and the characteristic figures make it a Baroque masterpiece and worth a good amount of your time.  Also tucked away in a corner in room IV is da Vinci’s Madonna of the Carnation, the only work of the master on permanent display in Germany.

Dining:  Café Klenze on the ground floor makes for a nice respite while seeing the Alte Pinakothek.  It’s operated by The Victorian House, a local restaurant group that features English specialties as well as more Continental fare.  The entrees are good, if a bit pricy, and there is a nice selection of pastries available.  Whether you prefer an English-style tea and scone break or the more German coffee and cake, it’s a nice place to stop.  It’s best to visit in the afternoon when the sun is streaming in, giving the whole place a warm, comfortable glow.

Audio Guide:  The audio guide is free with admission and is helpful as there is very little labeling on the artworks.  On Sundays it costs €4.50, worth it if you’re curious about the art.  It’s still perfectly possible to enjoy the Alte Pinakothek without the audio guide, however, especially if you visit often.

Other Tips:

  • If you’d like to avoid a crowd, don’t go on Sunday.  The €1 admission charge brings in plenty of locals.
  • It’s possible to combine the Alte Pinakothek with the Neue Pinakothek for a day, but it makes for a long day of art.
  • Be aware that there are no restrooms on the upper floor.  At the risk of sounding like your mother, make sure you use the facilities before you go up there.
  • Take some time to look around the outside of the building, as well.  The brick work on the facade betrays which parts of the building are original and which were destroyed during World War II.
  • The grounds of the Alte Pinakothek are popular with locals for football, frisbee, and simply sitting on the grass reading a book.  If the weather’s nice stop on the grass or on a bench and enjoy.


An Introduction to the Pinakotheken

19 Nov

Most European art museums started off as the personal collections of the royal families, and the Pinakotheken in Munich are certainly no different.  Throughout the centuries the Wittelsbachs amassed masterpieces from the greatest names in European art:  Dürer, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens, and many more that can be seen in the Alte Pinakothek.  What makes Munich unique, however, is that King Ludwig I continued to collect “contemporary” art during his reign, eventually being able to open a second gallery, the Neue Pinakothek, which now has works from nineteenth century masters such as Goya, Manet, and van Gogh.  As the twentieth century progressed and the collection grew to include the dramatically new art being produced a third gallery was added, the Pinakothek der Moderne, where one can go to see works from such diverse artists as Max Ernst and Andy Warhol.  Altogether they constitute the bulk of the Bavarian State Painting Collections, although there are galleries located throughout Bavaria.

Seeing the collection divided in such a way infuses each gallery with its own unique character and spirit of the eras represented within its walls.  The architecture of each gallery creates an atmosphere fitting of the artworks.  But let’s not get too poetic.  Practically speaking the arrangement has its good sides and its bad sides.  Having the entire collection divided into three easy to cover segments makes them much less daunting.  Or if you’re majorly opposed to Old Masters or abstract art you can avoid them entirely.

There is one major problem with the Pinakotheken, however – the admission prices.  By themselves they’re not bad.  It’s the lack of a good comprehensive ticket that’s frustrating.  You can purchase entry into each gallery separately, of course, but if you want to see all three during your visit to Munich your options are limited.  There is a day ticket for €12 that covers all three galleries, but trying to see all three in one day is just too much.  The only other option is a ticket for €29 that covers five visits to the various galleries.  If you want to do something logical, like seeing one gallery each on three different days, or even seeing two in one day and the third the next, you’re out of luck.

Don’t let that stop you, though.  The Pinakotheken showcase incredible works of art and have the added benefit of often being without the huge crowds to be found at museums such as the Louvre or National Gallery in London.  They also offer admission for €1 on Sundays, giving you a great opportunity to take them in.

Suggested Plan: The logical thing is to go through the Piankotheken chronologically, but that’s by no means necessary.  See whichever one looks good to you.

Don’t Miss: OK, if I had to pick one thing in the whole collection to see, it would have to be room II in the Alte Pinakothek.  Much like seeing Michelangelo in Rome and Monet in Paris, one should really see the masterpieces by Albrecht Dürer while in Munich.

Dining: Each gallery has its own restaurant or cafe, but feel free to explore the neighborhood, as well.  Right across Barer Straße from the Neue Pinakothek is a trio of nice options.  Brasserie Tresznjewski is a great place for breakfast or an afternoon snack.  If you just want a quick coffee there’s Batty Baristas right next door.  If you’re in the mood for something more exotic, Deeba, a Pakistani restaurant, gets consistently good reviews.  Bear in mind it’s a small restaurant so it’s best to make a reservation if you want to go for a post-museum dinner.  If you have a sweet tooth don’t miss Ballabeni Icecream, home of perhaps the best gelato in Munich.  It’s located about a block away from the Pinakotheken across from the Museum Brandhorst.

Other Tips:

  • If you’ve never tried listening to music while visiting a museum, they can provide a great opportunity to do so.  My advice is to listen to something appropriate for the era – Baroque classics at the Alte Pinakothek, in the Neue Pinakothek bit of Saint-Saëns, and jazz and rock, boundary-pushing music of the twentieth century, in the Pinakothek der Moderne.
  • For planning purposes, assume you’ll need three hours in each gallery.
  • If you get tired of paintings there are several other museums in the area, including the city’s collections of Greek and Roman art at the Antikensammlung and Glypthotek.


Van Gogh Reinterpreted

19 Oct

You might have read about the new biography of Vincent van Gogh that claims the artist did not commit suicide but instead was accidentally killed by two young boys.  Unfortunately the book is not yet available on Kindle, so I either have to order it from the U.K. (expensive) or wait until I’m in the U.S. for Christmas.  I am, however, very curious about this new idea.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was quick to refute the theory, saying that it still isn’t conclusive.  Although I don’t want to say anything definite until I read the book, I must say that the claim of the authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, actually makes sense.  In the great tradition of true crime there are several pieces of evidence that are open for interpretation from both sides, but the questions the book raises are valid.  Why wasn’t the gun ever found?  Why the odd angle of the shot?  And why wasn’t there a suicide note?

There are also those who jumped to say that it wouldn’t matter either way.  While a murdered van Gogh would have no bearing on his paintings being some of the greatest of all time, it would make all the difference in the legend of the artist.  After all, what is van Gogh if not the classic tale of the troubled artist?  Try to imagine Romeo & Juliet ending with the star-crossed lovers being murdered by others instead of committing suicide.  It changes things entirely.

A suicide is a special kind of tragedy.  Every creature on earth has been programmed through millennia of evolution to do whatever it takes to stay alive.  When a person, especially one as talented as van Gogh, defies that we are all shocked and dismayed.  We all know that the artist was a troubled soul.  The idea that not even his incredible paintings were enough to save him has held the public’s imagination since his death.

I can’t help but feel like this is part of the reason so many have been quick to dismiss this new theory.  Van Gogh’s life is a cautionary tale so ingrained into Western culture and to change it would throw into doubt one of the great archetypes of the modern age.  Even if this new claim is 100% true, the legend of Vincent van Gogh will remain intact.  He was a troubled soul who created some of the most beautiful images of all time, and no amount of research will change that.

Die Lange Nacht der Münchner Museen

18 Oct

What do an Art Nouveau swimming hall, BMW’s, medieval skeletons, and greenhouses full of desert plants have in common?  No, they’re not the latest purchases of some eccentric billionaire.  These are all things that you could see at this year’s Lange Nacht der Museen (Long Night of Museums) in Munich.  Far from being merely a night of art, Die Lange Nacht is a chance to see a bit of everything in Munich’s museums, galleries, and historic sites.  According to the organizers an estimated 20,000 visitors took part in the evening in one way or another and visited the 90-plus locations.

To be honest, I’ve avoided Die Lange Nacht for the past few years.  Like many others I’ve dismissed it as overcrowded and overrated, but in the spirit of research I went this year to see again what it’s all about.  The “research” lasted until I made it inside the first museum.  It didn’t take long for my demeanor to switch from impartial observer to kid in a candy store.  I realized the key difference between a normal visit to a museum and a visit on some such evening:  it’s a party for the curious rather than a chance for serious study.

In a period of three hours I went into six different locations.  Obviously I didn’t spend much time in any of them, but for the most part these were all places I had been to be before.  It was more about taking a quick look at some of my favorites and then moving along.  There was always more to be seen.  It wasn’t until the end of the night that I slowed down enough to really look at one of the exhibitions, and by then I was so exhausted that I couldn’t be bothered to read through most of the labels.

The truly great part of such an event is the special events and programming that many of the locations have for the evening.  The absolute highlight for me was being able to look through the new Egyptian Museum here in Munich, which won’t even open for almost two more years.  Another location was showing a series of short films done by students.  Even the Alte Pinakothek had interpreters walking around in full eighteenth century costume.  Many locations had special offers on food and drinks, as well.

I’ve written before about how easy it is to overlook the cultural institutions in your own city.  For those who live in Munich, Die Lange Nacht gives you a great chance to remember why you should go to places like the Antikensammlung and also see some of the hidden treasures the city has to offer.  After years away, I’m hooked all over again, and I can’t wait until next year.

Albrecht Dürer

11 Oct

Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1513

I try not to make a habit of agreeing with Germans.  I like them, I live with them, I love their beer, but we still have some fundamental differences.  There is one topic, however, on which I’ve developed a wholly German attitude: Albrecht Dürer.  Dürer has the misfortune of constantly being upstaged in public memory by the flashier artists of the Italian Renaissance.  His artistic talent, intellect, and lasting impression on art can easily compare to anything produced south of the Alps, but classifying Dürer simply as a “Northern Renaissance” artist does no justice to his complex legacy.

Albrecht Dürer spent most of his life in the city of Nuremberg.  At the time the city was one of the largest in Europe and a major center for trade and, important for Dürer, printing.  As much as the city came to be reflected in his work, Dürer was equally influenced by artists and scholars both in Italy and the Netherlands.  During his life he made two trips to the former and one to the latter.  All of this combined to create the unique style Dürer was associated with his entire life.

Contrary to other great Renaissance artists, Dürer was and is perhaps best known for his engravings and drawings.  His engravings such as The Fall of Man (Adam and Eve) and Knight, Death, and the Devil completely revolutionized the genre.  Never before had an artist shown such attention to detail and realism in prints.  Indeed, Dürer made most of his livelihood during his lifetime through the sale of his prints and they continue to be among the most recognized engravings in the world.

The Four Apostles, 1526

Not to say that Dürer wasn’t a painter of importance, as well.  The Four Apostles has always been one of my personal favorite paintings.  The realism of the figures is a breath of fresh air in comparison to all the overwrought religious paintings done before.  Every time I see it I’m amazed at how much personality is suggested by the painting.  I can imagine how these men talked and conducted themselves.  At a time when religious painting was meant to glorify more than question Dürer’swork, done without a commission and given to the city leaders of Nuremberg, is absolutely fascinating.

Every artist is unique, but Albrecht Dürer stands out for his ability to defy convention and capture our imagination.  His two most reproduced works, the Praying Hands and Rhinoceros, are by no means the best examples of his artistic talent, but both act as illustrations of two of human nature’s most enduring traits – faith and curiosity.  His Melancolia I, with its magic square and mysterious subject matter, has been beguiling viewers and art historians for centuries.  Despite leaving numerous diaries and records, it is what we don’t know about Albrecht Dürer that makes him so interesting today.

If you’re ever in Munich go to the Alte Pinakothek (which you should do anyway) and really take a look at his self-portrait.  It’s obvious that it represents a larger than life individual.  Much like Dürer it is vastly different from anything else of the time.  He has been both admired and criticized for painting himself as one traditionally depicts Christ.  Some argue that it was hubris, others that it was only an artistic exercise.  Whenever I’m there I’m more than aware of the artistic talent and at the same time wonder if he really could have been so arrogant as to compare himself to Jesus.  Above all I have a feeling that if I stay there studying the painting long enough I’ll somehow figure out the answers.  I know I never will, though, which is why I and many others will continue to study Albrecht Dürer and revere him as one of the world’s great artists.

In Praise of Your Local Art Museum

29 Jun

You might have noticed that I haven’t written anything recently.  The truth is that I’ve succumbed to one of the great pitfalls of art museums:  you put off going because you assume you can go whenever.  You see, I decided that I wanted to finally write guides for the art museums in Munich.  Made sense, since I live here.  But I got busy with other things and put it off, thinking that as soon as I had a spare moment I could go.

We all do that, though.  We tend to overlook the great things about our local cultural institutions even when we can’t wait to visit those in other cities.  As soon as I step off the plane in London I head straight for the museums there, yet here in Munich I can’t seem to make time.  Obviously traveling does something to us, makes us feel like we have to see as much as we can while we’re there, but we seldom have the same pressing feeling whine we’re at home.

In doing so we miss out on the truly great relationship we can have with our local museums.  There are special advantages for visiting museums in your city on a regular basis that we lose when our exposure to art consists of a few hours while we’re on vacation.  For one thing, we often approach our vacations as one big to-do list.  We dutifully march around Rome, Paris, or wherever checking off the sights we feel we need to see and the experiences we feel we need to have.  Rarely do we give ourselves time to simply sit and enjoy our surroundings.  Visiting your local museums allows you to do exactly that.

In fact, I’d venture to say time is the single greatest advantage that local museums have.  You can go back week in and week out and see whatever parts of the museums interest you on that day without feeling like you have to see the whole thing.  There have been times when I’ve gone to Munich’s Alte Pinakothek and not even bothered to look at half the museum; I just wanted to stop in and see the fabulous Dürers on display and maybe spend some time with da Vinci’s Madonna of the Carnation.  That’s the beauty of local art museums – you can spend as much time with your favorite works as possible because you can always come back.  You can really appreciate the complexity of your average work of art only when you look at it for longer than 2 minutes.

There’s a certain intimacy that comes with visiting the same museum frequently.  You get to know the paintings and the artists in a way that allows you to feel comfortable with them as you do old friends.  You’re surprised by something you hadn’t noticed before every time you go in.  As human beings we take special delight with being around things that are familiar to us, and art museums are no different if we give them a chance.  We can make every visit unique and interesting by how we approach the works of art and make our way through the galleries all the while enjoying our favorite works of art.

The other great thing about local museums is that they are a reflection of the cities in which they’re located.  The more you visit the more you’re aware of the exhibitions, film screenings, concerts, and other events that museums offer to serve their communities.  You begin to really see the museum as a living, breathing community center instead of a collection of lifeless hallways.  You can try new activities such as specialized tours and after-hours events.  You might event want to become a member so you can be up to date on what’s going on and stop by whenever you want.

But we have to start by going.  I wish I could say I was some sort of great example for this, but I haven’t been recently.  I shall try to do better.  Like most people I find myself sitting on the couch watching Four Weddings and a Funeral for the 12th time rather than going to do something truly interesting, which is especially sad since some of the world’s greatest art museums happen to be located where I live.  The thing is, I don’t know how long I’ll be living in Munich, and when the time comes to leave I hope I don’t find myself thinking longingly of everything I should have done while I was here.  Besides, I really should write about them eventually.